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Creek Running North

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May 03, 2005

Gaaaaahhhh.

Ok, so she is Helen Caldicott, the woman who said that if Reagan won a second term, global thermonuclear war was a "mathematical certainty." Dr. C. has always been long on commitment and heart, almost as long on the facts, and significantly less long when it comes to rhetorical strategy.

Still, it was unsettling to read, in this otherwise worthwhile interview, that Dr. Caldicott apparently shares one of the biggest blind spots to be found in the modern environmental movement:

Q: Looking back, what stands out as your greatest success?

A: Of my whole life? The biggest thing I ever did was give birth to my three babies. That's why we're here, to reproduce - biologically speaking.

Gah.

Let's just leave for a moment the whole inversion of "natural selection is reflected in reproductive success" into a teleological "higher purpose" for living organisms. She is, after all, only an M.D., and thus can't be expected to know all that much about biology.

And let's even ignore the issue of whether to have kids. Not that I want to ignore that issue, but there's something about the issue that makes people's knees jerk. We as a species could be faced with oh I dunno a mandatory forty year period of famine, where the richest among us got only 1700 calories a day, and people would still be having kids and saying "who am I to deprive them of this life?" I love kids, and wish to hell I could feel good about having one, but each mouth - especially each American mouth - means that much less of the world to go around, and people are already doing without. It's a closed planet. A zero sum game. But, you know, mention that kids are a net drain on the planet and parents' brains turn off.

I do understand why. I sympathize. Some people deflect this by pretending to talk in the abstract, but it doesn't work. You can say "each new child born will consume a mountain of tires and diapers" and Siobhan-Brittany's mom will read that as "Siobhan-Brittany will consume a mountain of tires and diapers," and she gets defensive.

And the thing is, I am talking about Siobhan-Brittany. I'm talking about the kids down the street, who are perfectly nice, bright-eyed, intelligent people. I'm talking about my own nieces and nephews, some of whom will read this. I'm talking about me, and Becky.

And I am talking about your kids. All of us wonderful, irreplaceable entities, yes. and all of us doing our part to consume half the planet's biomass productivity. And all of us utterly completely redundant. Losing any of us would make not the slightest difference to the world, except that the biosphere would regain some of the nutrients we took from it.

But like I said, I'm not talking about that stuff I'm talking about. Too inflammatory an issue.

This is what I'm talking about: Spending an interview lambasting western culture for being too rapacious, too consumptive of resources, and then not only bragging about your kids - which is understandable, I'm sure they're wonderful kids - but saying that having bred them is the most important thing you've ever done, and that breeding is why we're here, and that you had three?

I'm not sure whether I should use the word "clueless," or the word "hypocrite," or make up a portmanteau just for this occasion. Clupocrite.

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Comments

I write this as the 44 year old father of one - a 7 week old baby boy. (Damn right, he's cute. Want to see the photos?) Yet my argument dates back 15 years or longer. Chris, what I'm about to bring up is simple and impossible to refute.

The fate of the humanity rests on our ability to understand our relationship with the natural world, and to come up with creative new solutions for existing within the Earth's physical parameters.

At the same time, it's currently impossible for us to keep the neighbors or the folks down the road (or a few states over) from having kids. After all, this isn't China. So your position, which you state so eloquently, is that the burden for not having children rests on the most aware, the most intelligent, of Americans. You obviously feel that we have to lead the way on this issue.

Yet when we do so, we eliminate the cream of the next generation, the very people who offer a faint glimmer of hope for the future. In essence, you're arguing that we breed to emphasize the worst of the species, and then allow an environment of poor education and blatant materialism to finish the job, ensuring future generations (I wouldn't guess more than one or two) so myopic and feeble that they look up to George W. as a great thinker.

So frankly, you're way off base here. Genetics matter, as does the fact that you could offer a child (or even two) an environment that would create a philosopher, a scientist, a healer - someone who could gift the next generation with hope; a beacon of light in a world shifting toward darkness. When two bright, loving, caring people come together, the greatest legacy they can share with the future is a child who will grow up to fight for the things that are truly important.

It's a hard fact, but if the best of us stop having children, we damn the human race and the planet to destruction.

Now I'm not saying you should have had 7 kids, or even 3, but a little boy or girl who shared your genetics, and who was raised in a house where love and knowledge held sway, would have been a true gift to the world.

Posted by: tost at May 3, 2005 03:45 PM
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I'll go off and clean the house before numbering the disagreements I have with the reply above. But first, I'll just ask a question:

tost, are you exactly what your parents raised you to be? Are/were they exactly what their parents raised them to be?

Are we all presumed to be incapable of spreading good ideas except via the umbilical cord? And why the hell don't we expect ourselves to do all that healing and beaconing and being true gifts to the world? Why delegate it?

At this point, the world is like a toddler being crushed by an avalanche under the Christmas tree. One more precious gift is not what it needs.

Posted by: Ron Sullivan at May 3, 2005 04:14 PM
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Sometimes it takes having children that you love and care about more than your own life to make you care about the future of the world they'll live in. Selfish, but I think true. (I'm guessing - I don't have kids.)

Posted by: leslee at May 3, 2005 05:56 PM
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The following is from the essay posted here:

http://ambivablog.typepad.com/ambivablog/2005/03/the_ambivaborti.html

(It's Part II. Part I is here:

http://ambivablog.typepad.com/ambivablog/2005/01/note_this_essay.html )

(It doesn't argue that everyone should have kids, or that some people's kids don't change the world for the worse -- even disastrously so.)

I used to believe, like the well-indoctrinated Ivy League student I was, that accomplishments, technological inventions, scientific discoveries, voyages of exploration, great works of art, great acts of state, were what most changed the world. I am now convinced that nothing comes close to changing the world as much as bringing a new individual into it. (And that holds for fathers as well as mothers.) Individuals are what the world is made of, and what makes the world. Itís not just that all the abovementioned accomplishments come from individuals. Itís the simple fact that each life stunningly and uniquely impacts the lives closest to it, and these impacts ripple outward, interacting to make the complex and particular patterns we call the world. Add or remove one individual, and you change everything Ė not only the sight and sound and story of the world, but its inner dimension, too. . . .

Posted by: amba (Annie Gottlieb) at May 3, 2005 07:15 PM
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ďI'll go off and clean the house before numbering the disagreements I have with the reply above.Ē

Thanks, Ron, but donít feel like you have to pick up your place on my account. I am interested in all those ďdisagreements,Ē though.

But first, I'll just ask a question:
tost, are you exactly what your parents raised you to be?Ē

I guess Iíd have to say ďyes.Ē

ďAre/were they exactly what their parents raised them to be?Ē

Probably pretty close.

ďAre we all presumed to be incapable of spreading good ideas except via the umbilical cord?Ē

Nope. Then again, kids do seem like a decent place to start.

ďAnd why the hell don't we expect ourselves to do all that healing and beaconing and being true gifts to the world?Ē

I canít speak for anyone else, but I try to hold up my end. Every single day.

ďWhy delegate it?Ē

Well, I guess thatís the thing. I donít. Not that I come close to doing enough, or doing as good a job as Iíd like to. But I donít ask anyone else to carry my load.

ďAt this point, the world is like a toddler being crushed by an avalanche under the Christmas tree.Ē

Nice analogy.

ĒOne more precious gift is not what it needs.Ē

Sorry, but youíll have to forgive me for not granting you the final word on what the world needs, or doesnít. Not that you donít have the right to your opinion - you certainly do, as does Chris - but this is the rare case where I donít see that opinion as justifiable.

So let me point something out, and then ask a question of my own. I agree with Chris, and obviously with you, that the human population explosion is a huge problem, one that will inevitably make a host of our other problems far, far worse. In fact, Iíll posit that humanity canít continue to exist for more than another generation or two at such high population levels. Yet I just donít agree that not having kids is a sensible way to address that problem. Now not having lots of kids - yes, that makes a ton of sense. But for bright, talented people to skip parenthood and leave it to those less suited for the task seems a prescription for disaster, at least to me.

So hereís my question, and Iím going to ask for a thoughtful reply as opposed to a flippant one, mostly because I see this as a logical extension of your argument. Suppose thereís an environmentalist out there who sees this problem of horrific overpopulation, and who truly understands the consequences not only to humanity but to the entire natural world if our population isnít brought into balance with the Earthís long-term carrying capacity. (Prior to industrialized agriculture and petrochemical fertilizers, there were about a half billion people on the planet.) And suppose this nameless environmentalist espouses a philosophy based on sound science, while disavowing any religious or spiritual underpinnings to his or her own personal moral code. So given all this - and remember, this individual understands the full potential we face for war, starvation, disease, etc. - why shouldnít this selfless environmentalist kill himself for the greater good? Or kill others? Hell, why not kill thousands, millions, even billions of people - as ďhumanelyĒ as possible - all in the hope of bringing balance back to the world?

Letís hear your thoughts. Because if the world needs fewer ďprecious gifts,Ē why not get rid of some of the ones we already have?

Posted by: tost at May 3, 2005 07:24 PM
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Thanks for sharing that, Amba. It's a great quote.

Posted by: tost at May 3, 2005 07:26 PM
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The world is far more than the set of our relationships with ourselves.

The world cares little what our stellar, illuminated thoughts might be, nor how radically we affect the world view of other people. What matters to the world is activity. And to a first approximation, all any individual human does in this world is eat other organisms, compete with other organisms for food and habitat, and excrete waste biological and industrial. To the world, one more of us is just one more consumer.

I do think I know what you're getting at, Annie, and I admire the humanistic sentiment. But to me, it seems depressingly mechanistic. Almost anyone can bring a new individual human into the world. You need not have a functioning mind to do so.

As for you, Tost, well you're obviously sleep-deprived, so I'll forgive you the uncharacteristic gaping logical holes. (And do send a picture of the kid.) Just two things:

1) the problem with a "let the cream of the crop reproduce" idea is that everyone puts him/herself in that category. Besides, there's a very slippery slope between your benign invocation of the idea (which I read as "You and Becky would raise great kids," and I thank you for that) and eugenics. And there is no clear line distinguishing one from the other. And I've known plenty of people from great families who turned out bad, and plenty of roses growing in shit.

2) your reductio in your subsequent comment doesn't wash. There's a significant difference between limiting population by murder-suicide and limiting population by encouraging/enabling people not to breed. And the big difference, as you well know, is that theoretical people do not suffer the pain of having their life removed.

I feel constrained to point out, despite the risk of drawing a glare from Ron, that she was a pediatric nurse for some years. This means not only that she helped save the lives of a number of kids, but that in order to do so she had to subject some of them to intense pain, changing dressings and cleaning wounds and the like. She did years of repeated, difficult and soul-destroying work to help kids. My wife Becky is a schoolteacher, as repeat readers of this blog know, and the carnage that job has wrought on her soul has been horrible to behold. Ron (in her former job) and Becky both put more work, in an average month, into what I can only call parenting than some parents of my acquaintance do in an entire child-rearing career.

(Ron, ask me about the brats in the Pine Cone Diner sometime.)

You don't even have to disbelieve that Children Are The Fyooture to get this. You can shape the younger generation with your tubes tied. Because even if half the people in the world agreed with me and decided not to reproduce, there would still be a huge number of kids. Imagine a deadly plague that infected everyone in the world, with a 50 percent fatality rate. The human population of the planet, after the deluge, would be slightly higher than it was when I was born, and no one was complaining back then that there were too few of us.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 3, 2005 07:53 PM
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tost, I'm sorry to pile on the heap here, but this is exactly the kind of statement that is keeping the Democrats out of governmental majorities - this "the rest of *everyone else who is not us* are mouthbreathers" attitude that causes us to write off the opinions of 150 million people plus.

Not to say I'm not guilty of saying the same sort of elitist crap, but the psychologists tell us the logical flaws we pick up most easily in others are the ones we make ourselves.

Also, help me out here, but wasn't biological determinism the main ingredient for Social Darwinism (and eugenics, as I missed the boat on being the first to bring up)? And Social Darwinism, that's bad. Yes? Yes.

Posted by: Allison at May 3, 2005 08:57 PM
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No heap here, Allie; Tost can hold his own against the likes of us.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 3, 2005 09:16 PM
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It seems like the surface points of view are unreconcilable between those who have kids, and those who don't. Each person made a decision based on their beliefs, so there's no way to challenge the decision without challenging the beliefs, and generally this puts people into a very defensive position. If only one side is right, the conversation will simply polarize further and I don't think we're going to get to a change in behaviors in any side.

saying all that, I have one biologically conceived and one adopted child....that we deliberately chose a path that left us with "one less than" knowing we've been both selfish and possibly somewhat conservative, and I can't think of anything I do that matters more than how I've chosen to reproduce and raise my kids in terms of my own "purpose". All of the arguments saying that if we didn't want to destroy the planet, we shouldn't have had any kids are true. Also true are the arguments that say that humans, me included, see the thread of our future in our children's eyes, and see hope in that as well as fear. Is there a way to allow both realities to be true and talk from there?

Posted by: susurra at May 3, 2005 10:02 PM
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Allison, please donít worry about piling on. I may be sleep deprived, as Chris suggested, but if I canít hold my own in blogger land, I shouldnít be on the computer.

OK, first to Social Darwinism and eugenics. I donít know much about them. Anything, really. And Chris is absolutely right when he says, ďI've known plenty of people from great families who turned out bad, and plenty of roses growing in shit.Ē At the same time, common sense tells me that a bright kid growing up in an environment where curiosity and creativity are encouraged is far less likely to end up a mindless zombie watching Survivor reruns on tv and far more likely to end up engaged and aware. If you folks want to argue with that, be my guest. But as far as Iím concerned, itís simply common sense.

As for being elitist - Iím not sure where that comes in. Iím not telling anyone that they canít, or shouldnít, have kids. I happen to believe that weíd be far better off if every family in America limited itself to one or two children, but Iím not out there telling the public that they have to listen to me. Still, if that makes me elitist, then so be it.

As far as being able to identify the ďcreamĒ - hey, Iím not asking anyone else to use my subjective interpretations. If a guy down the road in Libby, Montana with a nasty disposition and an IQ of 83 wants to call himself an astrophysicist, God Bless. It doesnít really matter to me.

But let me boil this all down to something very personal. Iíve been good friends with two couples for going on twenty years now. Both had everything it takes to make great parents - brains, talent, lots of love for the people in their lives, a keen awareness of the world around us, and of our place in it - yet they chose not to have children. I respect their choices, but at the same time, those choices honestly made me sad. So many kids are born without much of a chance. And Iím not talking about money or material possessions, but the important stuff. Love, respect, real human warmth. So when I see a situation with so much potential - Chris, feel free to read into this what you will - where the parents could have offered so much and the children could have been free, as so few are, to develop their unique gifts, I experience a sense of loss. Perhaps not as tangible as if someone had died, but still a sense of real loss.

I guess this is a conversation Iíve been having for a long time, and in my heart of hearts, I simply donít believe Iím wrong here. The potential for the positive outweighs whatever costs are associated with a few more human beings on an already unbalanced planet.

Funny thing - for a lot of years, I never considered including myself in the group that should be having kids. Hell, I figured Iíd be dead before I ever hit 40. Go figure.

So there you have it. If thereís more to say on the subject, it will have to wait for another day. Iím going to catch a couple hours of shuteye before the little guy wakes up for his 2:00 am feeding.

Posted by: tost at May 3, 2005 10:31 PM
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Hi Chris,
this is the first time I post at your site, even if I've been lurking here for a while, and there couldn't be a better subject to do so, frankly. Indeed, this matter concerns me just as much as the next person.

Here's my take on what has been said so far. I understand that seeing the potential greatness in every human being, born or prospective, weighs heavily on the discussion. But we don't need more "human material".
We are already more than 6 billion on the planet, including hundreds millions of children, many of whom are currently orphaned, living in the streets, etc, etc... Why not do everything we can to transmit our ideas to those people, those children ?

Chris has already emphasized that incredible human beings sprout everywhere, without necessarily needing us, or our living conditions, or backgrounds just as enriching as we figure ours to be.
So, could there be a biological reason ? Is it so important to transmit our personal genetic code ? Not with such a gigantic pool as that which exists now.

To me, the only plausible answer is that we find the idea of raising our own children easier than reaching out to other kids who may have had a lackluster start in life. I do not mean that parenting is easy, by the way. But I do think we are convinced that, if we take them from scratch, we can pretty much determine what our children will be with the environment we surround them with.

This has two terrible downsides. One, it makes us likely to feel disappointment over our children if they do not turn out to be as "enlightened" as we would have wanted. Notice that this argument works just as much for us as for authoritarian zealots, even though I'd like to believe that no truly "good person" would disown their child.

The second one is even worse, in a way. Yes, it might be a thousand times harder to teach love, and respect, and thirst for knowledge, to a child that used to be a soldier, or a prostitute, or a bully in his orphanage. But how can we give up on them ? How can we think that the duty to take them all the way inside someone's heart belongs to someone else, not us ?
What makes us liberals, really and truly, is, in my opinion, to hold to the belief that we can always change. Always, every single one of us. But it's not enough to declare it in our speech.

It's in the children, it's in the people who are currently living that rests the destiny of mankind. It's in how we hold up to our ideals now that we can truly transmit the ideas we deem so beautiful, so worthy.

And we would not be having this debate were we not in such dire straits as we are. Reality is very simple, though. Our planet cannot adjust to 6 billion people, let alone sustain more. We can't kill those who exist, so the only way to reduce the population is by decreasing fertility drastically.
So who's supposed to make the sacrifice ? If we all wanted to have three children, what would happen ? Because as much as I abhor dictatorial measures to control reproduction (eugenics, anyone?), we HAVE to do something, and fast.


(For lecture's sake, I'm gonna cut my post in two now.)

Posted by: Ask, and you shall receive. Or not. at May 4, 2005 07:17 AM
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If the argument that the "cream" should do more breeding isn't genetic but based on "greater educational opportunity" then we're really back to square one, aren't we? What's more selfish that the relatively well-off pretending we live in an absolute meritocracy?

In 1965 the Johnson administration's Coleman Report concluded that socio-economic status was the best predictor of academic success. Not one scrap of evidence has disproved it. If we truly believe that the next generation deserves every advantage we can give it, the answer is in providing decent nutrition and heathcare for every child, as well as truly equal educational opportunities, not in scanning the Social Register.

Posted by: doghouse riley at May 4, 2005 07:17 AM
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So, what can we do, realistically ?
As long as so many children die in the Third World, fertility rates there will continue to be far higher than the 2 children per woman (in monogamous couples) that would -merely- stop the growth of worlwide population.
Sadly, even if we managed today to set up ideal living conditions everywhere, countries with high natality figures would still need a few decades to reach the 2 cpw threshold (and that's if we reduce the length of historical examples of demographic transitions).

Who will stop having children, once again ? Maybe it's not fair, maybe it's not perfect, but if you can't expect those who have the most children to do so, it's up to those who already don't have that many to make the sacrifice. It's up to the Western world, or more accurately the "North" to take responsibility, on several levels.
You must have noticed that I'm examining the issue on a national, or even "civilizational" base. Not because of essentialist differences, let's be clear about that. The developmental model we impose on the world ensures the natalist tendencies of the economically and politically enslaved countries that make up 80% of the world population.

And before I go back to an individual standpoint, have you noticed how every nationalistic country boasts reproduction as an essential battle ? In the countries that are below the 2 cpw rate, such as Spain or Italy, a lot of people approach the issue stating outright that unless women breed, the country will disappear, its essence submerged by the barbarian countries that do give birth to many children. It is a very important component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance.
Everywhere, anyway, without having a jingoist ideology themselves, an impressive amount of people have persuaded themselves that their nation, their essence, their heritage can only be preserved by a surge of their fertility rate. Way to disregard the fact that we are all part of mankind !!

My point is that an adopted Cambodian boy raised by Germans is as much a German as SchrŲder, a girl born in Ivory Coast in a Burkinabe family just as "Ivorian" as her neigbour, Dirk Nowitzki just as human as either Joe Sixpack or John Kerry, and that children all over the world are just as much our children as "our" children.
France will not cease to exist if most of its children (and citizens) immigrate from an another country, and neither will French values; nor will the United States implode if the latino immigration one day provides most of its children, or its most important values; nor will we cease to exist if we don't have children.
Giving what we are is what makes us immortal, as we widely say about children.

I am speaking for myself, and only for myself, when I affirm that I can't expect others to resolve a problem I feel concern us all; and Kant once wrote something to the effect of "do so that your personal law could become the universal moral". (I do not want to have children, by the way)

Now, that said, I'd like to think that the situation does not yet call for radical measures, such as the Chinese policy of a single child per family except in rural areas. What do you all think ? How many humans can the Earth sustain, in this developmental model or in another ? What will the effects of the growing discrepancies of the fertility rate between nations be? In what conditions would it be feasible to allow everyone to choose how many children they will have ?

Posted by: Ask, and you shall receive. Or not. at May 4, 2005 08:40 AM
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Ask - one of the problems with looking at the world from a human perspective is that we tend to get sidetracked on detail and process, rather than focusing on the biggest issues confronting us. You asked how many humans the world can sustain. An excellent question, but what are our parameters and assumptions? Should we assume that global warming will have no major or lasting effect? (Read the new Mother Jones and the last couple New Yorkers for some interesting opinions.) Should we assume that our rapacious energy consumption and the coming scarcity of oil will be offset by as-yet-unrealized technological innovation? Should we assume that the Earth can continue to filter out a variety of lethal toxins and still support healthy ecosystems? And finally, a theological question. Should we assume that everything that truly matters in the physical world is exempt from influence by things we can't see and don't understand?

I guess my point is that we often treat things as if they exist in a vacuum, when it seems evident that the exact opposite is true. In my personal experience, the Earth is made up of so many intricate relationships and connections that it's futile - and dangerous - to try to isolate individual elements without concern for the whole. Maybe the human mind is simply too small and limited to grasp the complexity of our existence. Regardless, the hope for humanity rests not with our ability to address the problems of overpopulation or energy or pollution or global warming, because these issues are merely symptoms of a greater malaise. People - all people - need to undergo a shift of consciousness, moving from a mindset of consumption and materialism to one of stewardship. I hate to say this, but anything less dooms humanity to extinction.

So how do we change? Choice. First as individuals and then as societies, we make the choice to live in balance, to walk toward sanity, and to show love and respect for the beautiful world we live in. At the same time, we begin to see our recent past for what it truly was - filled, at least on a societal level, with greed and avarice and fear. For right now, the entire planet is ill. We can continue to discuss, and perhaps even treat, the symptoms. Yet if we donít start addressing the underlying causes of our problems, and soon, humanity will simply cease to exist. And we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Posted by: tost at May 4, 2005 11:40 AM
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Chris, "Letís ignore the issue whether to have kids"Ö Well, why didnít you?

Dr. Caldecott was asked what was her biggest success, not the most important thing she did (both are subjective). Maybe her children are making bigger contributions than she did. Maybe parenthood was more fulfilling than her professional accomplishments. Who the hell are you to judge her, particularly about something you have opted out of?

I have known you through an awful lot these past 27 years, probably through your very worst. So I kinda think I have earned the right to say this: I have never felt such a visceral urge to tell you to go fuck yourself. Debate is good; but I thought you were better than this. So Dr. Caldecott is a hypocrite. Look in the mirror. Why do you drive a truck? Youíre a writer! Why do you drive it long distances Ė just to walk? Need something to write about? Why donít you invest your superior intelligence in developing affordable, clean energy/technological alternatives rather than heralding the end of the world? Wouldnít that make a much bigger difference to the planet? We all have made compromises to our principals in exchange for personal fulfillment, convenience, whatever.

But itís not what you want to do. You have a creative need, that is, to write. Even if it means driving around in your private vehicle, buying laptops and digital cameras. Arguing about degrees of environmental impact just alienates people and sounds condescending. I pity those who trade a full life for the misery of being a martyr for the cause. It must really suck to be bearing the cross of my sins. Whoever said it last time around Ė that you sound scarily religious, was right on the money.

Leslee, excellent insight; being a parent has made me care more about the world, the future. It has renewed my commitment to activism, and I know my children are learning from it. I have never been happier or more productive. I choose not to make life choices based on fear; I did enough of that when I was young. Tost, enjoy your child without guilt or accusations of being anti-environment or a social Darwinist. You have obviously given it a lot of thought; it is right for you, and you are right for it. Congratulations.

Posted by: berna at May 4, 2005 01:24 PM
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Berna, you of all people have indeed earned the right to tell me to go fuck myself.

But I find the heat of your response interesting, not to mention disheartening. I have written about driving. I've written about consumption. I've written about food, and the hypocrisy of my driving to the desert to get in touch with nature, and of the futility of holding any person to any arbitrary standard of morality, and the inner complexity of issues that people would try to reduce to simple right/wrong, good/bad toggles.

I've also written about my love for a number of individual children, about my fury when politicians make points on the backs of schoolchildren, about my admiration for the work my wife does every day, about my admiration for the work that good parents do. And much of that writing you're familiar with.

I think it's sad that in order to talk about the impact people have on the planet by their reproductive choices, a writer has to be careful to use a string of weasel words. None of you would expect me to preface a post on organic foods with a bunch of sentences saying that I really don't want to offend people who eat a Pop-Tart now and then. I can and do write about nuclear power, and if people read a paragraph up front of apologies for me sometimes leaving a light on, they'd turn the page in disgust.

But I guess this is a huge sacred cow of a subject, so here goes. Having one or two kids? I don't have any problem with that. People who are good, responsible parents of one or two kids? I don't have any problem with them.

My sisters had three and four kids, and I don't think any less of them for it. I love their kids. I love kids. My best buddy right now is three years old. One of the chief pieces of sadness I feel in life is that men who talk to kids in public are viewed with suspicion. Individual kids are more pleasant to talk to, for me, than the average individual adult. Their minds are less cluttered with convention, and joy in learning has rarely been extinguished the way it has in adults.

But facts are facts. There are too many people in the world. People start as kids. The only humane way to lower the human population is to prevent some kids from being conceived.

And I'm sorry, but bringing that about means educating people as to the environmental impact of each new child. And if people are going to be defensive and offended about it, that's the way it is. There are some Republicans who are defensive and offended when you talk about the Iraq war, but there are some who listen. There are some SUV drivers who get defensive when you talk about gas mileage, but some trade in their SUVs for smaller cars and hybrids.

I called Caldecott a hypocrite not for having three kids - some people I love dearly have had more than that - but for her juxtaposition of a tirade on consumerism with a description of reproduction as what we as humans are supposed to do. If I didn't make that clear, I apologize.

In any event, I would have thought you knew me better than to think I held myself up as a martyr to other people's reproductive choices. That's the whole point of what I wrote: Caldecott's statement that people are not truly fulfilled unless they breed - mirrored in your insinuation that not having kids means not having a "full life" - is pretty damned offensive. You should know I don't have any problem with your having had kids. I think you're a hell of a mom.

But the assumption that Becky and I must be missing something because we don't want to have kids, or that we're martyrs because much of the reason for that is political and ecological? Talk about scarily religious.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 4, 2005 02:33 PM
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"I called Caldecott a hypocrite ...for her juxtaposition of a tirade on consumerism with a description of reproduction as what we as humans are supposed to do."

My guess is her anti-consumerism is in only very small part motivated by "secular environmentalism" and much more motivated by a quasi-homespun spirituality such as lots of people have, namely "it's good for the soul to hang out in a litter-free, old-growth forest...and yet it's even better for the soul to have babies...even though I believe in Darwin and that personality comes from electrical signals in the brain and so I don't really know what this soul thing is that I'm worrying about." I mean, there's no way Helen Caldicot ain't devoutly religious.

Posted by: murky at May 4, 2005 03:00 PM
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Boy, this one brought out the knives, didn't it? I've always found it grimly amusing that when people dare to suggest that making babies isn't a total environmental goodie, someone is bound to suggest murder instead of reproductive restraint. That killing people is somehow on a plane with not having babies babies babies, or recommending that others slow it down a bit.

And that response usually starts off with a suggestion (however weasel-worded) that those evil nay-sayers commit suicide. Nice draught of the milk o' human kindness, that one, and certainly a reinforcement to the line about how having children (one's "own" of course) teaches one Troo Luv.

I suppose that one who thinks those alternatives are comparable would consider it ironic that I had a hand in contributing more kids to the world than anyone I know of here, during those years of pediatric nursing that Chris referred to, by doing my part to keep them alive. Since I do not think that way, I'm not sorry I did that, nor do I find it ironic.

I do believe those points are on the Bingo card, along with the "MY child will save the world/cure cancer/invent free energy/name your miracle" and "We The Superior (for whatever values of Superior you wish) owe it to the world to reproduce" squares.

I can't believe I was actually reading that. What, is it 1950s again and I'm reading "The Marching Morons"? tost, what do you actually know about how genes and genetics and epigenetics and heredity work? If you turn out to be a scientist -- which I guess is not unthinkable, considering the existence of the "genius spermbank," the results of which have not been exactly stellar -- I have to ask exactly what you think you're passing on, and to whom? And I have to wonder about your confident assertion that you're exactly what your parents intended and so on up the line, unless you mean generalities like "a kind person" or "happy." Same religion? Never had a CoC/Babtist/Quaker/Catholic in the family? A royalist? Vote the same? Have no differing economic theories?

The point is that you can't predict which of your values, if any, your offspring will perpetuate. However much you love them, and keep on loving them however they live, kids aren't wind-up toys that you can set on the path of righteousness and be positive about their course.

You can handwave till the cows fly home about global malaises and shifts of consciousness, but nothing counts except what you actually do.

tost, you say: "Iíll posit that humanity canít continue to exist for more than another generation or two at such high population levels. Yet I just donít agree that not having kids is a sensible way to address that problem." Substitute absolutely anything else -- SUVs/not buying SUVs, "industrial" farming/not buying "industrial" food*, militarism/not joining the army -- for "population" and "not having kids" in that sentence and see if it makes sense. Any of those others, it's fair to say "Well, it's not enough but it's a start." With reproduction vs. restraint, it's not only a start, but the most merciful option available.

*The filter wouldn't let me use the more obvious word there.

Oh, and the housecleaning was because we were expecting dinner guests. Don't worry; it's not about you.

Berna, I'm going to risk getting intemperate here, without even using the word "fuck." You said: "... being a parent has made me care more about the world, the future. It has renewed my commitment to activism..." I've managed to do that for quite a long time, eyes open, without first being a parent. Do you dare to declare yourself my moral superior? Or Chris'?


Posted by: Ron Sullivan at May 4, 2005 04:33 PM
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I do understand how having a kid can make the survival of the world past your allotted lifespan feel much more urgently important. Still, I think Berna sells herself short in that sentence. One of the reasons I fell head-over-heels in love with her when we were 19 was her amazing activist sense and commitment. Life does sometimes get in the way of that youthful fervor for all of us, and it's nice to have it renewed. But I suspect having a kid wouldn't have brought it out if it wasn't there to begin with.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 4, 2005 05:30 PM
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Also, despite the heat generated here, I should say I have been grateful for many of the comments in this thread. Two notes in particular:

Ask, great debut, and please stay as long as you like.

And Susurra... what can I say? Your comment is a gem, and so are you.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 4, 2005 08:35 PM
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Tost, enjoy your child without guilt or accusations of being...a social Darwinist.

Don't be bothered by accusations of social Darwinism because of having a child. Be bothered by accusations of social Darwinism if statements like "...the most intelligent of Americans...eliminate the cream of the next generation [by not breeding]...you're arguing that we breed to emphasize the worst of the species..." don't get held up by your internal bullshit detector.

Berna, by glomming the social Darwinism comment and the whether or not to have kids comment together, you make it look like I was mudslinging when I wasn't. I am perfectly happy that people have babies; not so happy when one of the rationales for doing so is to ostensibly secure the future of the intelligentsia lest we disappear and the country fall to the Republicans.

Hey look, I'm repeating everything Ron just said!

Posted by: Allison at May 4, 2005 10:56 PM
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Allison said: [good, pithy, to-the-point stuff]

See? I'm glad my sisters had kids.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 5, 2005 07:06 AM
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"Regardless, the hope for humanity rests not with our ability to address the problems of overpopulation or energy or pollution or global warming, because these issues are merely symptoms of a greater malaise. People - all people - need to undergo a shift of consciousness, moving from a mindset of consumption and materialism to one of stewardship. I hate to say this, but anything less dooms humanity to extinction."

Like I said before, Tost, I really do like you!

I would italicize, but I haven't figured out how to do that yet!

Posted by: Carrie at May 5, 2005 07:38 AM
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Thanks Chris.
I have to add that I question the basic assumption that humans should and can effectively steward anything. Obviously the materialism/consumption are a malaise, but I look at the damage we have wrought in the name of our "superior intelligence over other species" and say that it is exactly the presumption we are smarter that has led us to destroy and threaten far too much.

Posted by: susurra at May 5, 2005 02:32 PM
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I have to add that I question the basic assumption that humans should and can effectively steward anything.

Good thing to question! That law of unintended consequences is a real bitch.

Oddly enough, there is some good news in that field, though it's scattered and sketchy. some ethnobiologists have noted that in certain places, where people have lived for a long time with constant lifeways (Central American farming villages pre-plantation, small northern European farmsteads), biodiversity has increased relative to similar places without people.

The oasis of Quitobaquito on the US-Mexican border is a striking example. Here's a relevant quote from a book review I wrote a few years back:

When the Tohono O'odham lived there, the spring-fed pond was a spectacularly diverse assemblage of bird and plant life. Under the protection of the National Park Service, biodiversity has declined to the point that on a visit a few years back, I saw perhaps five bird species there in two hours. A similar oasis across the line in Mexico, still fringed by small O'odham family farm plots, still bears diversity like that Quitobaquito once hosted.

That review talks about one other example of a culture living, not to over-romanticize excessively, "in harmony with its environment." So there are potential role models for us to examine.

None of those model cultures had seven billion members, it's true.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 5, 2005 02:51 PM
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Thanks for the kind words, Carrie - although I'm afraid you're in the minority around here.

And susurra, our "superior intelligence" is really no different than any other tool. It can be used for good or ill, to protect or destroy. There have been any number of cultures who were able to combine the raw material of human intelligence with emotion, empathy & awareness to create sustainable patterns of living, patterns that actually benefited the natural world.

Unfortunately, we don't happen to live in one of those cultures.

Posted by: tost at May 5, 2005 09:37 PM
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I like you fine too, tost. I just disagree with you on a few things.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 5, 2005 09:55 PM
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I suppose I think we sometimes intend to use it for good, and think we are applying the right theories and then it either falls apart under pressure, or because our theories were based on some inherent bias that humans know everything.

An example. We set up water protections to save salmon in the northwest. We built dams which made this more difficult, so now we have to regulate who gets water via the dams. In the last couple of years, the droughts have led to situations where a choice had to be made, and despite the idea that the regulations are there to protect an endangered species, we give in to pressure from farmers who's livelihood is endangered by the drought and divert the water. I guess I don't see how this protects the salmon, despite the fact I'm sure very intelligent people wrote the legislation with that intent. Probably not the best example I know. I guess I question the very presumption that we should steward, instead of living inside our true means and resources. Which gets back to the idea that babies starve in some places because there wasn't enough food grown to feed them, and the question... should the babies get food from somewhere else? should the natural consequences take place for the overpopulation? or should the parents have thought about how many babies they could provide for before having them. And does it make any sense that a U.S. family can provide for so many more babies due to the riches here. And if I can generate the resources to feed them am I acting responsibly or irresponsibly? Which I cleverly skirted above. :)

Posted by: susurrad at May 6, 2005 03:56 PM
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