Thursday, March 19, 2009

Planet Awakening

Yesterday, I read “Planet Awakening” by Patricia Waak, a former Senior Advisor on population for Audubon and currently the Chair of the Colorado Democratic Committee. I read this on the recommendation of my adviser, who (I hope I get this right) worked with Ms. Waak on interfaith environmental issues through Audubon. He recommended this book because it talks about the intersection of faith and environment; so, right up my alley.

This far in my education, human population hasn’t been discussed much. We talked about population the most in my env econ class last spring and touched on it a bit in env ethics last semester. When population has been discussed, it has been mostly about population of other species and how we can avoid extinction for those that are vulnerable or endangered. When human population has been discussed, people have been afraid to say anything. “Planet Awakening” takes on the issue of human population and how it relates to the environment.

I’ll start off by saying that this is probably the fairest, most impartial and positive review of Christian environmental thought that I think I’ve read. It’s an extremely fair and positive review of every religion Ms. Waak covers (ancient indigenous religious practices, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism), but she talks about Catholic and various Protestant denominational thought the most as they deal with population, and I was impressed by what I read.

I think Christians and Christianity get a bad rap when people start talking about environmental issues, and in some sense I think it’s rightfully so, but I also feel that sometimes, many people want to only see the bad about Christianity. When discussing population, Christianity is all over the place. Some people feel that the command to be fruitful and multiply still applies today, even though we live in a world where we can’t feed and clothe all the people we’re producing. Some Christians feel that we should do all we can to control population without stepping outside some ethical boundaries. And there are people who are everywhere in between.

Waak says, “Our calling as theologians, pastors, spiritual directors, and lay persons is to reframe the dialogue around population growth and consumption, and bring to bear ethical and spiritual principles, without pretending to have answers to these complex sets of problems” (Waak 14). Why is human population such a big issue for the environment? Practically, more people in the world means that more resources will get used. It’s that simple. For each person that is born, more land has to be converted to farmland or housing. The loss of this land destroys ecosystems, speeds soil erosion, and contributes to climate change (through plant loss). More people = more consumption.

In theory, talking about population growth is a good thing. In reality, we avoid it because it brings up all sorts of sticky issues. In America, infanticide is a crime; in other countries and/or cultures, infanticide is practiced as a means to control population. How do we tell some of these indigenous cultures, like the Bakairi Indians of Brazil (Picchi 65), that their population control practices are wrong? In many countries, not just Western or developed, abortion is used to control population. Even the subject of birth control and contraception is difficult to talk about because some people believe that all forms of hormonal and barrier contraception, as well as sterilization, are morally wrong (there are many reasons for this). So if we really need to talk about population, but we have a hard time talking about how to deal with a growing population through preventative measures, we then have some acute difficulty in coming up with a workable solution. But we MUST talk about population growth, because more people means more consumption of resources.

In America, we are blessed to have the means and education to prevent unwanted pregnancies (which, if used correctly, work most of the time. That people disregard this information is a completely different blog post). We look around to see average sized families with two to three kids and wonder, “Where is overpopulation taking place?” Then we see pictures of starving people in Africa and Asia, particularly young children, and a light goes off – sort of. “Oh, so it’s the poor people who are having too many kids. How is this my problem? I know how to prevent that, and I do. Maybe they should learn to prevent all those pregnancies as well.”

Waak says we need to be careful here: “Many women’s rights advocates fear that by acknowledging the relationship between population growth and environment they will ‘blame’ poor women for environmental degradation” (Waak 31). Blaming the poor anywhere for this problem is a twofold problem. First, the poor, especially in other countries, don’t have access to contraception and gynecological care. In countries where women are seen as second or even third class citizens, girls and women can’t go to school for a basic education, much less receiving information on human reproduction.

But the second problem with this statement is that while people in poor countries might have bigger families, each person is using far fewer resources than a family of four in developed countries, especially America. The poor in third world nations have little access to electricity and running water. They don’t eat as much food, especially meat or animal products, and most of their food comes from local places less than 200 miles away. They don’t drive or fly, and they don’t have the things we have (toys, computers, clothing, appliances, etc). So while there might be more people, they use fewer resources.

I’ll illustrate. For fun, I went to My Footprint and took the quiz to see what my ecofootprint would be here in Springfield, in Brazil as a Bakairi Indian, and as an Ethiopian. For my own results - and this is me eating no meat and very little fish, recycling what the city will allow, having a smallish home, driving little, and using as many ecofriendly products as possible, FAMILY OF THREE – if everyone lived like me, we would need 3.66 earths for all of us to survive. Ouch. As a Bakairi Indian – little need for transportation, they grow most of their own food, eat little meat and hunt/fish for what they do, small houses with no electricity or running water, FAMILY OF 5+ – we would need 0.26 earths for all of us to survive. As an Ethiopian – tiny houses, no electricity or running water, in the middle of a severe drought, what little food they have they grow or hunt, little need for transportation, FAMILY OF 5+ – we’d need 0.08 earths. Look at those numbers again and come up with a good reason for us to blame the poor who have large families, when we who have small families use vastly greater amounts of resources.

How can we reframe the dialogue around population and consumption? I think we first need to admit that while population is definitely a problem, the bigger problem is consumption. Yes, we need to worry about population growth in other countries, and “The poor need to share in the human commitment to change so that life on the planet can be sustainable for all. But to make an appeal for that commitment credible, the rest of the world must address not merely its own salvation, but the relief of poverty as well” (Waak 68) and “If we are to be good stewards of the earth, we must strive to make our planet just and sustainable for all. We must care about and care for each of the six billion people – and more to come” (Waak 78).

Most people would consider forcible population control unethical. But should people really be allowed to have as many children as they see fit? Large families pose ethical questions themselves: consider Nadya Suleman, who recently gave birth to 8 children through in-vitro fertilization and already had 6 young children at home; or Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who have eighteen (or nineteen) children and will probably have another one on the way soon, if the pattern continues. Should Ms. Suleman or the Duggars be allowed to have that many children? Is it our right as individuals to have as many children as we want? Why do people have that many children, especially when there are children in our own country who don’t have homes or families? Can we control population through policy and still be considered ethical, especially if people like the Duggars continue to have children because they believe “be fruitful and multiply” still applies today, a tenet of their own faith?

Next week, I’ll be interviewing Ms. Waak and will post some of that interview here in the following days.

Picchi, Debra. The Bakairi Indians of Brazil. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2006.

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