Friday, February 16, 2007

Enough with the Freakin' Bathroom Metaphor Already!

About 1 time per week, someone sends me Albert Bartlett's lectures on population and exponential growth. If you haven't seen or heard them, you can do it here: http://www.globalpublicmedia.com/lectures/461, or read it at various sites online (if you really can't find it I'll forward you one of my many copies). They are very smart, and, of course, sending them off is intended as a pointed jab at overpopulators like me. And while I could argue with some of Bartlett's contentions, for the most part I don't want to, because I agree with much of what he says. But let us stop at "much." Because the one thing that most drives me up the wall about this lecture is that it uses the famous bathroom metaphor. Bartlett attributes it to Ivan Kasanov, but I've seen it attributed to Isaac Asimov as well. Regardless of who said it, I think it is one of the stupider quotes of all time.

Here's the quote as it is offered up by Dr. Bartlett:

I'd like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and they had two bathrooms then they both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want, stay as long as you want, for whatever you need, and everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the constitution. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, then no matter how much every person believes in the freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person; you have to bang on the door, "aren't you through yet?", and so on. Kasanov concluded with one of the most profound observations I've seen in years, he says, in the same way, "...democracy can not survive overpopulation. Human dignity can not survive over population. Convenience and decency cannot survive over population. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only decline it disappears. It doesn't matter if some one dies, the more people, there are the less one individual matters. And so, central to the things that we must do is to recognize that population growth is the immediate cause of all our resource and environmental crisis".

One of the reasons I hate this quote, is that I've actually pretty much lived in the circumstances above. That is, I've lived in houses with regular membership of ten or just below it, sharing a single bathroom. And despite the claim that doing so is inevitably destructive - it isn't. My memories of those households are very fond, and the bathroom simply wasn't that big a deal. I grew up in a house that, with foster children, regularly had 9 claimants for the single bathroom. I lived in a house in college that averaged 7 or 8 such claimants, and in graduate school, there were six of us crammed into a tiny apartment with a single bathroom - plus periodic guests bringing our numbers up higher. And all of the people in those houses were able to comfortably accomodate one another with little or no difficulty. It did require that we acknowledge and respond to one another, that we place less priority on our own modesty or recognize that the 1/2 hour shower was not just, but it did none of us any harm. And billions of people in the world know how to share - not just me.

Now it is true that eventually, the bathroom will get awfully crowded. Two bathrooms for 20 is one thing, two bathrooms for 1000 is another. I am not arguing that population is irrelevant here. What troubles me about this, however, is something more subtle - because I don't think its an accident that the comparison created is between "I can always use the bathroom as much as I want" and "I would be slightly inconvenienced by having to share the bathroom." I think embedded in this argument is "dignity is equivalent to my not having to share." And I think not only can human dignity survive sharing your bathroom with a lot more people than us Western folk are accustomed to, but I actually believe the contrary - that real dignity begins at the point that we recognize that other people have rights to the bathroom too, and find a means of accomodating them.

What the bathroom metaphor actually does is equate "freedom" with "no limits" - it says that freedom and dignity are constructs of privelege and lack of constraint. That is, you have the perfect freedom of the bathroom when you never have to wait, or accomodate anyone else, adapt to or respect anyone else's needs. But that is *not* what freedom is - and I think this is an important point, because our consumer culture tells us over and over again that freedom is the ability to have whatever you want, whenever you want it. Freedom is "freedom of choice" and that is the equivalent of 63 choices of soda on the grocery store aisle, rather than the freedom from want, or freedom from repression - freedoms that only work when other people are aware of and attentive to others. Freedom, according to Dick Cheney, is the American way of life being "non-negotiable" rather than an egalitarian, shared and just life that extends beyond the borders of America. The bathroom example perpetuates the "freedom is choice" notion - that being free means never having to say, "excuse me."

I think that's truly and deeply wrong, and if we think this way about the population issue, we are perpetuating our most foolish habits of thought. Freedom is the right to assert your wants and needs in a world where others exist, and the right to have them respected, but it is not the right to never have to accomodate anyone else or share, and I think that's a really important point. If we believe that freedom is the right to always have what you want, when you want it, we will persist in equating freedom with wealth and privelege. And some versions of the overpopulation argument seem to basically go like this "there are too many people - they are impinging on my right to have the stuff I want - if there were less of them, I'd have to make fewer accomodations to other people, and that would be better." That's not freedom, but greed. We all have it, we're all greedy folk, but we need not give our our own selfishness and greed a pretty cloak to wear and call it science.

Again, I am not defending having four kids, or advocating no limits on population. I know my heinie is about to get fried by every person outraged that I have children and thus would dare point out that this is a weak argument. I am not saying population is not an issue. But if population is an issue, it deserves to be discussed in useful and productive terms, not false ones. And this one is false.

Jim Merkel, author of _Radical Simplicity_ uses the ecological footprint to analyse what kind of population the world can support. He argues

"When people would say, 'Population is the problem, there are just too many of us,' it raised my hackles. I'd respond, 'Yes, but if we became as skilled at extracting life quality from less land as the people of Kerala, 60 percent of the global bioproductivity could be left wild (and still maintain the present population). Then population wouldn't be such a big deal. The high income countries need to consume less.' (Merkel, 183)

Merkel goes on to say that we need to do both - reduce population and consumption, and I agree entirely with him. But Merkel's point is important - we are not yet in the position of having to share our bathroom with so many people that it is impossible to accomodate one another - it is merely challenging to learn to do so. We can be (with careful and wise management) at the 20 person for two bathroom stage that Bartlett quotes. And that is not a tragedy or a serious constriction of human freedom, dignity and access to justice - it is merely a situation where we have to share.

Moreover, using biology and silly metaphors to imply that accomodation is impossible naturalizes our resistance to giving up our own priveleges - it makes our unwillingness to reallocate some of our wealth to others seem natural, because, after all, we are unfree and burdened, unable to provide others with dignity because of the tragic experience of overpopulation. But that's garbage. Human beings can choose the society they want to live in. We have the capacity to alter our way of being, and extend our hands andopen our bathroom doors to others. There is nothing inevitable or biological about our refusal to share, nor anything tragic about our having to shit *and* get off the pot so someone else can use it.

We need to recognize that our own assumptions about population sometimes contain some not-very-productive underlying thoughts. And one of them is the notion that human dignity is not a product of never having to give way to another, never having to do and use less - in fact, I would argue that human dignity begins at the very moment that you recognize that other people are fully real in the philosophical sense, and you begin taking you identity and sense of freedom not from the time you get in the bathroom, but the society that you create. And the culture of that society is created by how you use limited resources like bathrooms. Culture is cool - a thousand societies can come up with a thousand different rules. Maybe everyone has some time per day, plus license for emergencies. Maybe we give up our sense of physical modesty and pee while someone is in the shower. Maybe we get accustomed to shorter baths, or regular habits. There are any number of ways that people can accomodate one another - and those accomodations are the basis of human culture. It turns out that many people like and value their cultures, even the parts of their culture that represent limitations. We like the rules on our sports that say that you can't kick the basketball, we derive comfort for the repetition of funeral and wedding and birth rites that say, "we do this when we come together, but not this," we create manners to limit the way we behave "no one over the age of 8 months gets to take fistfuls of mashed potatoes." And we derive pleasure from living within our ways of accomodating one another.

What does impinge upon human dignity is the scale of management - global structures are less humane and wise than local structures. While population has a relationship to what is available and the degree of accomodation required by individuals, the relation is not the one that Asimov/Kasanov makes and Bartlett so strongly approves of - that every single body on the earth makes us less able to live with dignity. What it does is demand more of us in terms of accomodation and respect for one another. It demands stronger cultures and more local management, rather than destructive homogenization and global authority. It demands that we think of ourselves differently than rich, western people have been accustomed to. We must derive our sense of pleasure not from what we are able to do without constraint, but from creating beautiful accomodations and social structures for one another.

Again, I do not disagree wholly with Bartlett's arguments, but I think the "Tragedy of the Bathroom" both fails to enhance his case and reveals a false and ugly streak at the root of our thinking about population.

Sharon

30 comments:

Awlknottedup said...

The bathroom metaphor is fine for illustrating your point for sharing and getting along but as for population pressures, it is seriously flawed. A bathroom is a fixed recourse that is not diminished by use. When you have finished, the bathroom is still there and complete in its functions for the next use. One person or 20, sharing or selfishness, the bathroom continues undiminished for the next user.

Now consider the bathroom water supply, a tank on the hill out of sight for the users. As far as any given user is concerned the bathroom and it water supply is undiminished after each use. But even if we are given only 10 minutes to use it, my 10 minute shower will diminish the water supply much more than your 10 minute pee and clean up. As long as we do not see the falling water level we can work out ways to share with another 18 people. But the water supply is falling and soon it is gone. With two people it could last a long time but with twenty it is quickly exhausted.

Over population is a problem, not of bathrooms or mountains but of resources. If the tank level were visible then two people could work out ways to conserve, to stretch the resource that will one day be gone. Two people have time work out solutions but twenty use the resource much too quickly.

Anonymous said...

As usual Sharon, a very thoughtful, insightful, and complete post.

I've often thought about how our freedom of actions and material wants are being compromised by increasing population combined with the increasing footprint of each of our lives due to technology (and technology's misuse.) I've often thought that many of our pollution and other environmental laws wouldn't be so required if only there were less of us.

I wasn't aware, however, that people were continuing this line of thought as to argue that our Freedom itself was at issue. Thank you for clarifying the difference between freedom of movement to do whatever and whenever we want with political and personal freedoms.

At some point, though, population could still seriously challenge our personal and political freedoms just the same, because as awlknottedup points out,the bathroom isn't the issue, but rather the resources behind it. Getting people in our country to once again discover the required respect for each other in a more crowded living situation will also be a very painful and fitful transition. Up until now, I suppose one could argue that our environmental/pollution control laws are a way of inforcing this mutual respect between our citizens. Just how long this can continue to go smoothly ahead (if if fact this is even still happening) remains to be seen.

Great job as always,

Stephen Beltramini (from ROE2)
Walpole, MA

jewishfarmer said...

I agree with both of you that the resource issue is the real one, but even considering the issue of resource diminishment, there are ways to accomodate one another for a much longer period than the metaphor of the bathroom would imply.

That is, you can shorten your showers, make them less frequent, not flush every time you pee. It isn't that a larger population doesn't present pressure upon our ability accomodate one another, but there is a point - and I believe we are still at that point - that just reallocation of resources and reconsideration of what constitutes need can transform resource pressure from a serious problem to a minor inconvenience.

Twenty people *can* use the resources carefully, and husband them, if they so choose. There is a point at which we cannot accomodate others, but we have not yet reached it, as Merkel's analysis of bioproductivity demonstrates. More people reduces our options and creates a greater need for care. At some point, it reduces our capacity to meet everyone's needs - I don't deny that. But the first line of defense is equal and just allocation of resources, in conjunction with population limitation.

This is not an argument against limiting population, it is an argument about how we perceive the world. A perception that presumes as self evident that dignity and freedom require fewer people than we have are is a presumption that enables us to view our disparities as naturalized.

Sharon

Anonymous said...

Awlknottedup, in the bathroom metaphor, it isn't the bathroom itself that is the finite resource, it is the use of the bathroom. There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and if you add enough people, there won't be enough time.

Of course, Sharon didn't choose the metaphor. The flaws in it aren't her responsibility.

Her point remains: up to some point, additional population can be accommodated by more equitable management of resources. Past that point, there's nothing you can do.

jewishfarmer said...

I don't think I expressed myself very clearly in my last comment - kids were calling me to hurry up. What I mean to say is this. If there are 2000 people on the planet, within their capacity to use it, everyone can have everything they want, beyond their wildest dreams of avarice. There is a reason there were only two people in Eden. Add 20 billion, and there will not be enough to go around for everyone.

But there is an enormous amount of space between those two (note, I'm not saying the world can support anything like 20 billion - I am speaking rhetorically). For the vast middle, other people represent both competition for resources and support and culture. There comes a point at which the problem of the first begins to destroy the benefits of the second - but it isn't a direct correspondence, as Bartlett implies - 1 more person does *not* make everyone's life that much less valuable in any inherent sense.

And there is something troubling, IMHO, about this claim coming from the people who use the largest percentage of resources in the world. Maybe our intention is not to complain about our share getting smaller, but I think it works that way, and I'm not alone in suggesting that - Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies, for example, make precisely that argument in _Ecofeminism_ as do Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset in _World Hunger: Twelve Myths_. We need to be careful about our assumptions and motivations, and the way they appear. The voice of rich people saying, "we're overpopulated" while being unwilling to give up our stuff, comes off problematically.

I'm a fair target, btw - I'm a rich (by world standards), priveleged, educated woman with a bunch of kids. But the Garret Hardin argument (to which the bathroom metaphor is connected) is an attack on poorer people who can have 30 children and still not use what you and I do.

We need to be careful about the implications of our reasoning. IMHO, the bathroom metaphor is a loser.

Sharon

Anonymous said...

Sharon----Thank you!

It doesn't strike me as odd that the originators of the bathroom metaphor are male, scientific, and priviledged-----somehow, in the course of raising children and making a family, you learn to compromise much more readily.

Fron one who grew up in a family of 6 that usually had twice that many in the home.....yes, you can share!....and, with bit of work, you can make a limited resource (in our case, a barely functional septic) work for everyone.

Anna said...

Beautiful.
One criticism though, and one observation -
Sharon, you said "There is nothing inevitable or biological about our refusal to share" but in fact there is, in a "general law of nature" kind of way. We find it hard to give up our comforts for the benefit of "the Others", and this reluctance becomes greater with their distance from us (and, ironically, with our perception that they'd behave likewise, were they in our position)

To get the behavioral results (global sharing) that we need, we can try to change human nature, or we can work with human nature to channel it, but we do need to acknowledge its reality.

I think we'd get the best results by tweaking the metrics for what gives social status, since (from Jaron Lanier) "What people really seem to want most is a better place in the pecking order...."

Anna said...

and yes it's a pity about the social status thing, but people *do* have these motives and *don't* want to know (or don't care) about the consequences of their way of life. I know these people, I talk to them daily, and I still haven't been able to reach them.

I think we need to shrink the world, so they see and talk to the individuals they're harming. We need a buddy system, or sister cities; vlogs, podcasts and the like could do the rest...

The Naked Mechanic said...

G'day Sharon and thank you for the broadened perspective. I dare say that Prof' Bartlett' metaphor is born of social conditioning and personal circumstances (aren't they all?)

Population is important but let's keep it in perspective, we have an organic dairying family nearby with eight kids, all of them home schooled and happy, healthy, productive members of the community, we need more people like them.

Alantex said...

The "bathroom metaphor" is related to the thinking of modern Libertarians who really do regard the addition of any other person as an impingement upon their "freedom" to do whatever they want. These Libertarians (I capitalize to distinguish the supporters of the Libertarian Party from historical libertarians who are a different kettle of fish) struggle mightily against public transit (because it requires sharing), against dense urban living (because it requires sharing and acknowledging limitations), against collective economic enterprise (because it requires sharing and limiting individuals' privileges).

The Libertarian's ideal is a multi-acre freeholding where no community has any say over the "owner's" "right" to do whatever he wants to make a profit with that property. A more crowded world where that "owner" has to share and where the rights of others require him to behave in ways that he doesn't personally prefer, is the ultimate horror.

Anonymous said...

good job of rationalizing your actions. I see a mother of 4 doesn't want to understand how much she has done to destroy the planet by having so many children.

Anonymous said...

BTW Sharon, despite my blog's (deservedly) small readership it's had a couple of trolls, and I want to pre-emptively apologize in case by linking to you I brought any here.
Anna

sushil yadav said...

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.


Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.


When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.



A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.



FAST VISUALS /WORDS MAKE SLOW EMOTIONS EXTINCT.

SCIENTIFIC /INDUSTRIAL /FINANCIAL THINKING DESTROYS EMOTIONAL CIRCUITS.

A FAST (LARGE) SOCIETY CANNOT FEEL PAIN / REMORSE / EMPATHY.

A FAST (LARGE) SOCIETY WILL ALWAYS BE CRUEL TO ANIMALS/ TREES/ AIR/ WATER/ LAND AND TO ITSELF.


To read the complete article please follow either of these links :

PlanetSave

EarthNewsWire

sushil_yadav

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think you have too many kids - if we all had four children, the immediate population problem would be staggeringly worse than it already is....especially when you start adding the multiplying future generations.

I agree that the problem isn't the bathroom, but the resouces. No matter how careful or aware one is, each human being still has basic needs for daily existence; a minumum amount of water, food, etc. must be consumed to support each life. You can share the bathroom and adjust your dignity all day long, but the facts of minimum consumption per person cannot be escaped. Your four children are indeed an unfair drain on the precious resources that by right belong to all of us....and what if we all had four kids, like you? Yes, it was very selfish of you to have so many children; but I never would have mentioned it if you hadn't come up with this silly 'bathroom defense' - it ignores the 'real' overpopulation problem of resource depletion and encourages others to think that disapproving of your overbreeding is a product of OUR selfishness, not yours. You are obviously a smart person, so you must know all this. Why not just be honest - if you must write about having your four kids, state that you are aware that you were selfish in choosing to have so many, and leave it at that. Maybe you feel that admitting selfishness in this somehow insults your children's 'value' as humans - it doesn't. They didn't make the choice, you and your husband did. Yes, you two were very selfish in having four kids - but your writing adds value to the world, so that's something on the plus side for you.

Frankly, I never would have said a word about your four kids if you hadn't posted this weak, illogical defense of indefensible overbreeding...such intellectual weaseling is (should be) beneath you, and is insulting to your readers.

Cynthia

The Naked Mechanic said...

"an unfair drain on the precious resources that by right belong to all of us"

It's this sort of entitlement mentality that got us into this mess.
Think long and hard before calling the kettle black...

RAS said...

I hear you Sharon. Too many people choose to shoot the messenger when they don't like the message.

annette said...

I agree with 95% of what you say, and especially with the greed of people in wealthy countries being a huge part of the problem. And I am troubled by the ananymous person calling you selfish - but I, too am troubled by your choice to have 4 children. You are obviously highly intelligent and have spent a lot of time thinking deeply about sustainability issues. Since I started reading your posts a few months ago, I have found your writing to be some of the most insightful anywhere on the internet on the broad issues of sustainable living, relocalization, peak oil, etc. I know it is your own personal business, but if you felt like sharing your reasons for having 4 children, I (and I suspect many others) would be interested in knowing them. Certainly the problems posed by overpopulation have been known for a long time - and for many of the very reasons you mention, I think it is the responsibility of people in wealthy countries PARTICULARLY to not reproduce irresponsibly, because it is our offspring who will use up the most of the world's resources. I knew this when I started having children 26 years ago, and I felt it was my moral responsibility not to have more than 2, which is how many I had.

I would also note that Jim Merkel advocates everyone having no more than ONE child for the next hundred years, and I think he is probably right about that. And I find that very sad, because I grew up in a huge extended family and I hate to think of my great-grandchildren growing up without aunts, uncles and cousins. But that would be better than living in a world of runaway global warming, with epidemic diseases raging everywhere and most of the infrastructure of the so-called "western" world having collapsed.

jewishfarmer said...

Annette, I've been thinking all day about whether or not to say more about why I have four kids, and unfortunately, I don't think I should. There are too many people who are out to get a rise out of me, and this involves details that I simply don't want to discuss on the net for a couple of reasons - one of them being that my kids have the right not to have the circumstances of their conception be the subject of public debate, the other is that my husband and I feel strongly that some things are private. Back when 6 people read this blog, I would have answered your questions ;-). But I don't control the flow of information once it is out there, and I've learned the hard way to be concerned about privacy issues.

Suffice it to say, that while population has been an issue since at least the ancient romans, it was not something I was deeply concerned with until much later, after several of my children were already in existence. I will also add that not all of my children were conceived intentionally - and the conception of one represents a statistical unlikelihood that my midwife assures me rates up there with the virgin birth ;-). But I really have no intention of going into details.

I recognize that having four children is a selfish act, but it is not an ongoing act - and I honestly don't think it is particularly relevant. Like all of us, I have a consumptive past. I can start addressing peak oil only from where I am - and that includes from the point of the children I have. I recognize many of my prior acts as selfish - I travelled a great deal, I left the lights on, I didn't think much about my consumption, and I had more children than I should have. Perhaps the rest of you were always aware and always conscious, but I don't think that's the norm in the peak oil movement. We all start where we are - and where I am includes the family I have. I don't think there's any reason for me or anyone to sit around feeling guilty about their pasts and their choices, and I'm certainly not going to waste my time doing it.

Besides not having any more children, and not representing myself as a role model on that particular point, I don't feel it much affects my ability to speak or write, any more than the fact that I used to fly to foreign countries quite a bit affects my ability to comment on whether we should be flying or not. I find the idea that I shouldn't speak about population because I have four kids to be sort of funny - if we held everyone in the western world who has consumed too much to the same standard, and allowed only those who have always consumed their fair share of resources to speak, it would be an awfully quiet room. And I find the passionate reaction of people who are *so* outraged that I dare to critique population arguments while not being morally pure to be pretty funny. As I say, however, I'm a fair target, and I wouldn't write about this stuff if I wasn't prepared for the sort of response I inevitably get.

Merkel does call for everyone to have one child, and like you, I think at least in present family structures (there are ways to compensate for this loss to some degree), there is a lot to be lost there, even if it is necessary. I don't argue with him on that point. I think he's probably right - although I think it also important that he calls *only* for voluntary controls on fertility - and any voluntary system is going to have its intentional and accidental statistical outlyers.

But I think his point about Kerala is important too - our resource consumption is not at this point at the stage of meaning we cannot support our whole population. That doesn't mean that there aren't compelling reasons to reduce population - the right of wild creatures to live, the right of others to a certain standard of living - these are real issues, and as I keep saying, I don't deny them. But to some degree the overpopulation issue is not the stark one that many people set it up as "your children mean I don't get food" - it is more complicated than that - my children mean that in the long term, some people and animals have less, but all people mean that - at what point is "lessness" an assault on freedom and dignity?

Sharon

jewishfarmer said...

Wow, Cynthia, tell me how you really feel ;-). Since it means so much to you, I'll say it here, even though I've said it before in other posts, and I don't generally repeat everything I write. Having four children is selfish. Like all of us, I have made choices that weren't always sustainable. That's one of them. I'm going to bet that if you are old enough to be using a computer, you have done a few things that used more than your just share of the world's resources too. Do you, each and every time you speak, acknowledge your own selfishness? Because that kind of seems like a waste of time to me, but if you do, at least you are consistent. I'm glad you think that something I do adds value to the world - I'll hold that close to my heart during the dark night of the soul ;-P.

As for the rest - I don't think I said that all people who are concerned about overpopulation are selfish - although I suspect they are, because I think generally speaking *people* are selfish. I said that this argument is both stupid and represents a selfish line of thinking, and I stand by that. Criticizing a single, weak argument is hardly an indictment of a whole idea. Poor thinking deserves to be critiqued - and when the thinking includes assumptions about what freedom and dignity are that are straight out false, IMHO, it is particularly important to address them. Getting to the right point by using the wrong, or an unethical argument is no great accomplishment.

Shoddy thinking deserves to be pointed out as such. So, for example the fact that both you and anonymous claim, speaking in the present tense that my children "are" doing active harm to the earth or using resources that belong to others, would represent shoddy thinking. This is not a defense of having four children - reproduction is a problem of long term impact. But that you and the prior poster can't phrase your critiques accurately does matter. My family uses much less than 1/2 the resources of an average family of four. So my four children together at this point in their lives have in no way used anything like the number of resources you have, if you are an adult living in western society. By their very number, no matter how carefully we conserve, my family size will have an impact - but it will take decades before my children's impact equals anything like the impact of an adult who uses the internet. That is, *you* are using and have used resources that many other people need - far more than my children will for many, many years. Your impact on the planet, being born into a wealth society that consumes energy like water, is probably the same as about 30 Indians over the course of their lifetime - 20 if you conserve a lot. If, as you say, this is about the resources, then correct accounting does matter. We have to tell the truth about who is doing what and when. Honestly, the earth would be better off without you, Cynthia (and me, and my husband and every other western adult) than without my kids, who are born into radically conserving families and who because of peak oil and climate change will never have the opportunity to consume anything like what you and I already have.

Again, this isn't a defense of having kids - as you correctly note, it would be disastrous if everyone did what I did - in fact, when your parents were probably having you, the average number of children a woman had worldwide was very much like what I do. Fortunately, and voluntarily, that has changed. But have you ever done anything that everyone in the world cannot do? Owned a car? Flown in a plane? Eaten meat? Because every time any of us do or did those things, we also consumed resources desperately needed by others.

The thing is, we all have credibility problems. You think I have no right to speak about dumb arguments on overpopulation, because my children are using up resources that others need. But everytime we turn on our computers, travel anywhere, invest in the stock market, etc... we are doing things that others cannot do and that take desperately needed resources away from others. Now personally, I support your right to speak out even if you, over the years, owned a car, flew in a plane or ate meat - despite your credibility problem, your ability to think clearly would be what matters. But if, as you say, this really is about the resources - and of course it is - then it is about our rate of consumption at least as much as our rate of reproduction, and I don't think anyone priveleged enough to be chatting on the internet here can speak without complicity. That's ok, though.

As for the rest - I don't think overpopulation activists are selfish, but I do think the argument that you use - that my children are consuming resources that "all of us" - which apparently includes you - need to be both a. wrong - because it isn't true yet and b. selfish. You apparently are priveleged enough to have internet access and time to visit my blog - so I'm going to guess you don't live as a subsistence farmer in Bangladesh. So I don't think my kids are using anything *you* need - and I think an attempt to place claims on the share of the resources my kids use is pretty selfish - it represents, as the previous poster pointed out - an attitude of entitlement. An attitude fairly well represented by the "Tragedy of the Bathroom" - so maybe that's why you got so upset that I didn't beat my breast and weep at my own selfishness - you really do see this as an issue that is mostly about you getting your share. Now I don't think most people concerned with overpopulation believe that - but I do think that's a selfish, self-centered, and morally wrong argument. What I owe, I owe to others, not to the priveleged who don't want to share.

Sharon

annette said...

Sharon, I just want to thank you for your thoughtful response to my question and comments. I totally agree with your right to privacy and did not mean to be intrusive. Thank you for the information you were willing to share. I certainly do not think it invalidates what you have to say, and I certainly don't wish to discourage you from speaking/writing in any way - as I tried to indicate in my earlier post, I believe your voice is one of the most eloquent on these issues.

And I certainly did not mean to hold myself up as a shining example in all things - I've always made some efforts (living in cooperative housing or cohousing most of my adult life, always buying most of my clothes used, etc), but I've done plenty of things that used way more than my fair share of resources, including commuting 120 miles a day for 10 years. As with most things, that wasn't a totally black and white issue - I was working as a staff attorney for an Indian Tribe, doing what I still believe was good and important work for people who truly had been screwed out of their fair share. And at the time we moved into the cohousing community, it was the only one in the state, but it was 60 miles from my job . . . Anyway, the point is, I've hardly been a shining example of sustainability, and I didn't mean to imply that I was. My husband and I are retired now, we've sold our house, we have no car and we live in Mexico on a boat, so we've reduced our ecological footprint quite a bit, but I'm sure its still way too large. I'd like to get to the Kerala stage - for the sake of my children (now young adults), and yours, and all of the children to come.

Anonymous said...

Sharon has 4 children. It's a done deal. But she's living as close to bone as she can -- and she'd do the same with six or two or none, I dare say.

I worry a lot more about the people I know in the MacMansions around me who have 3 or 4, or even 2 or 1 or none,and are using up a lot more that Sharon and her family does.

I chose to adopt becuase of my concerns about population. For various reasons, I went international. So, I spent lots and lots of jet fuel on having them escorted to me. My younger child, in partuclar, consumes medical resources she never would have in left in the county of her birth. This long weekend alone, I drove 67 miles for medical appointments for her.

Why rag on Sharon, who is committed to using less with her four boys, just becuase she is committed to making as smaller impact as possible, just becuase she's transgressed your ideal family size? If she said, oh, yeah, people should have lots of kids, and while they are at it, they should just consume, consume, consume, would she get some of pass?

MEA

Anonymous said...

One more thought, if you think PO is going to bring a drop in the birth rate, I say think again. Lack of birth control, frightened people....there you go. With it will come a horrorible rise in the rate of infant and maternal death. (Childbirth may be a natural process, but it's not always benign, esp. for the malnourished and very young.)

MEA

Eliza said...

With all due respect, how can you be certain that your children will always continue to use resources at a reduced rate, as they become adults?

I grew up in a very thrifty household, and my parents' values and my grandparents' depression-era values were transferred to me. I live a very simple life, drive little, heat with wood, garden, fly never, etc. My sister, however, who had the same upbringing, drives an SUV, lives in a big house, goes on tropical vacations, and in short consumes, consumes, consumes.

She clearly feels denied by her upbringing, and is making up for it in her approach to the consumer culture.

Many children rebel against their parents philosophies... I'd be surprised if yours grew up to completely embrace yours without seeing what else is out there.

jewishfarmer said...

Hi Eliza -

Well, one answer is that I believe in the reality of peak oil, so by the time my 7 year old is old enough to afford an SUV, I don't think he'll have the choice. I think there is very little chance that my children will have the opportunity to consume at anything like the rate at which we do at present.

As for the rest - there is no certainty, of course, but I'm heartened by my own family's examples - I grew up in a quite frugal family as well, and while my sisters and I have all done unsustainable things once in a while, all of us have grown up to raise some of our food, live on little, buy used, care about the environment, do it yourself, etc...

So I guess I tend to think that family values are more persistent than that. But as you say, there is no perfect certainty. That said, however, I think the simple likelihood is that what we had will not be available to my children - period.

Sharon

Eliza said...

Thanks Sharon.

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