My daily hatemail generally includes 3-4 messages using quite a string of obscenities to describe the indecency of my daring to speak about peak oil and climate change because I have four children. This morning I got a nice one suggesting that I should practice "retroactive abortion," which I thought was particularly charming. Oh, and I got one that reassured me that it really, really wasn't that I was Jewish that was the problem, it was my family size - but they made such a big deal about the fact that it really, really wasn't that I was Jewish that somehow I got the impression that it really, really *was* that I was Jewish - along, of course, with the sin of having a big family.
Now I'm a big girl, and I'm the one that chose to put my family status out on the blog, and in my public bio. I could easily have left it out, since there are other people in the peak oil and climate change movements with children who don't discuss their families. In fact, I can't think of a single major male figure (which is pretty much all of them) who discusses their children in their bio. By talking about mine, not only do I draw a great deal of entirely expected hostility, but I also reduce my own credibility - women who write about children and parenting are generally not taken as seriously in the guys clubs as men who write about depletion rates.
But it would be dishonest, IMHO, not to talk about my family status (although if the emails keep increasing in violence, I may change my mind about this). My kids motivate a great deal of what I do in two ways - first, because I am concerned for their future, and second because I do have more children than my just share, and thus I'm obligated to reduce my family's impact further. Our goal, not yet achieved, is to have the same ecological footprint of a family the same size in India. It this point, we use resources at about 1/3 of the rate of an American family of four. We're getting there - but it is a process.
What I find interesting about people who react so strongly to my having so many children is that it isn't really clear what they expect me to do about it. They say something along the lines of "but what you don't seem to understand is that your having all those kids is the root of the problem." But having had all those kids, and starting from where I am - what would you suggest I do? Should I stop writing? Spend all my time weeping and penning mea culpas about my reproductive habits? Would it be better if I switched this blog to being movie reviews and stories about the cute things my kids said, so that I never disturbed anyone by talking about anything more important? Frankly, the latter two sound pretty boring to me, but I live to serve.
Like everyone who comes to the peak oil and climate change movement, I have a past. Perhaps all of those reading this blog have a perfectly ethical one - you've lived your whole life in a one-room cabin lighted by your own hand-dipped beeswax candles. But I don't. I flew. I bought groceries from the supermarket. I had Barbies when I was a kid, - I'm pretty sure the plastic from will outlive my grandkids - and I didn't always fully understand the implications of population. And so I start writing from a post-lapsarian, fallen position, in which I have consumed more than my share, done environmental harm, and contributed to quite a few problems - including overpopulation. I admire those of you who come to this from a different perspective - who have never harmed the environment, and have always made wise choices. I have no difficulty at all admitting that you are better people than I am.
For the rest of us, we start from where we are. If you worked in the defense industry, or you had more than a just share of children, you bought designer clothes made by slaves, you burned oil that warmed the planet and that nigerian peasants were murdered for - the only thing we can do is to go forward from where we are. The thing is, if the only people who are allowed to speak are the ones who have always done the right thing, and always lived the right life, it will be a very quiet place. Me, I'm for having everyone speak. It isn't that I'm suggesting absolution - each of us has to deal with our prior impact in our own way. But angst about what is done is an indulgence I don't think we have time for - there's simply too much useful work to be done.
My children are my one great selfishness, and I don't deny that. I never made much money. I didn't drive a car until I was 28 years old, and I grew up with a father who never owned a car. I was poor, so I ate cheap and low on the food chain and I always liked interesting work and political activism better than vacations and nice clothes. But I have four kids, from a combination of desire and an absurdly high fertility level that has defeated every form of birth control known to mankind. And I'm very fortunate - more, perhaps, than I deserve.
There's a story in the Talmud: Jacob has four wives, and it has been prophecied that he should have 12 sons. So the matriarchs agree that each of them should have three children. But it doesn't happen that way - Leah is fortunate, and she has a fourth son, who she names "Judah" which means "Now I will praise G-d." She praises G-d because she was given a gift that was greater than her own just share, and she knows it. And she knows also that her gift comes at a price - another of Jacob's wives has only two children. In the end, the only thing that she can is be grateful, and to acknowledge and recognize that she has more than her just share.
I too have more than my just share. I don't represent myself as a role model in this, and I know that it doesn't pass the sniff test - everyone can't do what I have done. And that's true of a disturbing number of things I still do - for example, there isn't enough oil in the world for everyone to have a car, and yet, I still have one. And there aren't enough resources in the world for everyone to have four children. And yet, I still have them. Like Leah, all I can do is minimize their impact in the world, and be grateful I have them, while also not representing myself as a model for anyone else.
That said, however, I'm not wasting any energy on guilt. I did what I could with what I knew and the resources I had, and if you all want to engage in navel-gazing about your SUVs or your kids, go for it, but not here. Nor do I think that everything that is said by the zero-population growth folks is true - I believe strongly in the voluntary reduction of population, and I support measures to encourage that, but when people start talking about sterilizing the poor and other undesirables and forcible abortions, I'm right out - sometimes it is about me being Jewish. And I still think that an Amish farmer with 8 kids is better for the world than a suburban pet psychologist with two. Over the last half century, the population growth rate has dropped like a stone, for a TFR of 5 in 1950 to a TFR of 2.7 and falling. All that reduction has come from the empowerment of women and rational choices for the most part by those women - statistics show that less than 20% of that change is due to birth control availability (which is not, of course, an argument against birth control availability - it is merely an interesting observation that women are rather good at controlling their fertility when they have high status, regardless of the technology they use). That is, once women started to see that they didn't have to have six kids to see them survive to adulthood, they don't for the most part. This is not a byproduct of wealth, either - Cuba, Kerala, Sri Lanka, Georgia, Albania... all of them have TFRs below the US's, and all of them are poor. So I believe strongly in *VOLUNTARY* population reduction - and voluntary means voluntary - that means that women like me who get pregnant by accident despite their best intentions, and people whose religion, or personal reasoning leads them to a different conclusion get to do what they want. I've no objection if we offer major tax penalties or pegging a system of rationing to family size so that you only get X amount of carbon emissions no matter how many kids you have - go for it - I'll help! - but voluntary is voluntary, and we're all going to have to suck up the fact that statistical outlyers will exist, no matter what. As long as you are reasonably civil, though, you can be as mad as you want at me for being one.
The thing is, people who are here are here. That means the children we've had, and the aging baby boomers who are past their best hoeing years but still keep eating are all on the same footing - the goal is to keep all of us alive and fed and to offer everyone a fair share of what's necessary. And we still have the resources to do that - if we choose.
And from there, all of us need to work as hard as we can only using only a just share of resources - period. And I don't mean a just share by American standards, I mean a share that leaves enough for everyone else in the world. Some people, including me, will have to work harder and give up more than those who haven't had as many children. Some may never get there - elderly people, for example, may always need to use more resources than younger ones, and the only choice that we younger people will have is to consume a little less still, to leave some for those who need it more. And sometimes we'll all fail - we'll fail to do the right thing, we'll fail to make the right choice when we should.
The peak oil and climate change movements needs more people - and that means people who haven't always lived perfect lives. That means people who spent their money on frivolities, who watch tv, who eat meat, who have kids, who bought an SUV, who supported the Iraq war, who are against abortion and don't use birth control, who wear leather shoes and smoke cigarettes. This simply can't be a movement of the perfect - there aren't enough of you. Heck, Julian Darley worked for Disney, I'm told, I'm willing to bet that Matt Simmons is still neck deep in the stock market, and I've heard a rumor that Richard Heinberg used to drive a van and play rock and roll. I fear our Gandhi may not be here yet (actually, don't look to close at Gandhi). Me, I'm just a girl with too many kids and little taste for martyrdom. If you don't like what I write, feel free to read someone else - there's plenty of someones out there.
And for those of you who are pure, who begin having never used more than a just share of resources, I salute you. I admire you. I can't be you, because I'm me. But I do admire you, and I understand why my failures offend you so. I just don't understand why so many of you, instead of working in your gardens, have so much time on the public computers you must use to write to me, and why, with all the free time for thought you must have, you can't think of anything better to do than tell me that it really isn't that I'm Jewish...