Friday, February 11, 2011

That Whole Environment Thing

This is in part a response to some of the posts and comments on the childfreedom blog, for example the “Agent Smith is Right” piece.
I find myself constantly agreeing with the things people say, at least the conclusions people come to, but I keep wondering if I’m coming to the childfree choice from my own weird angle. Sometimes the reasons I hear for being childfree seem as foreign to me as the reasons people give for having children. One example: the environmental reasons.
I’m sympathetic to the idea that going childfree will minimize my impact on the planet’s carrying capacity, that overcrowding is a problem, and that choosing to add one more person to the world seems irresponsible. That makes a lot of sense on an individual level, and I would encourage anyone who wants to be childfree to be childfree for whatever reason works for you. Even if your reason for being childfree is bonkers, especially if your reason is bonkers, you should be childfree.
My reasons for being childfree are not really about carbon footprints or environmental responsibility. That reasoning doesn’t fully resonate with me, not because I don’t care about unsafe water and poverty and starvation, just that being childfree for me is more about me than the rest of the world. I don’t think I can have the life I want to have if I have a child. (Sure, selfish maybe, but it’s a selfishness that destroys itself. If my being selfish results in something that you consider good for the planet, then let me be selfish.) The way I see it, if the situation were reversed and being childfree was more harmful to the world than having a child, that wouldn’t change my mind in the least. I still wouldn’t have a kid even if it HELPED the planet. I don’t care much about “my long-term legacy” either environmentally or dynastically, and that means I don’t feel all that guilty about my carbon footprint AND I don’t want to leave a living legacy of my loins.
The environmental reason is generally good wisdom. All other things being equal, a parent plus child will use more resources than a childfree individual. A good rule is that all other things being equal a family of 3 consumes more than a family of 2. Again, all other things being equal: economic system, cost of living, access to resources, income, appetites, lifestyle expectations, medical conditions, consumption patterns, housing types, climate, childraising practices, etc.
I just think there’s a little wiggle room here, and the “using fewer resources” reason is just not enough for me, intellectually, because it’s kind of relative. How many resources your household (for lack of a better word) consumes has a lot to do with individual choices or local factors, not just the number of people. An environmentally conscious family of 3 could consume less than a rampantly consumerist family of 2. A childless American billionaire by himself surely consumes far more resources than a low-income mother and her 2 small children. Not to mention that an American child consumes as much as a dozen children in Haiti (guessing here, too). If I choose not to have a kid so I can fly all over the world several times, I’m just trading one pollution for another. The child is worse than the airline jet, but it’s still substituting one for another, not going from big impact to no impact.
And, of course, there are all sorts of culturally loaded value judgments about how to use resources, and this leads to some inconsistencies. If I said I went childfree so I could more easily pursue a dream of starting a ranch and raising horses, I’m guessing many if not most of the blog readers, even the more environmentally conscious ones, would find that a beautiful dream and a great reason to be childfree. Even if a herd of horses that my ranch breeds over and over again consumes more resources than that one child would have. (I’m guessing about that – I may be naïve about how much the little yard apes eat.) Breed giant, highly destructive grazers and sell them as luxury items, great; breed a child, and it’s killing the earth. If I said I wanted to start a cattle ranch instead of a horse ranch, that would probably be much more controversial, but that wouldn’t have anything to do with cows consuming more than horses. (I’m not sure they do.)

By the same token: I have two cats at home. Surely my house would consume less without them, and surely the world would be better off without so much biomass going to feed our pets. (Isn’t there enough pressure on the tuna population already?) But, I dare you to try to convince me to give up my cats to save the planet.
As for the inevitability of human extinction, that is a virtual certainty, but not primarily because humans are especially self-destructive to their environment. The main reason is that humans are a species of life and species go extinct. It’s just what we life-forms do. Extinction is actually the RULE in the history of the planet, NOT the EXCEPTION. The fact is that 99% of all species of life that have ever existed on earth have become extinct, and that was long before humans ever appeared. If humans are like a virus because we reproduce regardless of the future, then ALL life is like a virus. (There’s some debate about whether viruses themselves count as life.)  Get rid of humans and extinctions will happen at a slower rate, certainly, but extinctions won’t stop.
There is no “balance” or “healing” to return to once humans are gone, because there is no absolute biological sustainability. Eventually the sun, an object that is burning through its fuel at an unsustainable rate like a giant SUV, will burn out in the next few billion years, which would probably be the end of life on the planet. The idea of a natural, steady-state equilibrium, a delicate “balance of nature” is from human imagination, not a natural law. Not everything in the universe is balanced or cyclical, and it looks like nothing is really eternal either. To me the “natural balance” or “health of the planet” idea borders on creationism – this one way is the way that the earth is meant to be forever and ever.  For most of the planet’s existence, actually, there was no life on it at all, so if humans somehow destroy all life on the planet, maybe we’re coming full circle, back to the way things were “meant to be.” It’s sort of narcissistic of me as a life-form to think that my planet has to have life on it at all. If we really “listened to nature” we should be comfortable with the idea of extinction for all life.
I guess you could say that humankind has lived in its own self-interest at the expense of the rest of the planet. However, I’m not sure the earth actually has its own interest, now that I think about it. It’s not clear that the earth is meant to have life on it at all, and it’s not even clear, given the way the universe seems to work, that the earth is meant to last forever even without life on it. This sounds counterintuitive, maybe, but just because something happens does not prove that it was meant to happen, certainly not that it was fated to happen. But, if you argue that everything happens because it was meant to happen, that means that all the horrible things humans have done were also meant to happen.
As for exploiting the earth, that’s certainly true. Humans use resources that could be used by other life forms, and we have altered the ecology everywhere we go. But, that’s what EVERY species does to some degree. Maybe humans are just the worst of the worst, but it’s not like everything else is in natural harmony and humans are the ones changing the world. I’m sure the field mouse would love to go on living instead of being eaten by an owl. The little fellow would probably find the whole thing terribly exploitative and think the owl was horribly selfish.
As for the “rape of the earth” metaphor, maybe I’m just a clueless male brainwashed by my violent, repressive, patriarchal society, but I don’t think that metaphor really rings true if you think about it. It’s true that everything humans do today is without the consent of the planet, but then that’s always been the case, really. If it’s about not having the planet’s permission, then every human has been a rapist, really. Has anyone gotten the consent of earth to forage or breathe or develop an immune system? Did you hear the voice of The Earth saying it was okay to plant a garden in your backyard? I don’t quite see how clear-cutting is the same as sexual violence, except that both make me outraged.
The rape metaphor also tends to suggest that the planet is female (the whole Mother Earth/Mother Nature thing), which is itself a whole big gendered can of worms. Of course rape is not something that is only perpetrated against women, and theoretically it could be a male Earth being raped, but I’m guessing that’s not where most people’s minds go. I hate to be “that guy,” but let’s face it, the earth has no gender, just like a country doesn’t really have a gender – America is not a “she” either. I’m not making light of violence or environmental issues, and I am not trying to be disgusting, just trying to say that sometimes the rhetoric goes overboard. If the problem is taking too much from the planet, I would totally agree, modern humans have been very “rapacious,” in the sense of being greedy.
In fact, if the extinction of humans will make the planet a better place, why not get it over with sooner rather than later while the sun still burns?  Encourage more babies, spew more pollution, make a total collapse happen today instead of tomorrow, so our wonderful rainbow-and-unicorns-and-Avatar planet can get back to its lovely natural state. Too bad during the Cold War we humans missed all those chances to wipe the slate clean. Maybe with nuclear proliferation we can get those chances back again.
If we’re imagining the end of human beings on the planet, though, let’s not forget about all the species that have thrived from human activity that will face huge die-offs if humans are suddenly gone – roaches, rats, crows, sea gulls, pigs, cows, dandelions, house sparrows, domestic cats(!), marijuana, corn, the list goes on. Don’t the little beasties that feed off human society deserve a chance to thrive? (No, I don’t mean me.) Not all those things will go extinct right away, but they would be what today we call “endangered species.”
I like to think I’m environmentally conscious. I support making the world more livable and making society more sustainable. I just think that there are forms of environmentalism that are well-reasoned and realistic, and some that are soft-headed and herdlike. Like with global warming – the evidence is overwhelming that it’s happening and that humans are causing some part of it. Some people believe it because they know the evidence, while others believe it for all sorts of other reasons. There are plenty of people who want to help the planet because the cool kids say they should. Or, they buy something because it has light-green packaging and a leaf drawn on the front, therefore it must be better for the environment than the other choices. I have a fear that “being green” is just a fad and that all those corporate marketing departments will eventually move on to something else, and the small herd currently moving in a good direction will move in another. In a way, I hope the green fad does change, because the color green is not the best model for every situation – in desert areas, aiming for green everywhere is the absolute worst thing to do, because of the consumption of water. In Tucson, “staying brown” would be much more sustainable than “going green.”

You can't fight smog with smug.

No comments:

Post a Comment