Monday, February 21, 2011

The "Screamachine" -- An Allegory

Let’s say I had a seriously malfunctioning portable robotic stereo.

It went off at random moments playing screeching sounds at high volume, and I had very little control over it. Sometimes it wandered off in a random direction regardless of safety or other people. Sometimes I could coax it to be quiet and be still, and sometimes nothing I could do worked and it would go on and on until it went quiet on its own. If I brought this machine into a coffee shop or restaurant or store or library or theater, I might get some dirty looks from all those selfish people who were expecting some quiet time.

“But wait,” I would say, “it’s very important for me to take this with me everywhere. It’s who I am. If you don’t have one of these, you have no idea what it’s like. Show a little sympathy, because your dirty looks are not really helping me, are they? Maybe if you had one you wouldn't have such an empty, meaningless life."

Perhaps I took ownership of my noise machine before I really knew what they were like. Perhaps at one point I was afraid that I would have a big hole in my life without such a machine so I went right out and got one. I could tell you this machine is in fact the future of technology and at some point we will all be dependent on it when we get older. It has some kind of artificial intelligence, theoretically, that will make it function better as it learns more and more over the next two decades. Don’t you care about the future?

“Besides, just about everyone has one, and once you grow up you will want one, too. (Uncle Sam even gives me a little tax break – sort of like green energy credits, only not.) Those days when you could go into these places and not hear these angelic machines are a thing of the past, really. And, what can you do, these things just make those noises. It’s what they do. You should see them when they make really sweet spontaneous noises, or when they sit in sleep mode. I wish I could show you that right now, but the thing keeps screeching. You’ll just have to believe me. Maybe when you get one of your own you can see that it’s all worth it. That’s when you know you’ve grown up and added something to society.”

“It’s just going through a rough few years right now, but over time it will get quieter. It will run around on its own a lot more then and spill things on you, but the screeching will be a little less spontaneous. Sometimes I’ll even be able to shout at it and activate the voice-recognition quiet mode from a distance. That is, unless it’s tired or amped up or bored or frustrated or interfered with by other noise machines.”

Now, I’m thinking if I had such a thing and I did disturb other people, I could rightly be labeled inconsiderate. I should at least minimize the noise that it made or apologize when it was disturbing others or make sure that everyone could see that I was at least trying to deal with the challenge. I should not mind minimizing the effect of my noise machine by staying away from quiet areas or keeping my machine from moving around and screeching in the ears of others.

If I were to impose the sensory effects of my choice on others, I would certainly hope I would not try to induce others to join the  club. I would hope I would be able to respect the fact that others without screamachines may not want the hassles that go with them, or else they would have them. Who knows, maybe the people out in public have machines of their own and just wanted a space outside the home where they could get away from their own machines.

When are you going to get a screamachine of your own?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Agreeable Disagreement -- Fighting Bingo with Bingo

(I wrote this one for the childfree audience, so that's the "we" and "us" I mention.)

I have an idea I’ve not tried yet, but it seems promising, and I wonder if anyone else has had success doing something similar. It’s this: agree completely with pronatalist reactions and use those same arguments to support the idea of NOT having children. Let their own arguments show how sensible it is to be childfree. I’m having trouble keeping sarcasm out of my answers, but maybe that’s unavoidable. This approach also kind of assumes you’re debating with someone in a rational, open-minded conversation, which is often not really the case.

Some examples:
1. “You’re being selfish and immature.”
Response: You’re absolutely right. I am in no position to be a good provider or role model to a poor, innocent, vulnerable little angel. Parenthood takes a lot of self-sacrifice, and people who are not prepared to be selfless or are not mature enough should definitely not have children. Thank goodness I didn’t make the mistake of having children in my condition.

2. “You’re one of those people who hates children.”
Response: Unfortunately, you are correct. I think something is deeply wrong with me, something wrong with the way that I’m wired. Perhaps I need a lot of therapy to figure out where that malfunction comes from. Until I can cure myself of this deformity, I should probably not be near any children. Everyone should keep their kids as far away from me as possible, out of earshot, never even mention your kids to me, until I get this straightened out. Or, if that’s not possible, let me have my own spaces devoid of children. Thanks for reminding me that it’s entirely possible for someone who hates children to become a parent anyway. Thank goodness I haven’t made that mistake.

3. “Someday you’ll regret it if you don’t have a child.”
Response: I could not agree more. I think you’ve just touched on a really profound bit of wisdom, there – it is possible to look back on a reproductive decision and feel deep regret about it. I shouldn’t be hasty and rush into something without looking realistically at my life.  It’s a really good idea for me to take a detailed look at all the possible futures before doing something monumental like deciding whether or not to have a child. The wrong decision could be totally devastating for me.

4. “Once you hold one in your arms you’ll feel differently.”
Response: You are so right. I keep forgetting that people with different experiences than mine may have something wise to contribute to my understanding of myself and my life. I see I can be just as happy or even happier if I had made a very different reproductive choice. And you are totally correct that once you have a child your life will be completely different and your old life will be a distant memory.

5. “You’ll need someone to take care of you when you’re old.”
Response: Yes, sir, absolutely. Having children is most definitely an economic decision that redistributes resources, redirects labor, and creates whole new social obligations. I have to think about my later years and make the best investment decisions now so I can have the most comfortable retirement possible. I better think long and hard about how I invest my time, energy, and money right now, because making a bad financial decision today could spell disaster in twenty or thirty years. Thanks for reminding me I need to invest my salary wisely in things that are most guaranteed to pay off later.

6. “Society would collapse if everyone thought like you did.”
Response: I know, and I hate myself for that. The only way I can feel better about being such a non-contributor is to remind myself that at least I won’t pass on my selfishness to any children. We childfree misfits will probably die off because of our own shortsightedness. Thank goodness my monstrous perversity is not contagious – people who have children are fortunately so much in love with parenthood that they are immune to any temptation to live an “alternative lifestyle,” and lucky for them they can’t switch sides anyway even if they wanted to.  Fortunately for society, we can encourage people with children to have as many as they physically can; since parenting is such a joy, they won’t mind picking up the slack for the rest of us.

7. “You’re missing out on the most fulfilling thing you could do.”
Response: Totally true, and it breaks my heart. I am deeply flawed, self-destructive, and in denial. I don’t have the courage or toughness to put myself through what parents go through every day. Parents are my heroes. I can only look on in awe at the things they can do and wish somehow I could risk so much to achieve so much. They’re like the people who climb Everest without oxygen tanks. Thank goodness those rare, special people are out there to inspire the rest of us in our lesser everyday lives. I can only hope to find a fraction of that fulfillment some other way. My fear and weakness are quite disgusting, really. Maybe I don’t deserve to be happy, so I really don’t deserve the ecstasy that comes with being a parent. I haven’t earned it, and I’m not sure I ever will. I’ll try to carry on as best I can with a second-rate life. Please think of the less fortunate, like me, around tax time or when it’s time to promote people at the company. Throw me a bone, I have nothing else going on in my life.

8. “You’re only thinking of the negatives and don’t see the positives.”
 Response: You got me. It’s true. I have let myself be so overwhelmed by 1) all the complaints I hear from parents, 2) all the things I see are hard about having children, and 3) all the ways that children drain people of their energy, that I haven’t left room in my heart to believe them when they backpedal and say how much it’s all worth it. I’ve let myself be taken over by logic, self-reflection, and critical thinking, when really I should have more blind faith that the good parts outweigh the bad. I need to listen to the truth underneath all the chatter. There’s some more good wisdom here: you have to be skeptical about what people say about having children – the true ratio of positive to negative may be largely unspoken, so you have to read between the lines sometimes.

9. “You get to experience a whole new kind of love.”
Response: So true, so true. I hate that I have been missing out on that. I’m spending all this time with friends and family, developing as an individual, that I completely missed out on that special love. I’ve gone without this unique bond for so long, and I’ve become so self-sufficient in my life, I think I’ve spoiled my chance at creating that relationship. I have this irrational fear that the relationship with my children will compete with my other relationships, but that clearly would not be the case, since the more kinds of love you can experience the better, right?  You’re so right about how important it is to have love in your life and not to do anything to endanger that possibility. Love should be protected, encouraged, and nurtured, and I should let nothing stand in the way of that. Good thing I don't have kids, then.

10. “If your mother thought the same way you did, you wouldn’t be here.”
Response:  Absolutely rock-solid logic.  Nonexistence is really tricky that way, isn’t it? You have reminded me that it’s pointless for me to try to predict how I’m going to feel about someone who currently does not exist. It’s impossible to say how the existence or nonexistence of someone else is clearly going to make my life better or worse. The concrete is much better than the abstract. Thanks for reminding me to look at my own experience within my own family for guidance about parenting. I can now look at what I know about my mother’s life in order to decide whether or not I should really do what she did. And, there are good words of warning here: sometimes parents can raise rotten, ungrateful, selfish, and immature children who fail to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Luckily, if I don’t have a child, I won’t be adding any more of those useless “childfree” people to the population.

I’m not saying that pronatalist reactions are fair and accurate, but chances are the people who want to argue with you are not really interested in debating the accuracy of anyone’s view. It can be very disarming to accept other people’s reactions and run with them to show them where those arguments lead.  We can thank them for the ways that their wisdom supports our choices. This could be a great achievement for CF people – so many of the arguments, both the good ones and the bad ones, support the choice to be childfree that even the most fanatical pro-parenting people agree with us!

The No-Birth Announcement

Recent converts tend to be the most zealous and the most obnoxious, and I think I'm in that category with my recent embrace of the childfree life. Some things that slightly annoyed me before now seem like things I want to subvert in my own annoying way.

The latest example: the workplace birth announcement. At my company, any time an employee or spouse of an employee gives birth, someone sends out a mass e-mail to everyone in the department giving the name, weight, update on the mom, etc.

I don't think this is a terrible thing, for the most part. I'm not inconvenienced any more than any other blanket e-mail containing information I don't need.

What I've been thinking, though, is that if announcing a birth is a valid use of e-mail, then really ANY legitimate reproductive choice is a valid subject for an e-mail. (I say "legitimate," because I have to draw the line at announcing infanticide or castration without consent. Arbitrary and biased of me, I know.)

So, I've been toying with the idea of a "no-birth" announcement, heralding the non-arrival of a baby into the household. One of the great things about this is that you can send one even if you already have children, and you can send one as often as you like. Feel free to copy or edit as you see fit. Convert to metric measurements where applicable.

I also want to make some kind of illustration for it, but I'm not sure how to draw a stork carrying a bundle of freedom, enjoyment, peace, and quiet.

Here's what I have so far:

__________ and I would like to announce the arrival of no new family members yesterday. Forty weeks ago we successfully used birth control, and thanks to good planning we welcome ourselves back home from no hours of labor. Both of us are resting comfortably, and not too tired at all, really. We're both hoping to get our pre-non-pregnancy bodies back the way they were as soon as possible.

Name: Continued Freedom, Peace, Quiet, Autonomy, Enjoyment, Disposable Income
Time of birth: N/A (life is continuous)
0 lbs., 0 oz.
0 in. long

Thank you for all your prayers and best wishes.
_________ and __________

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Okay, I'll Multiply: One Times One Equals One

I'm not really part of a social circle that encourages me to reproduce for religious reasons, but apparently there are still religious communities in which there is pressure to have children as part of some larger holy mission. A few of the childfree sites banter back and forth about the "be fruitful and multiply" quotation from a current English-language translation of what many simply refer to as "The Bible." For now, I will focus on one tiny fraction of the religious universe: an unrepresentative sampling of early 21st century US English-speaking Christianity, mostly Protestant and/or evangelical.

Before I can really contribute my two cubits, I have to agree to some things just for the sake of argument, whether I really believe them or not. Let's assume that the most common current English-language versions of the Bible are more or less consistent with each other. Let's assume that it matters to me what they say. Let's assume that the variations in the versions of the Bible over the past nearly 4000 years don't really matter, that there was some clear, single, original intent to the document, and that the original intent has been well preserved into the present versions. Let's assume my very old memories of (Protestant) Sunday school and church and very superficial theological studies since then are enough to generate evidence to make a good case.

By the way, I call them "versions" of the Bible because that is what they are from a historical standpoint, and because that is the label found on most of them: New International Version, Revised Standard Version, King James Version, etc.

Here's what I've noticed:

Even if the Bible unambiguously says God wants me to have a kid, and I'm not sure that it does, but even if it did, I wonder where that command/wish fits in with all the other imperatives in The Bible that very few present-day Christians follow. For example, according to what I remember, the Bible also tells me:

1. Don't eat cheeseburgers or bacon.
2. Don't shave my face.
3. Don't wear blended fabrics -- no cotton-poly blend or cotton-wool blend.
4. Eat bread with a sweaty forehead.
5. Rich people can't get into heaven.
6. Disobedient children deserve the death penalty. (And, be ready to cut open even your well-behaved son if a voice you hear tells you to.)

Then there's that limited-edition 17th Century print run of a Bible in England that included the misprint "Thou shall commit adultery." The printers recalled the books and managed to get most of them out of circulation. I call it a "misprint," but that is of course a very value-laden term and suggests a real bias on my part. I can see how that version could in fact reinforce the command to procreate....

Now, I can see the most powerful way to counter my list is to say the Bible is not necessarily meant to be taken literally in all cases. Even the most diehard literalist Christian fundamentalists leave some wiggle room for metaphor and allegory and possible mistranslation. ("No, see the 'Eye of the Needle' was actually an opening in the wall around Jerusalem, and camels COULD go through it if they hunched a little."  Or "Well, it doesn't mean 'no other gods before me' literally, it's more like don't put money ahead of God and stuff like that.")

To the suggestion that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally word-for-word, I say:  EXACTLY.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

No Reproducing

       I've been thinking a lot and reading a lot about choosing not to have children, what many people call being "childfree" (instead of "childless," which implies that not having a child means you are lacking). I've gone to numerous blogs and websites, though my favorite one so far is childfreedom. I like the blog so much I've posted to it multiple times over the past two weeks, and I'd like to respond to some of the stuff there in this very blog.

       I find a lot of the childfree arguments compelling, much more than the reasons to have children, though I can't quite agree with all of the childfree reasoning. I don't want to drink the pronatalism Kool-Aid, but that doesn't mean I'm going to chug the dark cherry childfree stuff either. I guess I'm looking to whip up my own batch.

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 na├»ve 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.

Sui Generis and En Medias Res

So, you're probably thinking the first post is where you'll find some kind of introduction or something, some rationale for this blog to exist. I wish I could tell you, I really do. I don't really know what it's about. I won't know what it's really all about until it's over, and maybe not even then. If you figure out what it's all about or how to describe it, please let me know.

We now join our blog, already in progress....