Dancing with the Elephant

Sharon September 26th, 2006

I thought about it for a while before I put the fact that I have four children in my biography and my talk. It would have been easy enough to leave out - no one else mentioned their kids, and that’s probably the cultural norm, especially for women. Mentioning your kids in a professional thing is considered a sign that you are not a serious sort of person, just a Mom, in many cases.

But in this case, I really thought it was important that I put it in both my talk and my bio - because the population issue is such a BIG DEAL in the peak oil and environmental movements. I certainly didn’t want to be accused of attempting to conceal it later, and also, for me at least, my children are the sole and primary reason I’m so involved in this. Don’t get me wrong - I like life, but what drives me is their future security. Being a parent shapes my thinking in a lot of ways that I think it would be intellectually dishonest to leave out. Finally, I think copping to the things you do that don’t fit the “can everyone do it and have us survive” model is important - because we tend to be very protective of our personal little pockets of greed and privelege - and never more than when we’re talking about our kids. So I very intentionally put it in. I expected it to come up for critique and comment (it did), and that was fine.

What I didn’t expect was to have more than 30 people come up to me and tell me how glad they were that I put the population issue on the table. Some of them had lots of kids - an older woman with six children who has been involved in the environmental movement for decades told me about how she tried never to mention the number of children in her family. An Amish gentleman pointed out that by his standards, my family of four was quite small. Some of them were on the other side - I talked with several people who have chosen not to have children, or who only have one, a man from Zero Population Growth and quite a few others. Some of those were quite fierce on the subject of my choices, and that’s ok. But everyone, on every side of this issue said, “I’m so glad you brought it up - we have to talk about it.” And the more I watched, the more I thought that while there are quite a few elephants in the room in the peak oil movement, this one deserves to come out for a trot around the floor - and soon.

To be fair, I didn’t bring it up. It was raised earlier in the conference as a panel question to Julian Darley, Richard Heinberg and Pat Murphy. Pat called for voluntary population reduction, Richard called for policy initiatives without naming them, and that was it. But that’s not enough. No one was sure what Richard Heinberg was suggesting - is he suggesting China-esque policy initiatives or tax penalties? No one talked about what we would have to do to achieve world-wide voluntary reductions - that is, raising the cultural status of women, providing them with education and enough medical care to make sure that their children live to adulthood (there’s a long post from last year on this blog somewhere on just this subject, if anyone is interested). How would we fund that? Is there some way to accomplish that goal, or do we just have to give up on it? The generalities are not sufficient.

Nor are the questions that aren’t being discussed. It is very easy for discussions of population to demonize women in general, and poor women (especially poor women of color) in particular. Are we going to talk about American consumption rates, and they way they alter the population equation - the way that American children consume the resources of many non-American children. Are we going to talk about immigration? About life extension techniques for the elderly? Are we going to have orphanages? Rationing? Free sterilization? Mandatory sterilization? What about the disabled? What about people who lose their children? Are we going to talk about the care of the elderly in a society with a drastically lowering population? Are we going to continue to subsidize the fertility business? What will this do to adoption? To family structures in general? How will we handle growing poverty rates? Ensure equal application, so that the rich and poor are both evenly affected? How shall we persuade people of this, and enlist the support of things like religious organizations? And there are a thousand other questions. And we have to talk about this. But nobody is.

To his credit, Julian Darley seems willing to both put it on the table (he told my friend from Zero Population Growth that he could organize something and he’d speak), and to talk about his own choices (he has one child, and plans no more). So is Richard Heinberg (none, no plans). But that’s not enough. First of all, ultimately, this discussion MUST include women, perhaps a majority of women - a bunch of men, no matter how thoughtful, wise and brilliant, cannot set policy that will so deeply affect women in their bodies, without including them.

Every single person I spoke to said that we had to talk about this - even the Amish gentleman admitted that without prompting. Not one of the people who talked about their children denied that population was an issue that had to be addressed publically, and perhaps with policy initiatives like tax penalties for having more than two children. Not one of the people who wanted to constrain childbearing denied that there were compelling issues of freedom involved. And like most elephant-in-the-room situations, it is made much worse by silence. Everyone is scared to speak - the population limitation crowd “knows” that we can’t talk about it because we’re too religious, or it is too sensitive a subject. The people who have more than the official set number of children (as Darley put it..2, 3, or…even 4!) are afraid to talk about why they have children. And that needs to change.

I do know this. No mainstream movement can ever function if it makes women like the wonderful, wise, engaged, activist woman I spoke to with six children, or the young farmer with 7 feel ashamed of themselves. Nor can those of us who had more than a fair share fail to face that reality, and talk to the people who are concerned about overshoot.

Personally, my proposal would be that family energy rations be pegged to a family of four. Heinberg has a detailed plan for this in his new book, and he outlined it at the petroleum depletion protocol. What I suggest is that biological reproduction wouldn’t get you any increase in your yearly energy credit, whereas non-biological reproduction would - bring your Mom to live with you, and you get a fifth person’s energy to work with. Adopt a child, and you get a fifth person’s energy. Give birth, and you have to make do with what you’ve got (this *ONLY* works with good access to birth control and basic medical care - if we lose this, we simply end up penalizing the poor and unlucky even more than they are already penalized). Thus, those couples who elect to have more than two children would either have to be able to pay for it by buying extra energy on the markets, or they would have to be very frugal, and consume much less, which knocks out the very worst effect of having a child in the US anyhow - the obscene rate of consumption. Most of the larger families I know are very, very frugal and I’m going to bet that they’d still have spare energy at the end of the year to sell back into the community at large, or to save for the next year (when allotments drop at the same rate as oil production drops). I’d also be fine with tax penalties, but I suspect these may function less well as the nation gets poorer and poorer. I will tell the simple truth - I would have paid any amount of money I could possibly have produced in order to have children. But for those who would rather have a more comfortable existence than more children, this will provide further incentives (overwhelmingly, people in the US cite money as a main reason for not having more children anyhow).

I do believe however, that no movement can afford to make people ashamed of the children they already have. Nor can we afford to be anti-child, or anti-elderly, or anti-disability. If we can’t find a moral way to deal with the population issue, than we’ve no hope of dealing with it at all. But nor can we lie to ourselves and say, “it was ok for me to do X - just not those women in Bangladesh.”

I’m going to lobby Pat Murphy or someone to put on a public discussion of this at next year’s conference, if I can’t find a venue to do it sooner. Actually, when I first spoke to Pat, I suggested to him that I talk about peak oil as a woman’s issue, and he told me that he doubted anyone would attend my talk if I did. After this conference, I don’t think we need just a talk on that subject - we need a whole conference. But however we do it, the elephant needs to dance for a while, and we need to think about a coherent way of both valuing children, women and people in general, and also addressing the fact that the planet has biological limits.

Sharon in upstate NY

8 Responses to “Dancing with the Elephant”

  1. Whirlwindedon 27 Sep 2006 at 4:45 pm

    The idea of population control fails utterly because without a one world government and radical restrictions, you simply end up reducing to near-nill the people who think like you do, and the rest of the differing world population increases. Look at the immigration situations in Europe and even the US — Muslims have started to overwhelm native populations in Europe; Hispanics have started the same trend in the US. I honestly believe the peak oil movement needs to get over this subject entirely, as it is and will forever be purely theoretical. (And heaven help us if a world develops wherein such a worldwide radical restriction of personal freedoms prevails….)

    Not to mention that the family of a century ago was much bigger because they *needed* the hands for non-mechanized labor….

  2. Anonymouson 27 Sep 2006 at 7:08 pm

    Thank you for the comment,
    “I do believe however, that no movement can afford to make people ashamed of the children they already have. “
    I am a mother of (soon to be) 5. It is very difficult to have to justify again and again having more than 2 children. I think that because of my choice to have so many children, that I also have a repsonsibility to teach my children to live sustainably….

    Thank you!

  3. nulinegvgvon 01 Oct 2006 at 12:56 pm

    Population discussions, especially those centered on human population stabilization or even reduction are essential. I think it is very defeatist to say that the idea is impossible therefore we shouldn’t suggest it or even talk about it. The idea of “those people over there continuing to multiple” is the wrong way to frame the discussion. If you say the phrase “over population” many people imagine villages in India with lots of malnourished, dirty children smiling sadly. The truth is, the average American child uses far more of this planet’s natural resources than any other child. Some of the U.S. economic policies tend to perpetuate such conditions. Overpopulation is really about over consumption. And yes, if Americans use less there is a chance that other nations will begin to consume more. American corporations having been trying to get them to do that for years. Many people bemoan the rise of China as consumers of ever more resources (by the way the rest of world has been saying the same thing about America for a good while now) but there in that picture of modern China are our companies, trying to get the Chinese to consume more. I fear we have lost the moral high ground on this issue. We tell other people in under developed nations not to have so many children but it is our spoiled way of life that is a greater cause of stress on the planet. Perhaps if we being to be more responsible about how much we consume then we could help start an international dialog about over consumption. Population is an issue but it’s really about how much we each take during our lifetime. I think it is another reason to focus on reduction of consumption and relocalization of supply.

    I am reading this post after having read a more recent post from Sharon about a call to design a reusable condom. Here is an idea we can use at home and export to other countries that might make population control a bit easier. We need more of this sort of unconventional thinking.

    The average citizen of America uses about 50 times as much steel as the average citizen of India.

  4. pensgirl10on 01 Oct 2006 at 1:36 pm

    Interesting thoughts. I can’t ever see population control flying in America, however, until things are very dire indeed. The idea of personal freedom and personal choice is too entrenched. Can’t imagine very many politicians going there because they would never see re-election - and if they campaigned on it, they would never get elected in the first place.

    mother of 3

  5. nulinegvgvon 02 Oct 2006 at 2:21 pm

    Anytime population control is mentioned, people seem able only to conceive of two possible reasons for people having fewer children. The first is government mandate (like in China). The second is as a response to economics (can’t afford it). Have we completely lost the ability to make our own decisions as a society about what is best without the government or the market’s help?

  6. Whirlwindedon 10 Oct 2006 at 9:08 pm

    Take a look at

    They say
    “Nearly all European nations are experiencing long-term downtrends in fertility, and consequently, ageing of their populations. Fertility rates are now below replacement level (2.1 children per couple) in nearly all countries. As a result, natural population growth rates are entering periods of declining growth or outright decrease. At the same time, the proportion of elderly dependants continues to grow while the working-age population declines as a share of the overall population. Moreover, net immigration, which potentially could offset declines in working-age population, remains generally low in most European countries. “

    They go on to say:
    “Taken as a whole, these demographic trends could have potentially damaging consequences for European economies. For example:

    • as the working-age population decreases, countries experience declines in human capital, which potentially reduces productivity; • pension and social insurance systems can become heavily burdened; • the ability to care for the growing elderly population declines as household sizes decrease; • the elderly face sharply increased health care needs and costs. “

    People tend to look at the damage of overpopulation without considering the other side of the coin.

    “nulinegvgv” I think you started out to make one point but ended up making another instead — the population size isn’t nearly as critical as the consumption habits of that population. Changing people’s minds about how much they consume is a whole lot easier than controlling the number of children they have.

  7. Eligereon 13 Oct 2006 at 5:16 pm

    Well, you could try a permaculture approach, see a problem as a solution. One problem is that we’re not caring for the kids we have. 100,000 American children are waiting in orphanages and foster care for adoption. Families with many children tend to be families where the parents like raising children. We could create an ethic that says have as many as you want, but if you have more than two, adopt one for every extra child you produce. This would give children to families who are good at raising them, permit those who want many children to fulfil their desires, and probably discourage the tendency to overproduce in huge numbers. I do think that the rest of the community has to make a commitment to help in some tangible way with the raising of these large families.

  8. Matt Savinaron 06 Nov 2006 at 5:37 pm


    Population control wil NEVER and I mean NEVER work due to what I have deemed “the Jenna Bush factor.”

    That is, there is always a group of humans too drunk, too stupid, or too uncooperative to consult a calendar prior to engaging in their business.* These folks will then outpopulate their neighbors, thus resulting in a population full of stupid people.

    *as the rhythm method will be the only method widely available to the average person in the absence of modern mass produced (read: oil dependent) forms of birth control such as the pill, the condom, etc. Yes, animal intestine derived condoms existed prior to the industrial revolution but these are likely unable to replace what we have today.

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