Archive for January 25th, 2009

Green Sex: Family, Reproduction, Children, Love, Lust, Power, Strangers…and Social Policy.

Sharon January 25th, 2009

It has been a full two weeks since I finished _Independence Days_, so, of course, I’m thinking about my next book ;-) .   Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a while - I even submitted the proposal a while back, although so far no one has bought it - but I’ve never let details stop me. 

For the moment the working title is “Green Sex” and my goal is to explore the social and policy issues involving family, reproduction, demography, love, sex, passion, and the politices thereof that are likely to arise as energy depletion, climate change and our financial situation reshape our world.  And I’ve been waiting impatiently to have the time to begin exploring these issues here, on the blog, where I work out most of my craziness ;-) .  The good news is that this book and Aaron and my project on narrating the Greater Depression “Far Past Our Father’s Land” are likely to be longer term projects than my previous ones, and the pace will be slower.

In a sense, this book might be described as the one I’ve been waiting to write all my life, although that sounds a little fustian.  But my doctoral dissertation (still unfinished, unlikely to be) was about the ways that demographic issues (in that case, the Black Death) shaped human relationships, and understanding of others.  That is, I spent much of my 20s figuring out how a depleted world (in this case, of humans) shaped the way people loved one another, how they thought of one another, what they dreamed of - and how writers like Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton narrated those relationships.  Despite the shift from past to present, the questions to me remain much the same - how do events transform our most intimate relationships - and how do those transformations reshape our laws, our social policy, even our sense of who we are.

Now part of my desire to work on these issues is sheer intellectual curiosity, but there are other reasons.  Our view of ourselves and the social structures we evolve to respond to events always ends up affecting how we legislate ourselves, and our political future.  In fact, in many cases, it comes to define us.  After all, while in times of crisis there are certainly one issue economic voters, generally speaking, it is our social policies that define us politically - that is, we vote against those who oppose same sex marriage or only for politicians who are anti-abortion.  It is sometimes fashionable to deplore the fact that these issues get so much attention, that they distract us from real and “weighty” issues of economic policy or energy policy. 

I don’t share that view, actually.  I think that while all issues can fall into triviality and self-parody (anyone watched the Fed lately?), that often not only are the issues themselves critical to our self-definition, but they are the only ways we have in the public sphere at getting at the question of who we are, and what we believe in, not just at the superficial level of “I am for or against X thing” but at the deeper level, in which we attempt to figure out how to relate to our fellow human beings.

I was deeply influenced in my training by the philosopher Stanley Cavell, who argues that a particular form of philosophical skepticism lived at the center of many narratives from the Renaissance onwards.  At its root is the Cartesian doubt that others are fully as real as you are.  He tracks this not through explicit doubt that others are physically real, but through human relationships, which constantly struggle with the question of how to treat even the people you love most as though they were truly as vibrantly real as we feel ourselves to be.  

My own feeling is that this abstracted solipsism that Cavell detects is perhaps at the root of most of our present problems -  we find ourselves unable to believe that others are as fully real as we are.  So, for example, that fact that our choices often result in harm to others - fewer resources, a warmer world, actual deaths - becomes something we simply cannot grasp, because faraway others, even our own posterity, literal or figurative, is something we cannot grant full human status.

What does this have to do with sex?  Well, like Cavell, I think that the first questions of how we relate to others actually begin with the questions of how we relate to those we have the most intimate connections to - that is, on some level our relationship to the larger human whole depends on whether we treat those we love skeptically, or whether we are able to find some way to fully recognize them as having different, but equally important human priorities.  That is, to some degree it is in our families, from our partners and spouses, through our acts of love that we come, eventually, to find a way to love the rest of humanity enough to act ethically.

Thus, it is all the territory broadly covered by sex - from our demographics and reproductive acts, to our relationships and intimacies, from our family structures and our family politics that in the end, get us to something we can all live with - if we can get there.

Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think that most people have begun yet, as they sort through the implications of climate change and energy depletion and the Greater Depression, to realize how this is likely to shift our social policies.  How, for example, will we begin dealing with question of reproduction and demography, either directly or indirectly?  How will shifts in our family structure as our aging population loses its retirement savings change the way we think about family?  How has energy changed things for women, and men?  What kind of gender roles and equity are we likely to see?  How will childbearing and rearing change when we have less energy and less wealth?   How will people on the right and left, concered equally with conserverving and preserving what we have navigate political minefields like abortion and gay rights?  How will minority cultures of all kinds fare in the future?  What is the future of marriage, gay and straight?

These are just some of the questions that interest me.  But more than interesting me, I care very much that some kind of analysis of these issues begin, and that conversations begin to arise on these subjects - because the reality of our social, sexual, reproductive and family life cannot but be transformed by our new realities - and having a framework for viewing and thinking about these changes as they happen seems to me essential - lest they be wrested into the agendas of those who would use them cynically.  So far, those who have acknowledged the realities of our economic, ecologic and energy depletion are still at the “this means we need to” - and we do need to do all the things they and we are talking about, with windmills and trains and farms.

But at the same time, we need to think about whither the family - biological and chosen.  Whither our children - what kind of education  and values will be transmitted to them.  Whither the population question - what kind of policies will we consider or adopt, and what will be their implications.  Whither people of faith, whose viewpoints cannot be translated in whole cloth into policy, but whose thinking matters in any democracy.  Whither marriage, as both a social and an economic institution - how will our fragile domestic life fare in harder times.  Whither sex itself - is it possible that there is a truly green sex?  Whither our relationship to love and life?  And whither our relationship to the soon to be 7 billion other people caught in variations on the same mess?

Anyway, you’ll be seeing essays in this vein a lot in the next few months. 

 Ok, more soon!