Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sex and the Single Planet: the sermon

SEX AND THE SINGLE PLANET
Rev. Kit Ketcham, May 10, 2009

A few weeks ago, our local newspaper, the South Whidbey Record, published the information that The Hub, Langley’s youth connection after-school hangout at the Methodist Church, was making condoms and prevention information about pregnancy and STD’s available free to its teenage visitors. I noted this with approval and thought, “Good for them! And good for the Methodists to have The Hub in their basement!”

It was just one more reminder that this island is a pretty progressive place and I felt pleased once again with my happy landing here on Whidbey.

A week later, a letter appeared in the opinion section of the paper responding with polite horror to the very idea that young people should be taught anything but abstinence when it came to sexual behavior. She felt that to offer information about prevention was to encourage sexual activity.

The writer was genuinely concerned about teens’ future and how too-early sexual behavior can negatively affect their lives. And I agreed with her on that point but couldn’t resist writing a letter of disagreement in response, particularly when she launched into a diatribe about Planned Parenthood and a litany of accusations about one of my favorite organizations, a humanitarian organization that was started by a courageous woman, Margaret Sanger, who saw the anguish of women whose bodies were worn out by pregnancy and who were dying in childbirth and from illegal abortions sought out of desperation.

In my letter of response, I mentioned the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education, as documented in government studies, and I described the sex education curriculum developed jointly by the UUA and the UCof C, entitled Our Whole Lives.

OWL, as it is called, has segments for all age groups, from pre-school to adult, and we intend to offer the middle-school-age curriculum here during the next year.

But our topic today is not abstinence only sex education nor the rate of American teen pregnancies and STD’s. It’s not abortion or contraception, per se, but rather the larger issue of too many people on this planet, too many pregnancies across the planet, too few ways of controlling population ethically.

Mavis Cauffman, our administrator, often sends me articles and web links on upcoming topics and I’m particularly grateful to her for sending me this one, for, in an article for Scientific American entitled “10 Myths of Sustainability”, writer Michael D. Lemonick offers this observation:

Myth 9: Sustainability is ultimately a population problem.
This is not a myth, but it represents a false solution. Every environmental problem is ultimately a population problem.
If the world’s population were only 100 million people, we would be hard-pressed to generate enough waste to overwhelm nature’s cleanup systems. We could dump all our trash in a landfill in some remote area, and nobody would notice.
Population experts agree that the best way to limit population is to educate women and raise the standard of living generally in developing countries. But that strategy cannot possibly happen quickly enough to put a dent in the population on any useful timescale. The U.N. projects that the planet will have to sustain another 2.6 billion people by 2050. But even at the current population level of 6.5 billion, we’re using up resources at an unsustainable rate. There is no way to reduce the population significantly without trampling egregiously on individual rights (as China has done with its one-child policy), encouraging mass suicide or worse. None of those proposals seems preferable to focusing directly on less wasteful use of resources.

Linda and Leonard Good, who purchased the right to choose a sermon topic at our annual auction, have requested that I preach about overpopulation and its effect on the resources of the earth. Linda wrote me a list of possible questions to consider: why do people have large families? How come we don’t hear more about the effects of overpopulation on the environment?
How does it relate to our first principle, of the worth and dignity of every person? Is UUSC doing anything about population issues? What about Planned Parenthood? Have things changed with a new administration? What are the statistics about contraception, abortion, sex ed, that sort of thing? How does social engineering figure into the issue? Would we end up with designer babies? Would the wealthy be favored? How about the relationship between education and birth control? And, finally, what can and should we as UUs do?

Quite the daunting list of questions and more than enough to cover in a 20 minute sermon!

And when I began to dig into the topic and to consider my own personal response to it, I had to dig down through the layers of consequences, possible solutions to those consequences, to see what lay at the bottom of the issue.

Why do we have an overpopulation problem on this planet? It’s a two part answer and, put most bluntly, it’s partly because we humans keep having babies. And why do we keep having babies? Because, aside from the basic human need for air, water, and food, we humans have an innate need to reproduce ourselves; most of us are drawn physically and emotionally into relationships which create babies.

Sexual desire, a lovely and nearly irresistible force in human life, causes human beings to mate and, if the two participants are fertile, to produce offspring. Many, perhaps most of us are susceptible to sexual desire and want to have children.

There was a time in human history when this was not a problem. There were real reasons to have many children: rural families needed many hands to manage farms and homesteads; in areas without health care, many children died and did not become self-sufficient adults; large families were the norm, not the exception, for these reasons.

Ancient religious laws mandated certain behaviors which led to procreation and forbade sexual relationships that did not lead to reproduction.

Even today, there is encouragement from religious traditions to continue to have large families. For Catholics, it is a sin to use contraception. For Mormons, it has been the desire to create human bodies for celestial spirits, though this practice is changing in latter-day church policy. Some strict Christian sects also tend to encourage large families.

One such Christian group is the Quiverfull movement, which takes the Biblical mandate “to be fruitful and multiply” quite literally. It is based on Psalm 127 which says, “like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.”

Those in the Quiverfull movement shun birth control, believing that God will give them the right number of children. It turns out that’s a lot of kids, in most cases, despite the realities of raising many children, educating them well and providing adequate supervision, health care, and physical and emotional nourishment, to say nothing of what it does to a woman’s body and spirit to have 10 or even more pregnancies.

For Quiverfull families, the motivation to have many children is a not-so-secret desire to preserve Christian patriarchy and to change society.

Author Kathryn Joyce quotes a leader in the movement who says: “If everyone starts having eight or 12 children, imagine in three generations what we’ll be able to do. We’ll be able to take over both halls of Congress, we’ll be able to reclaim sinful cities like San Francisco for the faithful, and we’ll be able to wage very effective boycotts against companies that are going against God’s will.”

Quiverfull is one example of a culture of fecundity, the idea of more is better, children are wealth, fertility should be uncontrolled, dominion over the earth is desirable, and a husband has marital rights over his wife.

It has long been considered an inviolable human right to determine one’s own family size and efforts to regulate the exercise of this right have had mostly negative results.

In China, whose culture inflates the importance and value of male children, a one-child rule has led to abandonment and even infanticide of female babies. It has also led to a surplus of marriageable young men and a scarcity of marriageable young women. It has been blamed for an increase in violence among young men who are unable to marry and raise families.

In polygamous Mormon families, a related dynamic has resulted from the early marriage of multiple young women to adult men who wish to have more than one wife. Young men who cannot find mates because of this practice are effectively excluded from the community where they grew up.

Unwanted pregnancies, if not prevented by contraception, may be ended by legal abortion in this country, but this is not an acceptable practice for many. Even if women believe that abortion is a legitimate option, many are uncomfortable seeking an abortion, for a variety of reasons.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the second reason for overpopulation, we, in our scientific and medically-motivated zeal, are also prolonging human life, learning to thwart disease, to slow down the aging process, to save the lives of premature and desperately ill or handicapped children. Our human instinct to survive has produced in us a need to do all we can to stave off death, in addition to our drive to reproduce.

But what are the effects of too many people on too small a planet?

Here are just a few in random order: overcrowded cities, lack of animal habitat, restrictions of personal freedom, deforestation, neglected children, loss of soil nutrients from overused farm land, solid waste, human waste, social effects of crowding such as violence and disease, proliferation of pests because of an imbalance in ecosystems, insufficient food, insufficient water, insufficient energy resources, land erosion, poverty, pollution, massive numbers of refugees from famine-ravaged and war-torn countries.

Nature has its own solutions to the problems of overpopulation---they are called pandemics, famine, war, violence. The earth will survive but human beings may not. We are proliferating ourselves beyond the capacity of our species to survive under the conditions we have created.

There are some indications that birthrates across the planet are falling or leveling off in some places. But China, by the year 2050, will no longer be the most populous country in the world. India will have beat them. And there is no possibility that birthrates will decline quickly enough to prevent many of the drastic consequences attributable to overpopulation.

In the United States, overconsumption of resources adds to the global crisis of overpopulation. We ourselves average 2.1 children per family, yet we consume 25% of the available resources, compared to other countries.

We have declined to support United Nations efforts to educate other human beings across the planet about how to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

And it’s not just how much we consume but the technology we use to produce all that we consume----and the waste we create as we produce and consume it.

So what are the solutions? The ethical, practical, do-able solutions? And what happens when they come up against the emotional reasons we humans have for wanting children and to live a long and healthy life?

The solutions put forth by most experts on population issues tend to be educational in nature: raise women’s awareness and give them the tools to prevent pregnancy and to protect themselves from sexual assault; raise men’s awareness and give them the tools to prevent pregnancy and to treat women as equal partners, not as a means for sexual gratification; teach people to manage their resources sustainably; educate developing nations about agriculture; help developing countries to offer incentives for voluntarily reducing the birth rate; educate people about the effects of overpopulation on their own nation; teach people to manage their waste products, both garbage and sewage.

But all of these well-meaning efforts inevitably come up against human nature and our instinctive drives to reproduce ourselves, to nurture new lives and to prolong each life. Our compassion for human life clashes with the hard-headed, rational view that we must eliminate drains on our resources, that we must let people die sooner or force people not to have more than one or two children.

Our insistence on religious freedom clashes with our disagreement with those religious leaders who preach dominion of the earth and forbid use of contraception or abortion.

On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, we celebrate the parental roles we’ve enjoyed and these moments of pleasure clash with our uneasy feeling that we have brought children into this troubled, overcrowded world.

Our awareness of the effect of overcrowding on the resources of this earth clashes with our primal need to be in relationship, to offer the best we have to the younger beings in our lives and our drive to live as long as possible.

I’d like to stop at this moment for a time of silence, to consider the welter of conflicting desires, needs, and hopes inherent in the condition of overpopulation. And then I am going to invite you to share your own thoughts about your experience as a parent, as a child, as a human being torn between the clear need for restraint and conservation of our resources and the deep, inherent human desire for adding something/someone worthwhile to this world. (Silence) What would you like to say?

I don’t know that there is a perfectly clear answer to the huge dilemma of overpopulation and its effect on the environment. The reality of not enough resources to support the growing population is clear. There are few ethical ways of reducing the population other than voluntarily.

And so it seems to me that we are faced, on Mother’s Day, with that oldest of motherly dilemmas----how to get the kids to clean up their rooms, to do their homework, and to choose friends who won’t get them into trouble, all the while giving them a certain amount of freedom to make mistakes. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

We know what needs to be done. We need to model appropriate behavior, offer incentives, require certain standards to be met, and hope and pray a lot that the kids will get the message and not screw up their lives.

We need to make sure they have the information they need to stay safe while taking on the tasks of adulthood. We need to offer real help as they are learning, not just yell at them for their mistakes.

And, in the end, there is no guarantee that they will do what we want them to do. We can only do our own work of cleaning up, of doing our homework, of communicating the needs of the planet clearly and thoroughly. We can’t stand still and do nothing, whether or not the rest of the world agrees.

It’s hard to know how to bring a discussion like this to a close. The problem is so vast and the solutions seem so puny, so slow, so difficult to achieve. We want quicker action! We want to be able to point a finger---cut that out, you prolific parents! But so much of human life is like this---that there is really only slow, dogged, painstaking work to be done and there is no guarantee of the outcome.

So our work as Unitarian Universalists, as human beings, really, is to find the patience to do what we can on our own doorsteps, accomplishing what we can locally, giving support to faraway efforts to educate and raise the standard of living, speaking out for education, for self-control, for an end to poverty and oppression.

All of this will make a difference, however slowly. It may not be accomplished in our lifetime; it may never be accomplished. The human race may well die out because of our own foolishness.

All we can do is seize the day, do what we can today, raise our children and our grandchildren and our students with the knowledge they need to continue our work, letting go of the eventual outcome, since we cannot control it, and trust that our work today is not in vain.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION:
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that no act of conscience, however small, is wasted, that no helping hand to a struggling child is in vain. May we offer our love and our guidance to all the children, those nearby and those faraway, knowing that they hope for the same thing we do: a planet that is livable and beautiful, a community that is supportive and sustainable, a life that is satisfying and productive. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

12 comments:

Mile High Pixie said...

Well done! I appreciate the laying out of the problem here as a means of simply raising everyone's awareness. There are no easy answers to the problem of overpopulation, but it is important that we still do the work that we need to do. It's a concept I first heard of in yoga and Buddhism, which was that we do good deeds and live a good life because it is right, but we are not necessarily hung up on the outcome.

bakakarasu said...

There is an easy answer: stop making babies for about 40 years. It's easy, but not likely, (and granted, less easy for those women who are essentially slaves in highly paternalistic cultures in Africa and the Middle East). The main problem isn't that though, it's that humans are too selfish and stupid and obsessed with their own genes to make this choice.

We’ve already exceeded global carrying capacity. We are now in “overshoot”. (Visualize a car sailing smoothly, but quite temporarily, through the air after having been driven off of a cliff.)

Global population is nearing 7 billion. Different theorists using different methods seem to end up agreeing that global carrying capacity is probably about 2 billion. (This assumes some level of social justice and a moderate, low by US standards, standard of living. More is possible if you accept a cattle car / Matrix-esque "life".)

In any case, we will get to that much-lower-than-7-billion number the hard way (wars, famine, disease, and their accompanying losses of environmental quality, freedom, and social justice) OR the less hard way (immediately and drastically reducing our population voluntarily). Yes, all of us, yes, everywhere. There is no scenario anywhere in which population growth is a "good thing" long term.

Yes a drop in population would cause problems, but none of those problems are as big as the problems, suffering, and environmental collapse that is certain to occur if we don’t.

I disagree with any argument that there is some “right to reproduce”. If there is any "right to reproduce" it's in the concept that one has the freedom to nurture a child or children and form some sort of family. Biological reproduction is not necessary to do that and there are many in need of this sort of nurturing. I would also argue that there is no right to cause suffering to others, now or on into the future, and that is exactly what having babies does.

This is a global issue with local and nation-state consequences. For example, immigration is a consequence of overpopulation, not a cause of it. Likewise, global climate change and the collapse of ocean fisheries are not impressed by national boundaries.

No technological / "alternative energy" options have the capacity or can be ramped up fast enough to avoid major global calamity. That isn't to say we shouldn't do them. Aggressively shifting to alternative energy is necessary, just not sufficient.

For more comprehensive analysis of all this I suggest

Bandura etc.
http://growthmadness.org/2008/02/18/impeding-ecological-sustainability-through-selective-moral-disengagement/

Albert Bartlett on the exponential function as it relates to population and oil:
http://c-realm.blogspot.com/2008/12/kmo-interview-with-albert-bartlett.html

Approaching the Limits www.paulchefurka.ca

Bruce Sundquist on environmental impact of overpopulation http://home.alltel.net/bsundquist1/

How Many People Should The Earth Support? http://www.ecofuture.org/pop/rpts/mccluney_maxpop.html

Video short on exponential growth:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2rTQpdyCFQ&eurl=http%3A%2F%2Fin-gods-name.blogspot.com%2F2009%2F03%2Ftoo-many-people-too-much-consumption-by.html&feature=player_embedded

Carrying Capacity
http://iere.org/ILEA/leaf/richard2002.html

The Oil Drum Peak Oil Overview - June 2007 (www.theoildrum.com/node/2693)


...and of course the classic "Overshoot" by Catton


I disagree with the argument that there is some “right to reproduce” that must be accommodated in this scenario. If there is any "right to reproduce" it's in the concept that one has the freedom to nurture a child or children and form some sort of family. Biological reproduction is not necessary to do that and there are many in need of this sort of nurturing.

Being a parent is much different from the romantic and oxytocin enhanced notion of “having a baby” (a phrase I always found to be a bit horrifying for its "possessing-an-object" language frame).

Parenting is a long term process - something you do for 18+ years, not a one time biological act. I would also argue that at least one criterion to reproduce would be to not only have the necessary skills and resources to parent a child for 18 years or so, but that doing so would not cause suffering for others either now or in the future. Since we are beyond our global carrying capacity, no one can biologically reproduce and truly meet that criteria, since each added child now assures more people suffer later.

The “10 points” you link to, while in some cases valid (and some not) do not cancel out the effects of simple arithmetic in a closed system. It is true that a ‘belief’ in overpopulation (kinda like a ‘belief’ in gravity to me)can be misused to justify greater restrictions on freedom and social justice. That does not mean there is no overpopulation. More people always equals more rules. No matter how well intended, rules are often harmful, oppressive, and capriciously and unfairly enforced.
We’ve already exceeded global carrying capacity. We are now in “overshoot”. Global population is nearing 7 billion. Different theorists using different methods seem to end up agreeing that global carrying capacity is probably about 2 billion. (This assumes some level of social justice and a moderate, low by US standards, standard of living. More is possible if you accept a cattle car / Matrix-esque “life”.)
In any case, we will get to that much-lower-than-7-billion number the hard way (wars, famine, disease, and their accompanying losses of environmental quality, freedom, and social justice) OR the less hard way (immediately and drastically reducing our population voluntarily). Yes, all of us, yes, everywhere. There is no scenario anywhere in which population growth is a “good thing” long term for either the very poor or the very rich.
Yes a drop in population would cause problems, but none of those problems are as big as the problems, suffering, and environmental collapse that is certain to occur if we don’t.
It’s too late for any “us” vs “them” arguments or any belief that national boundaries will do much to help anyone in the long run. This is a global issue with local and nation-state consequences. For example, immigration is a consequence of overpopulation, not a cause of it. Likewise, global climate change is not impressed by national boundaries.
No technological / “alternative energy” options have the capacity or can be ramped up fast enough to avoid major global calamity. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t do them. Aggressively shifting to alternative energy is necessary, just not sufficient. That is true of dietary changes as well.
One of the key factors in this scenario is also our sense of time. This is a slow motion crash that requires immediate action, a bit like trying to steer a supertanker that’s on a crash course by putting in consistent input over a multi year time frame, and the one effective input is for all of us everywhere to stop making babies. The supertanker analogy is also apt because it was the “one time gift” of oil that allowed us to get this far out on a temporary added carrying capacity limb, and peak oil has already happened.
I also disagree with the argument that there is some biological “right to reproduce” that must be accommodated in this scenario. If there is any “right to reproduce” it’s in the concept that one has the freedom to nurture a child or children and form some sort of family. Biological reproduction is not necessary to do that and there are many in need of this sort of nurturing.
Being a parent is much different from the romantic and oxytocin-flooded notion of “having a baby” (a phrase I always found to be a bit horrifying for its “possessing-an-object” language frame).
Parenting is a long term process - something you do as your first priority for 18+ years, not a one time biological act.
I would also argue that at least one criterion to reproduce would be to not only have the necessary skills and resources to parent a child for 18 years or so, but that doing so would not cause suffering for others either now or in the future. Since we are beyond our global carrying capacity, no one can biologically reproduce and truly meet that criteria, since each added child now assures more people suffer later.
For more comprehensive analysis of all this I suggest
Approaching the Limits http://www.paulchefurka.ca
(I suggest starting with his “Elephant in the Room”.
Bruce Sundquist on environmental impact of overpopulation http://home.alltel.net/bsundquist1/
The Oil Drum Peak Oil Overview - June 2007 (www.theoildrum.com/node/2693)
…and of course the classic “Overshoot” by Catton

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Joel said...

You knew I'd have some comments, didn't you? :)

As a preliminary clarification, the Catholic prohibition on contraception isn't really for the purpose of increasing the population. It's because we consider procreation to be an essential element of sex, and so separating them artificially is reducing something sacred to mere play. So we're not required to be fruitful and multiply; merely to engage in or abstain from sex with an awareness of the power of creating life.

I've known some of the Quiverfull people, and invariably they've had well-cared-for, well-adjusted children whom they support without falling back on welfare. In short, they're the sort of people who are likely to put more into society than they take out of it. The mothers aren't haggard and enslaved as you seem to expect them to be. In fact, I have yet to hear a woman in her later years expressing regret that she had too many children. Kids may be a lot of work at the time, but they're always more than worth it in the long run.

I have known a lot of women to regret not having had children when they could, or (much sadder) to have lost their only child. I think that need goes a lot deeper than a mere instinct to make little copies of ourselves. Rather, I think it's a matter of whether or not you consider human beings to be a good thing in and of themselves.

One school of thought says that children are precious no matter how many of them there are, or how much of a crimp they put in their parents' lifestyle, or how much food they eat or air they consume. This is because they are not mere objects; they are people.

I've known entirely too many people, however, that think of children as (a) a consequence of sex, (b) mere extensions of themselves or (c) a status symbol to show what good people they are. In all those cases, the child is not a person with intrinsic value, but a mere object. The emphasis on "overpopulation" reinforces this. What's worse, that gets passed on to the children themselves, as they wonder why Mommy and Daddy would do something so irresponsible as having them. After all, their presence makes the world that much more crowded, and so an unhappier place.

It's the same everywhere. Yes, my kids are the cream of the crop (really!), but still, parents in Bangladesh or Buenos Aires feel the same about theirs. And they may well be right. Every one of those children (that is selfishly sucking up resources that should belong to someone else) is just as much a person as my own brood. They all have individual value, and have every right to exist.

Thing is, most of the problems that we attribute to overpopulation are much more complex. Famine and drought are political tools more than natural disasters, as food and water are diverted or withheld by the powerful to maintain power. (Remember all that food that was sent to Ethiopia in the 80s?) There is a great deal of arable land on the earth that's going unused because of urban migration and political machinations. Fewer people won't solve those problems. More people able to create the resources we live on will.

Christina Martin said...

Have you ever read Ms. Sanger's actual writings? I have. She was not concerned about women's health nearly so much as about preventing the spread of undesirable races. She wrote high praises for Hitler and his eugenics plan, and even supported the Nazi regime. I'm very surprised that you praise her.

Cynthia Landrum said...

Thank you for a thoughtful analysis of a complex problem, where the intersection of our personal needs and our planetary needs collide.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Cynthia, for your comment, and also to Joel and Christina.

ms. kitty said...

Oops, also Pixie, Bakarasu, and tubal reversal, for your thoughts.

Judy said...

I'd like to ask Christina if SHE has ever read anything written by Margaret Sanger. Oh, only ONE thing? Well, then...

While it's true that Margaret Sanger did support the concept of eugenics, that was NOT the motivation for her spending most of her life trying to make methods of birth control available to the poor women in the Lower East Side of NY where she was a public health nurse. She saw too many women dying in childbirth or begging to know how wealthy women managed to have only 2 or 3 children while they had 10.

She wrote of a woman who had been told by her doctor that if she had another child, she would die. When she asked the doctor how to avoid getting pregnant again, the doctor said in a flip voice "Tell Jake he has to sleep on the roof."

There is far too much to admire about Margaret Sanger to discount her because of some (yes, perhaps misguided) ideas she had. People are complicated. She worked hard for women's reproductive rights, raised tons of money, got laws changed, and worked herself into the ground. She deserves our thanks.

kim said...

In fact, I have yet to hear a woman in her later years expressing regret that she had too many children. Kids may be a lot of work at the time, but they're always more than worth it in the long run.I have a couple of responses to this. First, would a woman who wished she had had fewer children ever mention it to you?
Second, I remember reading about a study (in Psychology Today) that said that older people who had never had children were happier than older people who had had children.
To elaborate on point one: When I was in college, I took a sociology class that had us write a paper on something we had done that was contrary to tradition. I wrote on the fact that I had had my tubes tied when I was 22, and on people's reactions to it. Before I had the surgery, both men and women tried to talk me out of it. (You can imagine the arguments, I'm sure.) But after I had the surgery, an odd thing happened. Men continued to try to talk me out of it as if it had not happened, while women started to admit to me that they had considered remaining childless. It turns out that most women had seriously considered not having children, and felt they really couldn't admit it until they knew I had made that decision irreversibly. That's why I don't think you would hear about it if women did feel like they made a mistake having kids. I do hear that sometimes.

Miss Kitty said...

Ms. K, you have a LOT of guts to preach (and blog) on this topic. My hat is off to you!

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Miss K. Actually, it's fun to blog and preach about edgy things. I got a lot of good responses to this sermon from my own congregation and a passionate agreement from a congregant at the Woodinville church where I delivered it last Sunday. That's encouraging in itself.