Friday, December 17, 2010

The ecological morality of breeding....or not.

This and the other card can be found here.
When I saw Reason magazine tweet about an article entitled "Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been a 'Breeder'?" and clicked through to see an image of the "breeder bingo board," I expected to see a commentary on how harshly people tend to judge those who opt not to have children-- such as myself.  That's not what it turned out to be, however. Instead, science correspondent Ronald Bailey links back to an essay by Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill entitled "Our Brave New World of Malthusian madmen" arguing that society is turning into a real-life version of Anthony Burgess' dystopian novel The Wanting Seed, in which
overpopulation is rife. There’s a Ministry of Infertility that tries desperately to keep a check on the gibbering masses squeezed into skyscraper after skyscraper, and it does so by demonising heterosexuality - it’s too fertile, too full of ‘childbearing lust’ - and actively promoting homosexuality.
It’s a world where straights are discriminated against because there’s nothing more disgusting and destructive than potential fertility, than a ‘full womanly figure’ or a man with ‘paternity lust’; straights are passed over for jobs and promotion in favour of homos, giving rise to a situation where some straights go so far as to pretend they are gay, adopting the ‘public skin of dandified epicene’, as Burgess describes it, in a desperate bid to make it in the world. There’s even a Homosex Institute, which runs night classes that turn people gay, all with the aim of reducing the ‘aura of fertility’ that hangs about society like a rank smell, as one official says. ‘It’s Sapiens to be Homo’ is the slogan of Burgess’s imagined world.
 We haven't gotten there yet, says O'Neill-- there's no Homosex Institute.  Still,
there is a creeping cultural validation of homosexuality in Malthusian terms, where the gay lifestyle is held up by some thinkers and activists as morally superior because it is less likely to produce offspring than the heterosexual lifestyle, in which every sexual encounter involves recklessly pointing a loaded gun of sperm at a willing and waiting target.
Seriously? That's what we should be concerned about? 

This lengthy screed by O'Neill was prompted by an op-ed in a newspaper which argued for legalizing gay marriage on the grounds that it will "indirectly limit population growth," since the sexual relations between two homosexuals in a monogamous relationship will not naturally lead to children.  The first problem with that is the idea that we should ever consider it legitimate to acknowledge or suspend human rights based on ecological concerns.  If there is a right to marry, there's a right to marry whether there are 100 people on the planet or 100 billion.  And secondly it's pretty silly to argue that allowing gay marriage will be some kind of relief for overpopulation even as a side benefit, unless we're supposed to assume that otherwise all of these gays who want to get married are going to shrug their shoulders, find someone of the opposite sex to marry, and pop out of a couple of kids.  In short, become breeders.  That is what my boyfriend's father did, and it did not turn out well for the most part-- though I'm grateful for it having brought my boyfriend into the world-- but these days?  Not so likely.  Now that acceptance of homosexuality has become so widespread, a far more attractive option is to come out of the closet, find another gay person to be with whether you can marry them or not, and if you want kids...adopt.  And that's precisely what millions of gays are doing. 

"Breeder" is not, however, simply a term to use for people who have children.  Historically it has been a derisive term used by gays to describe straight people in general, since we're the ones whose couplings have the natural potential to create children whether we actually take advantage of that opportunity or not.  Unlike those boring white-bread judgmental breeders, gays could live kid-free lives, stay out late, be irresponsible, and so on.  "Breeders" were mainstream; gays were the outsiders looking in.  And they were and still are punished for it.  But these days, the term doesn't seem to be used by gays so much as by the voluntarily childfree, sometimes for any and all parents but usually just for the bad ones.  "PNB" (Parent, not breeder) is a term for a good parent, someone who makes the effort to raise well-behaved children and who takes care of them properly.  There are a variety of reasons why people opt not to have children-- some people have inheritable illnesses that they don't want to pass on or current disabilities which would make it too hard to parent, some people like children but don't feel that they would be good parents, some feel that they truly have no maternal or paternal instinct, and some flat-out hate kids.  And some people, yes, argue that having children is wrong because it's bad for the environment

And you know what?  It is bad for the environment, viewed objectively.  Sure, some of us may birth little Norman Borlaugs who find ways to feed the masses of starving people on the planet, but for the most part every new child brought into the world represents another mouth to feed, another consumer of fossil fuels, another contributor to greenhouse gasses.  On the whole, opting not to have children might be the single best thing a person can do for the environment:
A study by statisticians at Oregon State University concluded that in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environment-friendly practices people might employ during their entire lives — things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs. . .

Under current conditions in the United States, for instance, each child ultimately adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average parent – about 5.7 times the lifetime emissions for which, on average, a person is responsible.
The impact doesn't only come through increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — larger populations also generate more waste and tax water supplies.
So people who have children are evil, right?  They're harming the planet, and that makes them bad, and they should feel guilty, and maybe send their existing children to Madagascar or something where their carbon footprint won't be as big?   No.  It means they're obeying a biological imperative without which our species-- no species which reproduces sexually-- would not exist.   It's hard for me to relate since I have no desire to reproduce whatsoever, even if doing so actually helped the environment, but people really, really, really, REALLY want to have children.  To the point that some of them regard those of us who are voluntarily sans sprogs as rather suspect, perhaps even immoral ourselves.

That's what the bingo board above is meant to represent-- "bingo" is a term used to refer to a comment that denigrates the choice to not have children, implying that there are so many of such comments and they are used so often that the recipients could play a game of Bingo with them.  So, for example, one childfree person might say to another "My cousin was bingoing me hardcore at the family reunion. She couldn't believe that I still don't have kids-- said she was sure I'd change my mind, and I'm not a proper woman if I don't."  Some people do, of course, change their mind about having kids at some point in their lives.  But informing someone that they will change their mind about something about which they've thought long and hard is, needless to say, pretty darn arrogant.  Nobody would inform a friend that they're sure said friend will convert from Judaism to Catholicism-- at least, nobody who wants to keep their friends-- but people don't seem to understand the rudeness involved in informing someone smugly that they will want children later, whether they think so now or not.  Or worse, actively wish failed birth control on them, which to a childfree person is kind of like wishing a car accident on someone.  I have a personal established policy of urging anyone who is certain I'll change my mind and is obnoxious about it to put their money where their mouth is-- there's a certain psychologist out there who owes me $50 if I'm still childfree by age 35. 

And I'm not gay, by the way.  But currently, gays who do want to become parents have a lot of options-- they could get a sperm donor or surrogate, they could adopt, they could take in foster children (as many gays in Florida have done where gay adoption has until recently been illegal, but the state didn't have enough foster parents available), and eventually science will find a way to create a child by combining genes from two potential fathers or mothers-- they're already working on it.   We have gay parents, and we will have more of them in the future.  Homosexuals may not be able to reproduce "recklessly"-- as Dan Savage points out, it's hard to get drunk and adopt-- but they can and do become parents. 

As for the government promoting homosexuality and demonizing heterosexuality in order to limit population growth-- I'm no stranger to theories about well-intentioned plans to fix broad problems through legislation failing abysmally and harming the populace, but.....come on.  There are plenty of people who think that homosexuality is something people are persuaded into, but the technical term for those people is "idiots."  Okay, I'll be nicer and more accurate, and say that they're grievously ignorant.  Homosexuals have most likely never been more than 10% or so of the population and we have no reason to believe that they ever will be, no matter how many slogans are shouted at them or how bad they're made to feel about their 'womanly bodies' (I've seen quite a few lesbians with womanly bodies, but it doesn't seem to have any connection to their wanting to reproduce, no matter how happy they are about them).   

O’Neill's essay, to put it plainly, sounds like a thinly-veiled argument against legitimizing "the gay lifestyle" (gee, that doesn't send up any red flags) and granting homosexuals all of the same rights that straight people have based on the ridiculous idea that it will enable homosexuality to someday be forced on us by our government on ecological grounds. Or at the very least, an argument that we shouldn't a) acknowledge that having children can increase the strain on the environment and b) have any normative opinions about that, because it will enable the government to forcibly stop us from having as many children.  To both of which I say.....bosh. 


  1. "As for the government promoting homosexuality and demonizing heterosexuality in order to limit population growth"

    Why bother? Free vasectomies, advertisements and maybe some taxation policies would be cheaper and more effective.
    Plus the whole respecting people and their right to choose.

  2. I think free sterilization is not very likely either, but yes, it's a lot more likely than a government program established to try and shame people into converting to homosexuality!


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