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To Whom Do We Owe The Future?
Us, or the unborn?
Last week I interviewed Phoebe Bernard, a biologist, global change scientist, and policy analyst with decades of experience confronting some of the most pressing problems of our time, bridging the gap between academia and government. She’s also CEO of the Stable Planet Alliance, a coalition of scientific, legal, social, health, media, policy, leadership, faith, culture, and grassroots organisations tackling the overpopulation and hyperconsumption problem.
Phoebe joined me to discuss the overpopulation problem, leading to a fascinating and, at times, uncomfortable conversation. The topic of population is extremely divisive due to valid concerns that such dialogues can veer into racist and eugenicist territories. It is of critical importance to acknowledge these fears; the West has a very recent history of eugenics with forced sterilisation of people of colour, of mentally ill, of ethnically diverse populations.
I was grateful to Phoebe for braving this complicated and historically horrific topic with me, and highly recommend listening to the full episode to get a grasp of the work she and her team are doing at the Stable Planet Alliance. What I found to be particularly of note was how Phoebe framed the population problem as a question of intergenerational rights.
Rather than digging into the question of whether or not individuals have a moral, ethical or existential right to have children—which isn’t particularly interesting, homo sapiens have been having children for hundreds of thousands of years; the self-propagation of species is not particular to humans, but to every living thing on this planet—Phoebe raised the fascinating question of whether or not we have a moral, ethical and existential right or responsibility to leave behind a healthy environment for future human beings.
So who do we choose to protect in that scenario? The unborn, inevitable children of the future who deserve a healthy planet, or our particular, individual unborn children about whom we don’t tend to associate with healthy external environments, but rather the environment of the individual as a territory for their own self-propagation.
When we frame the discussion as a problem of intergenerational rights, we are essentially talking about the right of the individual versus the right of the collective. If we could isolate the discussion to one of purely morals, then we’re discussing the right of the singular person to have a child versus the right of inevitable future children to a health world.
Yet, of course, we cannot ignore the fundamental politics of this debate in order to couch it in easier and more digestible frameworks; we have to talk about our history of eugenics, and genocide. We have to talk about racism, about the current inequality of resources which ensures a child born in the global north will have a much larger impact than a child born in the global south.
It would be a mistake to make this a purely moral debate, and essentially serves in letting us all off the hook as, empirically, there is rarely a right or wrong morality around having a child. The individual’s choice, as parent, is their own; I often wonder whether our focus on the individual is yet another symptom of capitalism’s hooks in our perception of the world.
And so how do we look at policies through a different kind of filter? What do pro-natalist and anti-natalist arguments look like outwith the frame of capitalism?
Capitalism gets us stuck in a timeline of immediacy, yet the discussion of population reduction—perhaps the necessity of population reduction—demands a longer term vision whereby not only do we think of the collective, but we try to envision the past, present and future as existing simultaneously; that concerns and experiences of every person who has existed are as important as the concerns and wellbeing of people today, and as important as the concerns and wellbeing of the inevitable unborn people who will exist in the future.
How do we create a world that protects all of those people? To start, we must discard the script of individualism.
The topic of ecosystems is frequent on Planet: Critical, the ecosystems of biology, of economics, of politics, of power. Perhaps we also need to think about the ecosystem of time. Time is still perceived as a linear progression, this inevitable march into the unknown, past, present and future existing in silos. Perhaps to think about an ecosystem of time would be to understand that the future is here with us now, just as the past is always with us, and how we choose to interact with our past mistakes and legacies directly impacts the creation of our future.Our future is constantly changing. It is not fixed. And yet the flashes of potential in our future also directly impacts and change our present.
The strength in a vision of time that allows for fluidity and nuance is that it begins to resemble a diverse ecosystem, and hence is resilient. It becomes quite hard for power to pin down any one part of it and exert force. We need diversity in order to be resilient. The diversity of everything that we could be equally makes us resilient.
Becoming rigidly caught in any one paradigm, in any one system, in any one definition of citizenship or modernity or human being or rights, even, makes it easy for power to exert itself because the target has stopped moving. It solidifies, becomes a thing. And then power can deconstruct or annihilate that thing. Yet to be fluid, to be nuanced, to be flexible, to be willing to change, constantly, gives little for power to grasp at.
So perhaps rather than viewing this a time as a linear construct, and population as a binary, weaponized debate, perhaps,we need to see it as a weapon in our arsenal of how to deal with the climate crisis and consumption, resources and inequality. Perhaps, by reducing our perceived individual rights to have children now, we can increase our power and rights as a collective. If one can encourage a people or community to do something together, it may very well not be perceived as a reduction in one sort of individual autonomy, but as an increase in one's individual capacity to act as part of the collective.
Grappling with and accepting these nuances is surely a necessary part of finding our way through, together.
Planet: Critical investigated why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.