Articles on Earth Wisdom and Feminist Spirituality

Why green your head? Because sustainability - and survival - requires that we change how we think. As our bodies move into the future, our heads need to get with the program...

"... the future is associated with the unconscious part of the body, an unconscious part that makes the body alive, whereas the intellect has to do only with the past, and the feelings with the present."
-Henri Atlan, professor of biophysics, in Gaia, a Way of Knowing, edited by William Irwin Thompson

The Lysistrata Strategy

by Kelpie Wilson
Wild Earth
Winter 1997/98

Can you imagine what life would be like if everything weren’t always getting more crowded, dirtier and poorer every day with the threat of war and ecological collapse hanging over our heads? The root cause of our global impoverishment is growth. Growth – both the economic kind and the population kind, makes every ecological and social problem worse and more unmanageable. Growth may bring vast wealth to a few, for a limited amount of time, but the legacy of growth is topsoil loss, over-fished oceans, deforestation, global warming, species extinction, pollution, disease, starvation and war. The world needs a strategy to stop growing and start living sustainably. We now have six billion people and may grow to twice that number in the next few generations if we don’t do something. Growth not only needs to be stopped, it needs to be reversed, for a time at least. Some ecologists think that two billion is a reasonable number for the Earth to support in perpetuity.

The good news is that we could humanely reach an optimum global population of two billion in only three generations. When my parents were born, there were only two billion people in the world. If every woman on earth today had no more than one child, the number of people of reproductive age would halve in the next generation. By the end of another two generations, we could achieve our goal of two billion. Think of what a bright new day it would be for those two billion people and the other species they share the planet with. There would be enough of everything, including clean air, clean water and wilderness. War would become a thing of the past and the human war against nature would end.

If we had the will, we women could put the brakes on growth by simply stopping up our wombs for a while. With the planet headed toward ecological collapse, someone’s got to take charge. Could women do it? The only precedent I can think of is a literary one: the classical Greek comedy Lysistrata, by Aristophanes.

Lysistrata -- whose name means “she who disbands armies” -- organizes Athenian and Spartan women in a sex strike in order to force their men to abandon the war between the two city-states. The women are tired of losing sons and husbands. Lysistrata’s bold plan works because the men, befuddled by horniness and tripping over erections, give in and decide they prefer to make love, not war. The play ends in a celebration of pan-Hellenism with Athenians and Spartans singing of their common battles against the Persians who are “numberless as the sand on the shores.”

By 300 BC, when Lysistrata was written, Greece had supported a civilization with an intensive agriculture and high population density for more than a thousand years. Greek soils were thin and eroded easily. The land was not as productive as it once was, and the cities were overcrowded. Athens and Sparta made peace several times during the Classical period, but war always broke out again because the underlying causes were never addressed. Lysistrata may have been based on an actual revolt by Athenian women against these debilitating Peloponnesian wars.

If Lysistrata had been a real person, what would she have had to do, to end war permanently? First, she would have had to convince Greek women to continue their reproductive strike long enough to reduce population pressure on the crowded and ecologically depleted peninsula. Then a new era of plenty might have encouraged Athens and Sparta to live in peace. Ultimately, to really end war, a Lysistrata would have needed to organize the enemy Persian women in a sex strike as well.

The Lysistrata strategy then, requires women to take control of the means of reproduction in order to reduce population to ecologically sustainable levels. Surprisingly, the Lysistrata strategy is not a new idea. We know that hunter-gatherers practiced population limitation as an important part of their overall survival strategy for thousands of years. It was only when agriculture opened up the possibility of food storage during lean times that populations could afford to grow.
Once we learned how to grow, it seems we can’t learn to stop. It’s like eating potato chips. You can’t eat just one and it’s awfully hard to stop before you’ve consumed the whole bag. The Lysistrata strategy challenges us to stop at just one -- one child that is.

What I’m calling “the potato chip factor,” really is related to food. Studies of modern hunter gatherers like the !Kung people of the Kalahari, show that the average woman bears four children. Only two survive to reproduce, keeping numbers stable. A long period of nursing serves to suppress ovulation so that pregnancies are spaced by four to five years. Called lactational amenorrhea, this is the critical factor in keeping birth rates down, but it exists only under certain conditions: nursing must be constant and regular, and a woman’s body fat percentage must be low. When agricultural grains are substituted for grubs, leaves and nuts, body fat increases and natural contraception is destroyed.

Intensive, grain-based agriculture had another effect besides increasing women’s body fat; it also gave an incentive to produce large families. More hands to thresh and sow meant more grain produced and the ability to feed more mouths.

As populations grew, unavoidably there was more conflict between tribes.

Metallurgy and the horse provided formidable war machinery. Military technology combined with large-scale food production, storage, and redistribution systems allowed the first expansionist empires of the Near East to form. With agriculture as sower and war as reaper, humanity was now locked into the patriarchal large family system.

Civilizations formalized their new survival strategy in the first written codes of law. Gerda Lerner, in her book, The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), analyzed four of these codes: the Codex Hammurabi, Middle Assyrian law, Hittite law and biblical law. She found that up to fifty percent of these laws concerned the reproductive and sexual behavior of women. Under Middle Assyrian Law, for example, abortion was a capital crime punished by a stake through the heart of the offending woman. So much for reproductive choice.

Everywhere in the pre-modern world, women’s reproductive function was the foundation of politics because a man was powerful in proportion to the number of kin he could rally to his cause. But outside the empires, in small-scale, tribal societies, this political power took a completely different shape. Maximizing the number of offspring was not the always the best strategy, because as a couple’s progeny increased, the balance of power in the community could shift and kinsmen would began to feel threatened. Because population limitation in tribal societies was so critical, there was also a lack of privacy in family life: sex and babies were everybody’s business.

With the coming of big agriculture and the military state, inhibitions on family size were loosened. Family life became private, under the control of the father, who alone was answerable to the state as a citizen.

Conflict between the private and public spheres was a prominent subject in Greek drama of the classical period. One of the themes of Lysistrata is the men’s denial of women’s right to an opinion on political matters like war. Lysistrata must point out to them that women make a contribution to war ? their sons ? and so have the right to a say in the matter. Aristophanes used the device of inverting the established order (putting women in charge) to dip into the domestic sphere for feminine values to apply to the problem of war. In the end though, the spheres remain separate and the problem of war in real life remains unsolved.

The Greeks, like every other civilization of the time, were locked into the large family system. Not to produce cannon fodder would lead to their downfall. Through their literature, though, we know that they valued the egalitarianism of a small-scale society. Aristotle was among the first to advocate limiting population. He advised abortion for parents with too many children, writing in Politics that "... neglect of an effective birth control policy is a never failing source of poverty which in turn is the parent of revolution and crime." Democracy itself is a holdover from small-scale, tribal society, not a hallmark of civilization at all. Ultimately, Greek democracy was devoured by internal warfare that weakened its ability to fight off conquerors from outside. Within 200 years of Aristophanes, the Greeks were nothing but a backwater Roman colony.

Our modern form of civilization has been advanced by people who lift their ideals from Greek rationalism and democracy and who hope for an end to war and injustice. These hopes have been based on a projected end to scarcity brought about by technology. Modern progressives often take the position that overpopulation will end only after development is brought to the world and poverty is ended.

What most progressives don’t seem to realize is that overpopulation among the poor is strategically beneficial to the wealthy classes. The French term, proletariat, literally means “breeders.” Marvin Harris and Eric B. Ross provide enlightenment on this issue in their important history of population regulation: Death, Sex and Fertility, Population Regulation in Preindustrial and Developing Societies (1987). They use the fabled Irish potato famine to illustrate the impact of economic exploitation on population growth. Contrary to myth, the potato was an established food crop in Ireland long before the famine of the 1840’s and did not by itself cause the Irish population boom.

Landlords who wanted to switch from cattle grazing to grain production, which required a larger work force, brought about the Irish population boom. Landlords manipulated population growth through the tax structure. They encouraged peasants to marry earlier by allowing them to grow potatoes tax-free in order to feed their large families. But after only a few decades, landlords switched back to grazing to cash in on the market for meat to supply English colonial armies. At the very height of the famine, shiploads of Irish grain and meat were delivered to England’s shores while English politicians and men of letters blamed the profligacy of the starving Irish.

Modernity has seen the final shift of political power from kinship relations to the bureaucratic control of large populations of workers. The corporate state profits from a surplus of people and has every reason to encourage breeding among the masses. Otherwise how will wages be kept so low? Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was an American labor radical and an early proponent of family planning who articulated this relationship back before 1920: “The large family system rivets the chains of slavery upon labor more securely. It crushes the parents, starves the children, and provides cheap fodder for machines and cannons.”

In our day, capitalism finds its cheap labor among the masses of the third world, so there’s no immediate threat to the system by stabilizing population in the so-called first world. But as women step out of enforced motherhood and into other societal roles, the backlash against reproductive choice is coming from a different segment of the patriarchal power structure. As Susan Faludi pointed out in Backlash (1991), the leaders of the anti-abortion movement are often working class white men whose relatively privileged place in society has recently evaporated. Without the little woman under their thumb, they have no basis for self esteem.

In the United States, fundamentalist terrorists have robbed women of their choices. Abortion and family planning services are ever more scarce. The US is the fastest growing industrialized nation in the world and only one-third of that growth comes from immigration. We also have one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. Here in my rural Oregon community, where the problem is particularly acute, almost 30% of the female high school students are pregnant or already mothers. Teenagers are less likely to use contraceptives effectively, but for a teenager in my community to obtain an abortion she would have to travel between 75 and 200 miles, depending on which clinics were open. And the fundamentalist right has managed to stigmatize abortion to the extent that most of these teens would not even consider it. Conception happens, and even for responsible adults, abortion will always be a necessary option.

Ginette Paris, in her provocative book, The Sacrament of Abortion (1992), gets to the heart of the matter: “Men have the right to kill and destroy, and when the massacre is called a war they are paid to do it and honored for their actions. War is sanctified, even blessed by our religious leaders. But let a woman decide to abort a fetus that doesn’t even have the neurological apparatus to register suffering, and people are shocked. What’s really shocking is that a woman has the power to make a moral judgment that involves a choice of life or death. That power has been reserved for men.”

In the less developed world, women need more than just attitude changes to give them choices. The 1994 UN Population Conference in Cairo reached a consensus on what is required: Women need basics such as food, clean water, health care and access to contraceptives and abortion. The Cairo Conference concluded that providing better reproductive care worldwide would cost $17 billion annually, which is less than the world spends each week on armaments. Again, we must follow the example of Lysistrata who knew that a sex strike alone wouldn’t be enough ? she had her women seize the treasury of Athens as well.

But if the stakes in these matters of sex and war were high before, they are even higher now. In 1970, Stephanie Mills, in her speech as college valedictorian, declared that she would refrain from bringing any children into the world since overpopulation was threatening global ecological collapse. Since 1970, a few more women have made such public declarations, and an unknown number have privately decided to forego or limit childbearing out of ecological considerations. But, there has been no large-scale, public “procreation strike.” The reasons for this, I believe, are partly found in the public/private dichotomy that is an integral part of patriarchy. It is not socially acceptable to interfere in the reproductive decisions of families, even by verbal persuasion. Even the pro-choice movement defends abortion by using the right to privacy. But given the threat to biodiversity and ecological integrity that is posed by our increasing population, a truly pro-life movement is desperately needed to beat the drum for voluntary limits on reproduction.

We must imagine a world without runaway growth, where war cannot exist because there is enough for all. We must seize the treasury and make full reproductive health services available to every woman in the world. We as women must think globally and act as locally as our own bodies, recognizing that we own the means of reproduction and that we must choose small families in this time of resource shrinkage. That is the message that the postmodern Lysistrata needs to take to the women of the polity.

Virgin, the Dynamo, and the Prize

Virgin, the Dynamo, and the Prize
By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Environmental Editor
Wednesday 14 February 2007

Like most American kids in the 1960s, I was an avid Star Trek fan and I rooted for every new development in the US space program. I'll never forget staying up past midnight to watch Neil Armstrong take Man's first steps on the moon.

But by the time of the first shuttle disaster in 1986, I was less concerned with the Star Trek mission and more concerned with the fate of the Earth. Apart from the human tragedy of the disaster, the setback to the space shuttle program didn't seem to matter much, and the image of the Challenger flameout at 48,000 feet over Florida seemed symbolic of the utter failure of Western society to create a sustainable civilization on Planet Earth.

The recent release of the IPCC's fourth assessment on climate change is just one more milestone documenting the disintegration of Earth's planetary life-support systems. The world must act quickly, but I am not impressed by the announcement last week that Sir Richard Branson, founder of a company that is building a fleet of excursion vehicles for the space tourism market, has offered a $25 million prize for the invention of new carbon-sequestration technologies.

Branson's space travel company, called Virgin Galactic (in line with his other ventures, Virgin Media, Virgin Trains and Virgin Airways), is building five suborbital spacecraft based on Burt Rutan's X-Prize winning design, SpaceShipOne. Tourists will pay about $200,000 a ticket to spew greenhouse gases into the upper atmosphere and enjoy an hour of bouncing around in microgravity. Presumably, it was the success of the X-Prize competition in producing this space toy that inspired Branson to offer the carbon-sequestration prize, which he calls the Earth Challenge. Sadly, Branson's prize may do more harm than good.

There are two big problems with the Earth Challenge prize. First, and most important, it sends the wrong message to those who are just waking up to the true threat of climate change: it says we can solve this problem by inventing the right techno-fix. Branson himself said it at his news conference announcing the prize: "Man created the problem; therefore Man should solve the problem."

If "Man" is about to jump in and fix the carbon problem, then we'll all be able to carry on with business as usual, right? Yikes! If this perception becomes widespread, then there will be no motivation to change our wasteful habits. We can relax, because we have plenty of coal in the ground and our techno-heroes will find a way to capture and store those pesky carbon molecules out of the way somewhere.

Encouraging complacency is one problem. Then there's the problem that any techno-fix solution big enough to make a difference has the potential for dangerous unintended consequences of planetary magnitude. Ideas like pumping CO2 deep into the ground or the ocean may sound promising, but can create new disasters. For instance, the oceans have already been absorbing much of the CO2 generated during the fossil fuel era, and as a result, they are turning acidic. No one knows how much more acidic the oceans can become before the calcium shells of animals like clams and corals begin to dissolve.

We can also inject CO2 into old oil and gas fields and coal beds - it is being done right now in Norway, Texas and Canada. But in order to be effective as a carbon-sequestration strategy, hundreds of underground reservoirs would need to be created and maintained. Jeff Goodell, writing in his book Big Coal, says that each reservoir would spread out "fifty or so square miles underground, which means that if carbon sequestration does indeed become widespread, tens of thousands of people will be living above giant bubbles of CO2." Leakage is a problem, he says, "CO2 is buoyant underground and can migrate through cracks and faults in the earth, pooling in unexpected places." A 20 percent concentration of odorless CO2 can cause a person to lose consciousness in "a breath or two" and asphyxiate.

And here's an unintended consequence I have never heard discussed - what happens to all of the oxygen in the CO2 molecules that get sequestered? When plants pull CO2 out of the air and use it to grow stems and roots, they recycle the oxygen back into the atmosphere. Are we in danger of burying a needful portion of our oxygen deep in the Earth?

Ultimately, Branson's Earth Challenge prize reflects the same attitude that got us into the climate crisis in the first place. It's a wet dream for engineers who now get to play with a whole planet, acting out their favorite science fiction scenarios. If they want to terraform a planet, I say send them to Mars, but don't experiment with the Earth.

In his landmark critique of Technological Man, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, historian William Irwin Thompson observes: "When we have moved beyond the desolation of all our male vanities, from the stock market to the stock pile of rockets, we will be more open and receptive. Open and bleeding like that archaic wound, the vulva, we will be prepared to receive the conception of a new civilization."

The truth is that we already have all the technology that we need to save ourselves. Most of the world does not drive cars, use air conditioning or fly in airplanes, let alone spaceships. Provide an African village with a few solar panels and they can have lights at night, and a refrigerator to store medicines. Add a satellite dish and a computer, and they have the world's knowledge and culture at their fingertips. If the environment around them is healthy, it can provide everything else they need for a good life - water, food, clothing, shelter, musical instruments and the enjoyment of nature.

The new, post-carbon civilization will require that we be open to radically new ways of living. At the same time that the industrialized world helps African villagers upgrade their lifestyles to include electric lights and computers, it needs to downgrade its own lifestyles to eliminate wasteful consumption and feel the Earth again.

But what will motivate the rich populations of the industrial world to do this? Conventional wisdom says that they will never give up their wasteful luxuries. They will embrace every techno-fix imaginable before making even the smallest sacrifices, because they feel that they have already won the prize. The prize, in fact, is their monopoly over fossil fuels and the concern is that someone - greens, Arabs, Venezuelans or Russians - will take it away. It's no accident that Daniel Yergin's definitive history of the oil industry is called The Prize.

We must come to see that the ultimate prize is not sitting on top of a pile of consumer goods; the ultimate prize is the miracle of our continued life on this beautiful planet. Unfortunately, Richard Branson's offering of a carbon-sequestration prize perpetuates the dangerous illusion that we can avoid the hard choices because Technological Man will always prevail.

That said, however, perhaps Branson's contest will surprise me. His roster of judges includes the brilliant Australian evolutionary biologist Tim Flannery, who has written The Weather Makers, the best book yet on climate change. Flannery is well-qualified to root out false solutions and sniff out unintended consequences.

And there are many practical things we can do to enhance the natural carbon-sequestration ability of fields and forests, like planting and fertilizing trees and using no-till agriculture. There is even a potentially revolutionary technique waiting to be developed that could greatly accelerate carbon storage in soils.

The technique is called "Terra Preta," Portuguese for "black earth." It is not new. It was invented by an ancient agricultural civilization in the Amazon that made charcoal and buried it the soil. The charcoal absorbs and holds nutrients from manure and supports beneficial microbes. Some of these fertile soils are more than 1000 years old. You can read more about Terra Preta in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann.

There is a company called Eprida that is developing a process to manufacture this agricultural charcoal with a biofuel as a co-product. Perhaps they will apply for the Earth Challenge prize and perhaps, if the judges are open to it, their process or some similar process will win the prize.

Survival requires that we restore a balance to our relationship with the Earth. This is the balance that Henry Adams wrote of upon his visit to the great Paris Exposition of 1900, in The Education of Henry Adams. The experience was heady for him as he recognized that the world was then teetering between the pull of two great forces: the powerful engines of the future he encountered in the Hall of Dynamos, and all the spiritual truths of the ancient world as represented by the Virgin of Chartres:

"As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring - scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's-breadth further for respect of power - while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame."

Now, barely 100 years later, we see that the baby is too close to the frame, and the age of the dynamos has brought us to the brink of disaster. It is this disaster that Richard Branson, possibly with the best of intentions, is responding to. And his prize may yet do some great good, particularly if he honors his creation's namesake, the Virgin of his Virgin Enterprises.

For the Virgin is none other than the ancient Goddess of the Earth. Henry Adams says, "She was Goddess because of her force; she was the animated dynamo; she was reproduction - the greatest and most mysterious of all energies; all she needed was to be fecund."

We don't have to roll over the Earth with our dynamos. We have a much better chance of success if we can find ways to work with the Earth to enhance her fertility and restore her natural cycles.

As Henry Adams noted, wandering through the cathedrals and museums of Paris, the "force" of the Virgin "was the highest energy ever known to man, the creator of four-fifths of his noblest art, exercising vastly more attraction over the human mind than all the steam-engines and dynamos ever dreamed of ... All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres."

More Food Is Not the Answer
By Kelpie Wilson
In Good Tilth
July/August 2008

With food riots across the globe in the news, the immediate cause of food shortages is simply this: grain prices have doubled over the last year and poor people can no longer afford to buy enough food. There is no one single cause for the price rise; it is a combination of supply and demand.

Steady population growth means about 70 million new mouths to feed every year, and increasing affluence is also spurring more people to buy more meat. Meat is grain-intensive - it takes about seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Biofuels are another new demand on grain stocks, and a potentially insatiable one. The grain used to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year.

There is more than enough grain to feed every hungry human on the planet, but the poor cannot compete with wealthier buyers of meat and biofuels. Markets are not interested in feeding hungry people - they want to make money, so from a capitalist point of view, the only solution is to increase supply in the hope that it will drive prices down.

On the supply side, serious limiting factors are coming into play: dwindling water supplies and increased drought exacerbated by climate change; increasingly degraded land and soils; the rising cost of energy used for everything from water pumping to transport, and the growing cost of fertilizer and other inputs.

The world wants more food - a lot more food - but the planet will not be able to provide it. For this reason alone, more food cannot be the answer.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, says that while there have been food price spikes in the past, “This troubling situation is unlike any the world has faced before.”

Brown doesn’t use the term, but it is likely that we have reached “peak food,” the moment when world grain output has achieved its maximum and we will have to work very hard to keep it from declining.

One of the top reasons to believe we have reached peak food is that we have apparently reached peak oil. In his book, Eating Fossil Fuels, Dale Allen Pfeiffer shows how utterly dependent modern agriculture is on fossil fuels, not just for the machinery that plants and harvests, but for the energy to irrigate fields and for fertilizers. About 30 percent of farm energy goes to fertilizer, much of which is made from natural gas. Like oil, natural gas is becoming increasingly expensive as production nears peak. Without oil, we might not drive cars, but without fertilizer, we might not eat.

Food and fuel are intimately connected. Not only is fuel essential to produce food, but because food can substitute for fuel, the price of food is now locked into the price of oil - a price that will continue to rise in the long term.

Report shows the way forward

Globalization has promised to lift every person out of poverty by growing the economy so large that wealth will eventually trickle down to all. But this is a false promise that ignores physical limits to planetary resources.

A groundbreaking United Nations report that presents a serious challenge to the promises of globalization and biotech was released April, 2008. The IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development) is directed by Robert Watson, a former director of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and it shares some similar features to the UN Climate assessment reports.

Most importantly, the IAASTD report says that agricultural systems cannot go on as they have. They are failing to feed the poor, wrecking ecosystems, exacerbating global warming and are far too dependent on fossil fuels. Just as everything about the way we produce and use energy must change in order to avoid climate catastrophe, so everything about the way we produce and use food must change in order to avoid a humanitarian and ecological disaster.

Watson said, “If we do persist with business as usual, the world’s people cannot be fed over the next half-century. It will mean more environmental degradation, and the gap between the haves and have-nots will further widen. We have an opportunity now to marshal our intellectual resources to avoid that sort of future. Otherwise, we face a world no one would want to inhabit.”

As with climate change, the solution to the food crisis will not be found in some miracle new technology. On the contrary, the report touts many traditional crops and methods for maintaining soil fertility and coping with drought. These traditional technologies need to be integrated with modern ones to achieve the best of both worlds. Currently there is little support for this approach to crop science.

British economist Nicholas Stern called climate change the biggest market failure in history. The IAASTD report also indicts markets with failing to eradicate hunger and poverty. Watson said, “The incentives for science to address the issues that matter to the poor are weak ... the poorest developing countries are net losers under most trade liberalization scenarios.”

Agribusiness reacts

The IAASTD study involved more than 400 authors and took four years to produce. However, not everyone stuck with the process till the end. Representatives from the biotechnology industry walked out in protest, complaining that genetically modified crops were being unfairly overlooked in favor of organic agriculture. The New Scientist (April 5, 2008) presented a point counter-point between participants Deborah Keith, a manager for Syngenta, one of the world’s largest biotech companies, and Janice Jiggins, a social scientist. Keith complained that the draft document was unscientific and that “too often it treated fears and prejudices against technology and business as fact ...” Organic agriculture was not subjected to the same scrutiny, she said.

Jiggins’ account of the process noted that traditional farmers at the table “took deep offense at hearing technologies ... building on centuries-old traditions dismissed as ‘anecdotal’ and of no value.”
At heart, the debate is over what is considered “scientific” agriculture. The discussion of biotechnology in the final report summary peels the “anecdotal” label off traditional agriculture and slaps it back on genetic engineering, saying that “assessment of modern biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory ...”

Jiggens notes that, among other problems, “the capacity to monitor and regulate GM has failed to keep up.”

In reaction to the IAASTD report, some commentators have leaped on the idea that people who are “afraid of science” are irrationally keeping biotech and companies like Monsanto from saving the world.

Oxford professor Paul Collier, writing in The London Times, said that Europe and Japan are “befuddled by romanticism” for subsidizing inefficient small farms. “The remedy to high food prices is to increase supply,” he said, and the only solution to the food crisis is more food produced by “unromantic industrialized agriculture.”

He also said, “The most realistic way is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies that supply the world market. There are still many areas of the world - including large swaths of Africa - that have good land that could be used far more productively if it were properly managed by large companies. To contain the rise in food prices, we need more globalization, not less.”

Brazil - big ag set up to fail?

Taking a closer look at the Brazilian model shows why the IAASTD authors overwhelmingly rejected the big business model as a way to sustainably feed the world.

Brazil’s Mato Grosso region is the world’s most active agricultural frontier. Satellite photos show the relentless push of soybean monocultures and cattle grazing into the Amazon rainforest. Forest ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center, says that soy agriculture in the Mato Grosso has “greased the skids” for deforestation of the Amazon.

The success of soy farming in Mato Grosso is based on two advantages: the region’s abundant rainfall and the discovery that heavy applications of fertilizer, especially lime and phosphorus, could impart impressive fertility to the tropical soils. Both of these assets are likely to be short-lived.

First and foremost is the rain. Nepstad’s research focus is drought in the Amazon. He has found that after only two years of drought, trees begin to die and the forest fires start. Once a regular fire regime takes hold, a tipping point is reached that rapidly converts rainforest to dry scrub. The consequence is not just losing the rainforest, but losing the rain. Through a process called transpiration, trees in the Amazon seed the clouds that water the fields and pastures of South America and the Caribbean. Researchers are finding that clouds and air currents that originate in the Amazon can drive weather patterns as far away as the North Atlantic. As the forest evaporates, so does the rainfall.

The second factor, a reliance on heavy applications of fertilizer, is also bound to be a temporary phenomenon. Little noted in the popular press, fertilizer prices have skyrocketed in recent months. Reuters reported on April 16, that Chinese fertilizer importers have “agreed to pay more than triple what they did a year ago to reserve tight supplies of potash, sending the shares of global fertilizer makers to record levels.”

Phosphorus, like potash, is mostly produced by mining mineral deposits and there is a limit to global reserves - a limit that we are rapidly approaching. Patrick Dery and Bart Anderson looked at phosphorus production data in a report for Energy Bulletin titled Peak Phosphorus. They concluded that the world has passed the peak of phosphorus production and is already in decline.

“In some ways,” say Dery and Anderson, “the problem of peak phosphorus is more difficult than peak oil. Energy sources other than oil are available...” But, they point out, “Unlike fossil fuels, phosphorus can be recycled. However if we waste phosphorus, we cannot replace it [with] any other source.”

The main way to recycle phosphorus is to reclaim it from sewage and animal waste. The need to do this will bring us full circle from modern high-tech agriculture back to traditional practices that used animal manure and human “night soil.” Researchers in Sweden and Australia are already working on a new toilet design that would siphon off human urine to use as a source of phosphate. It would be stored in tanks for supply to farmers.

What will happen to the farms of Mato Grosso when the price of phosphorus doubles, quadruples, and then doubles again? For that matter, what will happen to the fields of Iowa?

Brazil and the new agriculture

It is the specter of resource limits that has led the authors of the IAASTD study to recommend that traditional practices be studied and adopted where they make sense. One of the most promising traditional practices that is now being studied at Cornell and other major agricultural research institutions has its origins in Brazil.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been on the defensive for his government’s role in deforesting the Amazon. Most recently, critics have attacked Brazilian agriculture for diverting capacity from food to biofuels. Lula has countered the criticism by insisting that Brazil will expand its agriculture without further encroachments on the Amazon. One of the best ways to do that, and conserve scarce fertilizers like phosphorus at the same time, might be to adopt a practice used by an ancient civilization that occupied the Amazon before Columbus.

The practice is called terra preta, Portuguese for “dark earth.” These dark earths are highly fertile soils that were created by burying charcoal along with manure and other organic wastes. Charcoal is a porous material that is very good at holding nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and making them available to plant roots. It also aerates soil and helps it to retain water.

Some terra preta fields are thousands of years old, and yet they are still so fertile that they are dug up and sold as potting soil in Brazilian markets.

Because making charcoal from biomass releases energy, researchers today are looking at integrated biomass energy and food production systems using “biochar” - the modern term for terra preta. For more details on these efforts, see my report for Truthout on the first biochar conference in 2007. There is also a good account of the terra preta in Charles C. Mann’s book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

Biochar may be the answer that Lula is looking for. Biochar could be a great gift from Brazil to the rest of the world. Charles C. Mann notes that “it might improve the expanses of bad soil that cripple agriculture in Africa - a final gift from the peoples who brought us tomatoes, maize, manioc, and a thousand different ways of being human.”

Biochar is just one of the traditional agricultural practices that a world running out of fossil fuels and cheap fertilizer may be very grateful to rediscover in the coming years. The IAASTD report, if acted upon quickly, could jumpstart this research.

Roadmap needed

The IAASTD report does not go so far as to provide a road map or an action plan, but the various private-public partnerships that are working to implement its goals are already finding it useful.

Inter Press Service reports that a delegate from Costa Rica said “These documents are like a bible with which to negotiate with various institutions in my country and transform agriculture.”

Benny Haerlin, the representative from Greenpeace, sees the document as a blazing signpost, lighting the way. He said: “This marks the beginning of a new, of a real Green Revolution. The modern way of farming is biodiverse and labor intensive and works with nature, not against it.”


Additional Information

Genesis gets the Crumb Treatment

published Sunday 25 October 2009
by: Kelpie Wilson, t r u t h o u t | Book Review

Crumb genesis

I confess that I am one of those feminists who finds a lot to like in the work of Robert Crumb. If his early work in the underground comics movement expressed a "sexual rage" as he calls it, well those were the times to get it all out of your system. Besides, how could I not love an artist so appreciative of the real bodies that women have - big butts, thunder thighs and all?

So, it came as a surprise to learn that this warrior of the id and defender of the flesh has produced an illustrated version of Genesis. That's right, the Bible. What would he do with it? Obviously, Crumb would portray the cruel and jealous God of the Old Testament as some version of the cynical, abusive Mr. Natural, holding secret orgies in Heaven with Devil Girl, and he would base his Abraham on Flakey Foont, Mr. Natural's pathetic sycophant.

But that's not how Crumb did it. On this one, he played it (mostly) straight. And why not? If you have never read Genesis from start to finish, you might not be aware that the stories are as full of sexual perversity and surreal plot points as any comic book. Genesis has lust, inebriation, nudity, polygamy, harlots, men pimping their wives, masturbation, penis cutting, sex with a 90-year-old woman who gives birth, sodomy, incest and a father who offers his virgin daughters up for strangers to rape.

That's a lot of great material for an artist like Crumb, and the genius of his Genesis is that he portrays it all - every word and every illustration is given equal weight. That's not how they taught it to us back in Sunday school. Our Bible coloring books had only selected scenes: Noah and his animals, but never Noah lying passed out drunk and naked in his tent. And even when we outgrew the Sunday school cookies and punch and graduated to wafers and wine, we still never heard about Abraham selling his wife Sarah to Pharaoh in exchange for cattle, gold and slaves. It was a kind of scam for the couple, and they did it more than once, targeting King Abimelech of Gerar next and getting cattle, sheep, slaves and land in return.

Crumb's compositions are cinematic and the rendering of detail is deliciously fine. One is amazed at how well the text adapts to the comic book form with its speech balloons and narrative boxes. The "sweet" Crumb comes through here with tenderly drawn and emotionally insightful expressions. And the faces! Where did he get them all? Each individual in the "begats" is unique. They are all raw, rich and human.

Some years ago, when Bill Moyers convened an interfaith dialogue on Genesis, it was the human dimension of the stories that he found so gripping: "Because their emotions and struggles are so real," Moyers said, "the people of Genesis come to life in every generation, and their stories live on."

Scholars have often said that the Hebrew texts are the first example of written history. Earlier writing from Sumeria recorded myths (including the flood story), genealogies, laws and accounts, but the Hebrews were the first to write a narrative history of their people. Before the "people of the book," the common culture of a clan or tribe was formed exclusively by oral tales and images.

Images are fundamentally different from words. Leonard Shlain, in his book "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess," lays out a theory about this difference and the impact it has had on cultural evolution. Shlain thought that writing stimulated left brain, linear, cause-and-effect thinking, associated with males, while a focus on images produced a more intuitive and holistic style of thought, associated with females.

The "people of the book" crusaded against images, as their God warned them away from the "alien gods" of other people. The most interesting scenes in Genesis revolve around the struggles within the tribe of Abraham over images and other vestiges of goddess worship, for clearly these stories are about a people in transition. And this is where Crumb's work becomes important.

By rendering every letter of Genesis faithfully into images, Crumb has given us a blank canvas on which to color new meaning. Combining words and images together allows us to escape the fundamentalism of either one alone. Shlain discusses this fundamentalism in his chapters on the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. The Catholic Church had never allowed free access to the Bible texts. Only ordained priests were authorized to read and interpret the Bible for congregations. The only direct access people had to the stories was the depiction of selected stories in church windows and other decorations. Then along came the printing press, making the Bible available to lay people, and Martin Luther declared "every man is his own priest." But liberating the Bible from church control courted chaos, and there was suddenly no room for any interpretation at all. Bible literalism was born. And since no one really knew how to respond to incidents like Abraham selling Sarah to Pharaoh, or Lot offering his virgin daughters to a ravenous mob, those stories are generally ignored by all.

Crumb's Genesis does not let you ignore the problem stories - they are imaged just as faithfully as all the others.

Crumb addresses some of these more puzzling stories in his afterword commentary where he quotes from a book by Near East scholar Savina Teubal titled "Sarah the Priestess." I read Teubal's book as background material for my novel "Primal Tears" a few years ago and it revolutionized my thinking about human history. Teubal found it very likely that the biblical Sarah was a high priestess from a disappearing matriarchal culture that still existed in Mesopotamia, alongside an emerging patriarchy.

Ancient Mesopotamian priestesses were highly regarded and their offices were essential to the functioning of society. The priestess was responsible for rituals maintaining the fertility of the land and for decisions on how the stores of grain would be shared. To maintain her impartiality, a priestess was not allowed to bear children of her own, lest she favor her own lineage. Hence all the barren women among the matriarchs of Genesis - they were priestesses in a new land where their ancient prerogatives were being revoked, systematically, by Yahweh.

The heiros gamos, or sacred marriage, was the supreme fertility ritual performed by a priestess with a king. As the priestess embodied Inanna, Queen of Heaven, she would "take the earth-king into the sweetness of her holy loins, and by her cosmic powers ensure the king's powers of leadership and fertility." This explains the two episodes with Sarah and the kings and another one later between Sarah's daughter-in-law Rebekah and a king. Sarah's first liaison with Pharaoh brings down plague and God makes sure that the second of Sarah's sacred marriages, with King Abimelech, is never consummated. Even the threat of it has made all the women in the kingdom barren and God only restores their fertility after Abimelech sends Sarah back to her husband.

And yet, the repudiation of matriarchal power is not complete. Although multiplying Abraham's seed is the driving thrust of the Genesis story, only the descendents of Sarah's child Isaac are counted among the twelve tribes of Israel. Even God backs Sarah up when he lets her banish Abraham's son Ishmael.

It is interesting also that the patriarchs are not the manliest of men. Abraham always does as he is told. Isaac is too weak to resist Rebekah, who deceives him into blessing the mild-mannered Jacob rather than the robust hunter Esau. Jacob is a "dweller in tents" who cannot control his rowdy sons. Joseph, as Crumb says, "is a sensitive man who is moved to tears many times in his life story." Sensitive men and strong matriarchs are one phase of a gender struggle that is endlessly fascinating to us as a species, a struggle that has always been with us (see Crumb's story "Cave Wimp").

Armed with interpretations like Savina Teubal's and with Crumb's accessible picture book, a new territory of exploration awaits the reader. One point that deserves a lot of thought is how the history of one obscure tribe has come to dominate religious practice for thousands of years and what that means for the future.

For instance, if the "chosen people" of Israel believe they have a God-given right to the already-occupied land of Canaan, how can there ever be peace in the Middle East? Genesis has many passages that justify the subjugation of the Canaanites, beginning with Noah banishing his son Ham on the flimsiest of excuses (that he saw his father drunk and naked in his tent?). As Ham and his young son Canaan depart, Noah calls after them, "Cursed be Canaan! The lowliest of slaves he shall be to his brother!" This has the feel of a crude setup for all the smiting that comes later.

No doubt, there has been more than one group of nomads with big ambitions who trolled the earth, searching for opportunities to multiply their seed. The Hebrews were merely the first to write their story and preserve it for generations and so they earned their influence. Because of this continuing influence, passed down to both Christians and Muslims, it is vitally important that these stories do not go unexamined. As Bill Moyers put it: "The more each of us knows and understands, the better our chances for living purposeful lives, creating strong families, building solid communities, and forging a more tolerant and vibrant democracy ... together."

Here's some more background on the logging protest from 1987 that resulted in a SLAPP suit:

A Stand for a Stand
by Kelpie Wilson
The Progressive
March 1994

One July morning in 1987, I found myself with five new friends at a logging site in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest. Valerie Wade, a college student, fifth generation Oregonian, and daughter of a logger, had climbed to the top of a ninety-foot yarder spar pole to hang a banner. Chained to the bottom of the yarder, which drags felled trees up steep slopes to waiting log trucks, were Karen Wood, a Eugene computer scientist; Michele Miller, an elementary school teacher from Chico, California; Kamala Redd, a college student from New York City; James Jackson, a surveyor from Texas, and myself, a new graduate with a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Chico State, about to head off to a career in alternative energy.

I was there to defend the trees because of my engineering education. For four years I was taught that production is a one-way process—from the mine or forest to the landfill with a brief moment of consumption in between. Before entering the engineering profession, I wanted to make a statement that endless consumption of resources will lead to a trashed planet. When I heard about the clear-cutting of 200-year-old trees, I knew I had to take a stand.

Out in the woods that morning, we “arrested” the yarder for crimes against trees, sang songs, and gave interviews to reporters. While we waited for the police to come and cut our locks and arrest us, we saw a toy poodle prance across the landing, followed by its owner, a logger in suspenders. He was astounded to see that the person on top of the pole was a young woman. We were astounded to see a logger with a poodle.

He asked us why we didn’t do our demonstration in front of the Forest Service office instead of interrupting his work. We explained to him that we had to protest in the forest so that reporters would come out to the remote site and broadcast the clear-cut destruction to the public. He conceded that without media coverage only loggers saw the great trees crashing down.

Sure enough, video footage of our action made the local and national news. Photographs appeared in Smithsonian and even in the German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel. But not everyone was as understanding as the logger with the little dog. The county judge called us communists, sentenced us to two weeks in jail, and ordered us to pay fines and restitution totaling $4800. We would pay for our logger friend’s lost wages for the day.

Then, on our way out of the courtroom we were SLAPPed. A SLAPP is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation; such suits usually lose, but they tie up activists’ time and money in court proceedings. The process-server informed us that we were being sued by Huffman & Wright Logging, the owner of the yarder, for $50,000 in punitive damages for chaining ourselves to their equipment.

Before we could contend with the SLAPP, we needed to serve our jail time. We were placed in a cell with a group of local thieves. I noticed a photo of one of their boyfriends: He had a swastika tattoo on his arm, and he was standing next to a log truck. They began to call us “earthworms,” and they insulted Kamala for her skin color and dreadlocks. Then they advanced toward us, fists clenched. I took a karate stance. Valerie tapped me on the arm. “Remember our nonviolence,” she said. “Let’s just sit down.”

I took a deep breath, and we sat down on the floor in a huddle. We were beaten and kicked and had our hair pulled (especially Kamala) until the guards eventually showed up and moved us to our own cell for the duration of our stay.

The SLAPP trial was held in Roseburg, Oregon, a timber-dependent town. The Northwest timber industry brought in its top lawyer, Mark Rutzick, who has argued the spotted owl cases for the industry in Federal court. At the trial, he brandished spikes, and waved around copies of Dave Foreman’s Ecodefense (a manual on equipment sabotage), even though we had not committed or been charged with any property damage. Rutzick told the jury we were “hooligans” who needed to be stopped so the timber industry could go back to doing its job of “responsible” forestry.

We cited the importance of civil disobedience to the defense of American freedom, from Boston Harbor in 1773 to the women’s suffrage movement early in the century and the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. We also told the jury about our nonviolent philosophy and our opposition to tree spiking.
But the jury of loggers and loggers’ wives jumped at the chance to nail some Earth First!ers. They found us guilty and awarded $25,000 in punitive damages to Huffman & Wright Logging.

We appealed the decision all the way up to the Oregon Supreme Court, arguing that such an award would have a chilling effect on everyone’s right to free speech. The majority of the Oregon Supreme Court did not agree with us. In a decision handed down last August, the court, using a fine legal razor, said our protest could be separated into a free-speech action and a trespassing action, and that a jury may award punitive damages for the trespassing part.

Six-and-a-half years ago, we stood in the middle of a clear-cut and shouted “ecocide,” and we interfered with a logging operation for exactly one day. Today, our group faces a major financial liability that will dog us for the rest of our lives.

Some of us now have families to support and would like to get on with our careers. So far our collective strategy has been to stay judgment-proof by remaining indigent. The law differs from state to state, but in Oregon, the courts can’t garnish your wages if you make less than $8,840 a year. Since we are being held jointly and severally liable, if even one of us begins to earn more than the minimum, the state can take the whole $25,000 (plus interest) from that one individual.

Four years ago, a court order to attach my wages reached Oakland, California, where I was working as an engineer. I couldn’t stand the idea of paying more money to the timber industry, so I quit my job. Since than, I’ve been working on grass-roots education campaigns for the ancient forest at wages that keep me judgment proof.

It’s not what I set out to do, but that morning in the Siskiyou changed everything for me.

It's taken me awhile to get this up, but here's my latest published piece:

It's also at Energy Bulletin under my original title, Malthus and Vice.

Have We Hit the Limits of Human Population?

By Kelpie Wilson, AlterNet. Posted April 10, 2009.

Without growth, there would be no economy as we know it. But modern culture, by and large, doesn't see that it can exist only in the medium of ceaseless growth and expansion, because a fish doesn't see the water it swims in. Only today, in the recent, breathless moments of the greatest economic crash since the Great Depression, do we begin to perceive the waters around us.

Slowly, we are coming to realize that the last 200 years of economic growth have been based on a monumental Ponzi scheme that has pushed the final reckoning ever forward in time, until the future is now. Slowly, we are coming to realize that Thomas Malthus was right.

It was the warrior cry of the radical environmental movement in the 1980s: "Malthus Was Right!" But Malthus, a mumbling country parson with intellectual ambitions, had been transmogrified by capitalists and communists alike into a fearsome bogeyman possessed of "dangerous" ideas.

Environmentalists who invoked his name were invariably corrected by their progressive friends, who told them that excess consumption by the rich was the problem, not the reproductive profligacy of the poor.

Yet, as we drive deeper into the greenhouse world, with its crazy weather, water shortages and general degradation, more and more of us from across the political spectrum are wondering how on earth we will feed the 3 billion more people projected to arrive by 2050, or even the 6 billion or so we already have.

It is worthwhile, therefore, to examine the Malthusian idea, to discover what truths it holds and to see if they can be of any help.

Malthus' big idea, published in 1798 in "An Essay on the Principle of Population," was that human population would always grow exponentially, and that it would always push up against the limits of food production, thus creating a permanent class of poor whose numbers could only be checked by "misery" and "vice."

His Law of Population is based on this simple observation:

"Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them."

Later, Charles Darwin would base his theory of natural selection on this observation. He saw that a super abundance of progeny allows natural selection to work so that only the fittest survive.

Malthus wrote his essay in response to William Godwin, an outspoken liberal of the day. Godwin wanted to abolish the aristocracy and redistribute the wealth. He believed in the "perfectibility of man." As a member of the landed elite, Malthus felt a need to address the rabble-rouser Godwin and prove that even in a perfect society where the working man received according to his needs, all benefits would soon be wiped out by population growth.

The poor man's "lack of moral restraint" would ensure that his family would continue to grow until they ate him out of house and home. Starvation and disease would then do the job of reducing the population to a supportable size.

Malthus made a big impression on the British upper classes (who had access to concubines and prostitutes and hence no need for moral restraint to curtail family size). Since the poor were destined to continually breed themselves back into poverty anyway, there was no point in improving their condition.

Politicians seized on Malthus' theory to end subsidies for the poor ("a shilling a week to every laborer for each child he has above three") and pass the Poor Law of 1834 that forced those seeking relief into workhouses designed to be as much like prisons as possible. It's no wonder then that Friedrich Engels declared Malthus' Law of Population to be the "most open declaration of war of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat."

Karl Marx and Engels put their faith in technology and believed that progress would continually expand agricultural production, mooting the issue of population growth. While they thought Darwin's use of the Law of Population to explain evolution had some validity, they insisted that humans were exempt. Animals were only "collectors" of nature's bounty, but humans were "producers" and masters of their own destiny.

Indeed, Malthus might have earned more respect for his Law of Population if he hadn't proposed it just at the moment when human production first tapped into the coal seams and oil streams that fueled the industrial expansion. It is only today, when those resources have peaked, that we are revealed to be much more like the other animals than we thought -- "collectors" of ancient sunlight, our fossil fuel inheritance, and not the all powerful "producers" we thought we were.

As a progressive, I want to believe that humanity can control our destiny. But as an ecologist, I have to accept the Law of Population. Is there no way out? Yes there is. But it requires us to embrace what Malthus called "vice."

Malthus saw three ways to control population growth: abstinence, misery and vice. Abstinence was too challenging for most. Misery included starvation, disease and death. That left vice: a category that included prostitution, abortion and infanticide, but also "promiscuous intercourse, unnatural passions, violations of the marriage bed and improper arts to conceal the consequence of irregular connexions."

Blinders imposed by the church and centuries of violent repression of women healers and midwives had so deeply branded contraception as an "improper art" that even a revolutionary like Godwin could not advocate it. He could only insist that redistribution of wealth would result in more "moral restraint." Malthus found this laughable:

"I do not know that any writer has supposed that on this earth man will ultimately be able to live without food. But Mr. Godwin has conjectured that the passion between the sexes may in time be extinguished ... the best arguments for the perfectibility of man are drawn from a contemplation of the great progress that he has already made from the savage state and the difficulty of saying where he is to stop. But towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto been made."

When the radical Francis Place publicly advocated birth control in the 1820s, he was condemned for promoting vice by church, state and even his fellow working men in the labor unions he helped to found. Nearly a century later, Margaret Sanger finally opened her first birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, N.Y., and contraception was only fully legalized in the United States in 1965. The definition of "vice" evolved very slowly.

Malthus' list of vices included infanticide, which today stands well apart from birth control, abortion, prostitution and homosexuality. And yet, throughout history and prehistory, infanticide was probably the most widely used method of curtailing population growth, mostly because the contraception and abortion methods of the past were either ineffective or dangerous to women.

Before the fossil fuel era, the need to prevent famine often dictated infanticide, especially female infanticide, which relieved population pressure by reducing the number of breeding females. It is good to know this bit of history, because it gives us the proper context for updating the definition of "vice."

Still, there are conservatives who would prefer to see famine and misery rather than condone contraceptives, abortion, women's rights and homosexuality. Among them is Pope Benedict, leader of the world's largest religious organization, who has just condemned untold numbers of Africans to death by opposing condoms for prevention of AIDS, because it might lead to "vice."

There are also still progressives who insist that population growth is not a problem. They should go back and read Engels, who hated Malthus and thought the idea of population outstripping resources was ludicrous, but still said this:

"There is, of course, the abstract possibility that the number of people will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase. But if at some stage communist society finds itself obliged to regulate the production of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry this out without difficulty ... it is for the people in the communist society themselves to decide whether, when and how this is to be done, and what means they wish to employ to the purpose."

We are those people, and many of us now understand that the real vices are found in war, injustice and repression. Increasingly, we realize that we must work together for humane and liberating solutions to the problem of human overpopulation, as we build a new, non-growth, steady-state economy that provides for all.

Abortion and the Earth
By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Environment Editor
Tuesday 29 January 2008

On this recent thirty-fifth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, pro-choice activists are calling for a new approach to the issue.

Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Free Choice, and Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, wrote in an OpEd article in The Los Angeles Times: "Our vigorous defense of the right to choose needs to be accompanied by greater openness regarding the real conflict between life and choice, between rights and responsibility. It is time for a serious reassessment of how to think about abortion in a world that is radically changed from 1973."

Kissling and Michelman acknowledge that the anti-choice movement has made great inroads into the consciousness of America, which now has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the developed world. Part of the success of the anti-abortion message comes down to advances in technology, they say. The ubiquitous ultrasound images of fetuses and the survival of premature babies at earlier and earlier stages has established the unborn as a category of persons with rights in the minds of many people.

As the specter of back alley abortions recedes and women no longer die by the thousands from botched abortions, the old arguments about a woman's life and her right to autonomy over her own body are holding less sway. Kissling and Michelman warn: "If pro-choice values are to regain the moral high ground, genuine discussion about these challenges needs to take place within the movement."

The moral arguments about abortion rarely consider the physical limits of the planet, but if they did, and if abortion were put into the context of the long history of human attempts to avoid starvation by regulating population growth, we might come to a different conclusion about what "pro-life" really means.

An increased awareness of the fetus and its rights is not the only change in the moral landscape of reproduction since 1973. The other change that must be acknowledged is that we have far exceeded the capacity of the planet to sustain our numbers, and that human life and civilization are now deeply threatened by resource depletion, toxic pollution and climate catastrophe. Already, shortages of food, fuel and water are making it difficult to meet the basic needs of the 6.5 billion people on the planet and no one has any idea how we will feed the 9.1 billion people projected to be here by 2050.

Jizophoto Many women and couples in Japan who have terminated a pregnancy choose to honor the soul of the child through a practice called mizuko jizo. In this ritual the parents purchase a doll, adorn it and enshrine it in a temple, where it is cared for by priests. 

Saving Babies 

The new moral landscape that Kissling and Michelman refer to was covered in an article by Stephanie Simon, January 23, 2008, on the growing youth movement against abortion.

Simon reports on a group of eighth-graders who have "spiritually adopted" an unknown fetus, giving it a name and praying that its mother will not abort it. Another group of teenagers see themselves as survivors of abortion. One young woman from a family of six children thinks about her classmates who come from small families and says: "I look at my friends and I wonder, 'Where are your siblings?'"

This caring attitude of concern is being nourished by some religious leaders who are encouraging teens to take it beyond the abortion issue and volunteer with programs for AIDS sufferers and the homeless.

It is significant that young people are being recruited to the pro-life side by appealing to their feelings of loving kindness for what they are told are victims of abortion. You can say that they are being manipulated into this position by concerted religious propaganda, and there's a lot of truth to that, but there is a reason why young people are ripe for this. We live in a world where almost ten million children under age five die every year from preventable causes. In our world, five million people were killed in the Congo over the last decade and no one in the developed world took any notice. People all over the planet are suffering, and no one is coming to their aid. It's an uncaring world, and so the impulse to do something, to reach out, help and save some of these victims is very strong.

It is also interesting that some of these children are identifying themselves as survivors of abortion. They look around and see missing brothers and sisters and don't see any reason why a pregnant woman would abort a child and deny it a place in the family. What they don't see is that most women who seek abortions do so in order to conserve resources for children they already have.

But, setting aside for a moment the many completely valid reasons women have for seeking an abortion, it is important to acknowledge that every one of us is a survivor of abortion. Between 20 and 50 percent of all pregnancies end in a natural abortion where the woman's body for whatever reason - whether it is a genetically malformed embryo or some environmental or even social stress - is triggered to abort. This happens all the time and it is completely natural.

Everyone who is born is a survivor of natural abortion. And everyone who celebrates a first birthday is a survivor of infant mortality. Throughout history and pre-history in cultures across the face of Planet Earth, there has always been a large amount of infant mortality. Babies often died within the first month, year or several years after birth because of harsh environmental conditions, and this is the way it has been for human beings until very recently.

Spontaneous abortion helps us see that we are not actually separate from our environment, whether it is the environment of the womb or the environment of the planet. With each conception of a being, the conception is only the beginning. We are all very much dependent on the environment, and no one more so than a tiny embryo or fetus in its mother's womb. The universe does not guarantee a right to life.

Abortion As a Sacrament 

To make moral judgments about abortion, it is not enough to consider how we live today. We have to consider how we will live tomorrow on a resource-depleted and climate-compromised planet. To grasp the future, it will also help to have a better understanding of our past as a species.

For the first 100,000 years of our existence, the human population consisted of a couple of million hunter-gatherers scattered across the planet. Studies of modern hunter-gatherers, like the Kalahari San, show that women had long intervals of four to five years between births and produced an average of four children each. Only two children typically survived to reproduce themselves, leading to a stable population.

Long birth intervals were the key to population control. Women who are very lean and only getting just enough to eat, stop having periods when a nursing baby draws down their reserves, and so they remain infertile for the period of nursing. This is nature's birth control. If for some reason a woman did become pregnant when her child was still only a year or two years old, this presented a huge problem because as a nomadic hunter-gatherer she could not carry two children and nurse two children at once. It would kill her, and so very often when that happened, people throughout history let a newborn die. They might expose it on a hillside or they might smother it as it was being born. It was very sad, but something that had to be done because there was no way that the woman and her other child would survive.

Hunter-gatherers were not the only people who had to take steps to control population. Island cultures have long faced the absolute resource limits that the whole world is facing today. For this reason, the Japanese have a long history of using abortion to control family size. Historically, Japan had no reliable contraceptive methods and so abortion was the only alternative to infanticide.

Although it is condoned, abortion is not treated casually by traditional Japanese culture. The life of the aborted embryo or fetus is honored through a ritual practice called mizuko jizo. Mizuko means "child of the water" and is used to refer to the soul of a child who has been returned to the gods. Jizo is the name of the Buddhist god who protects and guides that soul on its journey to another world. The parents purchase a doll, adorn it and enshrine it in a temple, where it is cared for by priests.

Abortion is regarded as the parents deciding to return a child to the gods, sending a child to a temporary place until such time that it is right for the child to come into this world, either into the same family or another one. The child is returned because the parents, at that time, would be unable to provide enough love, money or attention to this child without it being to the detriment of their present family. Practicing mizuko jizo allows the parents to provide a certain amount of attention to the child, who is seen as a member of their family, to apologize to the child and to ask for forgiveness from the child for being unable to bring it up.

Honoring the life of the embryo or fetus transforms abortion from a sin to a sacrament. To understand that a tiny embryo must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good of the family or the human species as a whole is the moral high ground that we stand on today.

This doesn't mean that any woman should ever be forced to abort a child against her will, but it does mean that women need to be free to choose, because history has shown that when women have the freedom to choose, by and large they will not raise more children than they can take care of, and ultimately, that means that they will not raise more children than the planet can support. The reason we have lost this understanding today is because of a long period of anti-woman propaganda.


With the human species, and actually throughout the animal kingdom, it's an interesting fact of evolution that the sexes, male and female, don't always have exactly the same interests. There is one extreme example from the animal world that illustrates this dilemma. The anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy studied the hanuman langur monkeys of India and discovered a very disturbing result of their social patterns. The females travel in groups and raise their babies together, while the males battle for control of the female harems. When a new male establishes dominance, he will try to kill as many of the young infants as he can so he can mate with the females as soon as possible.

Once her baby is gone, a female immediately comes into heat and copulates with the male who killed her child. Obviously, this may have some benefits to the males. In a brutally competitive environment, they get a chance to see their own babies be born and reared, but for the females, this is nothing but bad news. It takes a tremendous amount of physical investment for a female to carry and raise a baby. All of her energy investment is lost when a new male comes along, but she really has no other choice but to submit.

In human history, especially in the deeper past, from what we can tell, there wasn't anything like this; in fact, there is plenty of evidence that human females were very successful in organizing themselves in coalitions of solidarity that regulated society to their benefit. Anthropologist Chris Knight and others have shown that women synchronized menstrual periods to regulate sexual access to females and motivate males to provide meat from the hunt.

Male cooperation and provisioning was critically important for human women because our babies are very helpless, and it requires a huge, huge investment to raise a baby. To regularly lose a baby and have to start over again would not have worked at all for our species. Human females throughout the hunter-gatherer period were very successful in organizing the males to provide for them and in minimizing violence against the females.

But something new happened with the advent of agriculture: people became sedentary. The whole equation around energy and reproduction changed, and it became possible, with stored agricultural produce, to have more babies at shorter birth intervals because they didn't have to be carried around. Suddenly there was massive population growth in the human species. This population growth led to an increase in friction between groups of people and ultimately led to war. Prior to the end of the last Ice Age, there was not much evidence of warfare, but when the ice melted, agriculture took hold, and as archeologist Mary Settegast documents in her book, "Plato Prehistorian," stone arrowheads specialized for war proliferated across Europe and the Near East.

As conflict increased, the males started to gain more power in human social groups as defenders of the clan and tribe, and eventually, what happened was something very new. The males began to assert their control over female reproduction. This was not something that had happened before with the human species, and the first sign we see of this is in the agricultural civilizations of the ancient Near East. The world's first anti-abortion law is found in the Middle Assyrian law code, as discussed by the historian Gerda Lerner in her book "The Creation of Patriarchy." The law required a woman who obtained an abortion to be killed by a stake driven through her heart. It was the harshest punishment the society had.

The curious thing is that this was not a pro-life law code. It was about male control over females. Men claimed for themselves the prerogative to kill any young infants that they wanted to or to sell their children or their wives into slavery. In particular, the new law allowed them to choose to raise more males who could fight as soldiers in armies. This initiation of male reproductive choice in the ancient agricultural civilizations of the Bronze Age is what set patriarchy on its current trajectory of empire, war and the ultimate conquest of the Earth itself that is killing our planet.

It's the remnant of this system that we see today in the extreme fundamentalist theologies that want to remove not only abortion from a woman's options, but birth control as well. It's a little-known fact that the leaders of today's pro-life movement are also very strongly against birth control, and they have a campaign they call the Quiver Full movement that is urging Christian woman, especially white Christian women, to have as many babies as they possibly can. The babies are a "quiver full of arrows" for the Army of God. They even connect this with the immigration debate, saying that the reason why we have so many immigrants is because white, native-born American women are not breeding enough.

Now the genocidal implications of this are clear, but there is also the fact that large families are really completely unnatural for human beings. The natural hunter-gatherers rarely had more than five children and rarely more than two or three who lived to reproduce. So, the idea of a woman having seven or ten or more children is completely unnatural. It's certainly not good for a woman's body to go through that many pregnancies, and it's completely an artifact of patriarchy, male dominance and attempts to control female reproduction.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was an American labor radical and an early proponent of family planning who criticized this system back before 1920. She said: "The large family system rivets the chains of slavery upon labor more securely. It crushes the parents, starves the children, and provides cheap fodder for machines and cannons."


Population is projected to rise to nine billion by 2050, but as recently as 1929, when my parents were born, there were only about two billion people on the planet. That's exactly the number that our best scientists say we can support on this planet with a comfortable lifestyle, not a poor scrabbling starvation lifestyle, living on a dollar a day - the way the majority of people on this planet live today - but a comfortable lifestyle. If we want to meet all the goals for development of human society, nine billion people are too many for that to happen. The ecological limits of the planet say that, and there's really nothing we can do about it.

That doesn't mean that we have to do anything violent or drastic or genocidal or inhumane, but we do need to think about a social and economic system that will move us to that point as quickly as possible, and that system involves complete reproductive freedom and comprehensive health care for all women. We must trust women to make the reproductive decisions that are best for them and the planet.

As a way to focus on the long-term goal of reducing human population to two billion people, families - that is, extended families - could start by looking at how many members were in their family in 1929 or 1930. Sisters and brothers and cousins who were less enthusiastic about having children could, in effect, assign their quota of children to sisters and brothers and cousins who might want to have bigger families. A family of three or four children will be a healthy choice for some. Families of one and two children should be celebrated and encouraged, as well as families of no children or adopted children. More and more women and couples today are choosing to remain childless. A survey in 1995 found that 6.6 percent of women in 1995 declared themselves voluntarily childless, up from 2.4 percent in 1982.

Young people today may find it sad that they come from a small family with few or no siblings, but in a way that is a blessing too. For too long, human society has been fractured into tribes and clans of genetically related people. Today we recognize more and more that we are all part of one human family. We need to look around us and adopt our brothers and sisters from the ranks of our neighbors and friends.

At the end of the day, the most fundamental issue is growth. We live in a culture and an economic system that promotes growth as the ultimate and greatest good. On a finite planet, this amounts to suicide. Growth was good for a certain time. At the beginning of the Industrial Age, it was good to grow our capacity, but with oil - the prime mover of that Industrial Age - running out and also causing grave life-threatening, species-threatening, world-threatening problems of global warming and toxic pollution, growth is no longer good, especially growth in the quantity of goods and the quantity of people.

If we want to meet our goals for the development of human culture and the increase of well-being, the first prerequisite is that we change our attitude about the growth of human population. Most crucially today, a different attitude about abortion may be the key to opening our minds and hearts to the new reality of a contracting human population on a shrinking planet.