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Blessing or a burden: population, reproduction and the demographic imagination

Note, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the degree to which as a society, we erase the economic elements of our human relationships - in marriage, to children, to extended family. I’d actually intended a now-lost post, about the economics of marriage, to be the first piece on this subject, and this one to be the second, as I argue that while we repudiate economic relationships between people who love each other, we have not successfully erased those economic relationships - we have simply made it taboo to what I think of as the “economics of love.” Since “economics” actually refers to the “household economy” it seems only appropriate to ask whether we can go on denying that our love relationships are economic in nature, indeed, that we depend fundamentally on them. And if they are, are love and economic entwinement really in opposition to one another, as modern western society postulates, or is it possible that there really is a functional place where, “love and need are one?”

I recently visited Sturbridge village, a 1830s living history museum that we stop at frequently when we go to visit my family. We happened upon a village worker hatcheting up kindling, and my 7 year old started chatting with him, and asked if he could take a turn. Unfortunately, he was told, the answer was no - there were legal risks if he hurt himself. We assured the gentleman we understood, but noted that my son (with very close supervision) is permitted to cut up kindling at home. The man we spoke to acknowledged that that was one way they were unable to be really authentic - in 1830 if your son, by eight couldn’t keep the woodbox full, or your daughter make a meal from scratch over an open fire, this would be a scandal in the neighborhood. But because of liability issues, and the way we raise children now, this isn’t possible to show. I observed that in Nigeria, I’d read that the average child begins to contribute more to the household than she eats by the age of 6. I wondered at what age most American children contribute more to the households they live in than they consume? For many blue collar households, I’d imagine it is 16-18. For the most affluent families, who subsidize graduate education, it might well be nearly 30 - or later.

This got me thinking about the larger question of how we view each child that comes into the world. I have been troubled for a long time about the ways in which we commodify children in our society - everything from the sense that parents have a “right” to a perfect, healthy child made in their image to the judgements we place on people who cannot keep pace with our increasingly expensive account of what minimum items a parent “must” give their child.

The question that arises for me is how far this worldview can take us, in what I think are inevitable and necessary discussions (and policies) that will come out of it. No matter what your view about population issues, the combination of fossil fuel depletion and climate change mean it is very likely that we will struggle even more deeply than we do with questions of equity, and simply to feed the world. In _A Nation of Farmers_ Aaron and I came to the conclusion that the question of whether we could materially feed 9 billion people in the coming decades could be answered with a very qualified yes. Even with dramatically fewer fossil fuels invested in the system, small scale agriculture can probably meet the needs of the world population to its expected peak around 2050, and for at least some time after that. The wild card on this subject is climate change - unchecked, climate change will rapidly and deeply undermine our ability to feed world populations. We are definitely going to be discussing population at a national and world level sooner or later, and I care very much about how that discussion goes, and what world we get from it. I’m not at all convinced, however, that we can have a productive discussion until we reconsider the terms that underlie it.

Once, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a graduate student in English Literature, writing my doctoral dissertation on the subject of what I called “the demographic imagination” and its impact on early modern literature, from Shakespeare to Malthus. By “demographic imagination” I did not mean the accurate summing up of population data, which even in the present (when the data is much more readily available and presumed to be of public interest than in older times) and even among people who take an interest in such things, is rarely the sole basis of their reasoning.

Instead, my interest was in the ways we think about populations of all sorts, the way we interpret our practice of counting - not just the formal counting of censuses and tax rolls, but our general perception of ourselves and our neighbors as too many or too few, our nations too crowded or too empty, and thus vulnerable to someone on the other side of the border, our families as waxing or waning. I was intrigued by the ways that we can simultaneously experience our lives as too crowded and too empty, our own families as depleted while our neighbors are too many, and how easily poets and writers, and ordinary people held in their minds simultaneously contradictory beliefs about the others they were quietly counting around them.

Over the years, my interest moved from Renaissance populations, weary from waves of plague, living in a world that seemed increasingly expansive (the new world and all), and depopulated; to the present, a world that both is and feels full in many ways, but also, where modernity operates to assimilate and empty out cultural identities, leaving many peoples losing population rapidly. I admit, I have not found the demographic imagination to be a less useful concept in the present than I did when writing about 16th-18th century British literature.

One of the best illustrations of the role of the demographic imagination in our thinking about the future is how we think about children and their role in the world. Without taking a particularly assertive stand on the subject of population over all (in this particular essay at least), I do want to consider here the way we have changed our thinking about children and reproduction in a very populous world. In the absence of a fully realized awareness that yes, we are thinking these things, and yes, some ways of thinking are more productive than others, we tend to assume that we don’t actually have any particular assumptions. But social policy consequences always descend from our perceptions of things, at least as much as the facts. Thus, we must think about how we consider our children, and choose ways of thinking about them that lead to the policies and outcomes we desire.

The totalizing world view that accompanies industrial modernism says that children are fundamentally one thing, and one alone - they are an economic commodity, something that you have if you can afford them, something that small nuclear families are responsible for alone. They display your status in how they dress, what school you send them to, what activities they do, what college they get into, what sports they play, and they are increasingly, aware of their status a commodity and invested in it - that is, our children increasingly see themselves as here to shop.

One thing I think is always true about the nature of demographic imagination, that multiple perceptions can be simultaneously true. Thus, when I had my first child he was simultaneously my parents’ first, blessed grandchild, another child added to the consumptive west’s absorption of resources, revenge upon the Nazis who tried to exterminate my husband’s family, a disabled child probably destined to consume more resources than he produces, a candidate for the 6 billionth person born on the planet (we crossed that threshold shortly before his birth - a little girl from India won the dubious prize), our adored and deeply desired son, a gift from G-d…and a host of other things. There is no point in trying to filter out which of these things is “true” - they are, for good or ill, all true in some ways, and through some lenses. And none of them is all the truth - but that doesn’t mean we can full extricate these simultaneous perceptions. Industrial society, however, tells us constantly that there is only one meaning - that children exist in only one valence, as expressions of status, or at best, costs to us.

Nations, peoples, regions after all, have demographic imaginations as well, and they tend to try, with varying degrees of success, to superimpose them over the imaginings of smaller groups. The stories we tell ourselves personally and collectively shape our policies. The world we get if we see ourselves as a beleagured outpost of justice in a world surrounded by rapidly breeding barbarians is very different than the one we get if we see ourselves as integrated with the surrounding populations, able easily to sustain ourselves by opening our borders. A small indigenous people, or religious faith, losing its children to assimilation may be told that the world is overpopulated, and simultaneously and accurately experience themselves as dramatically underpopulated. Our military, economic and social priorities depend on population - both literally, and in our perceptions. Ultimately, our worldview about reproduction, population, biology matters in a whole host of ways. And on this subject, I think we have managed to get ourselves into a particularly troubling way of thinking about children - troubling no matter how you look at it. That is, we’ve transformed children from economic assets to burdens, from beings who are fundamentally productive to beings who are fundamentally consumptive of resources.

What do I mean by this? Historically, children have certainly had economic value - you could make the case that for most of human history, the one continuous reality was that families had a strong economic incentive to reproduce. It is worth noting that in most societies, the economic value of children was not the only or even primary rationale - that is, generally speaking, children were held to be a blessing and pleasure in their own right. Most religious cultures considered them a sacred blessing. You could make a case that the sacredness of reproduction was a later add-on to what was fundamentally an exploitative relationship, or you could argue that the perception of sacredness and blessedness preceeds and supplements the economic relationship - at least for today, I’ll stay out of that one. But while children were always an economic asset, hope for the future, security in one’s own age, someone to preserve assets for, they were rarely only that.

Now my claim is not that most of us have ceased to view our children as a blessing - how could we, because we experience them that way (most days ;-)). But while we experience our children as blessings, industrial society is very clear that some children are, shall we say, more blessed than others.

In modern western society, we have divorced ourselves entirely from the idea of valuing children for the later return of your investment in them. That is, we routinely repudiate the idea that we should be at all dependent on our children (even though I’ve never met anyone, except those who dropped dead while in full possession of health and faculties who didn’t end up dependent on someone at some stage in their lives) - this is seen as an unjust burden, to be avoided at all costs. The idea of being “dependent” on one’s children approaches the status of taboo, if it doesn’t have it already.

We equally repudiate the idea that children should contribute to the household economy. And, as mentioned above, we extend out as long as possible the period during which children are an economic burden. Thus, children become something to be afforded, and only for those who can afford them. And over the years, the measure of what you are required to supply to your children has increased - that is, it is now not uncommon for families to have children taken into social service custody if their families lack electricity, or running water, things that just two generations ago would have been common. Children are expected to have clean clothing, rather than a set of play clothes that are usually dirty and torn, and good ones that aren’t. Safety standards mean that paid childcare or a parent is required at home until children are 12 or more (depending on the state). These, and a whole host of other requirements conspire to make having children more and more expensive. Now I don’t deny that some parents deprive their children of these things in ways that are truly harmful - not having safe water or warm clothing can be a sign of neglect. But industrial modernity also serves to homogenize and normalize the culture of childrearing in ways that push families into the formal economy and create the idea of children as an economic burden - then punish poor families that cannot meet those standards for having “too many” children, or for dependence on state services when the increasing burdens have often shifted people into the category of “people unable to feed their kids.”

In this version of the story, children are not a blessing in and of themselves, and they are not an asset because of their ability to sustain the family. Instead, children are a lifestyle choice with a means test, and a hook to keep us tied to the formal economy - if it was once enough to provide children with food, sheler, warm clothing and love - things that can be achieved in either the formal or subsistence economy, now the requirements for “good” parenthood - grid tied energy, paid childcare, lots of clothes and toys, etc… are only available in the money economy, only to people willing to be fully tied to service to the formal economy. The penalties for not being a “good” parent can be as high as losing custody of your children.

It is from this place that we begin our discussions of population. And it is in this place that discussions are particularly unfruitful. Thus, most population discussions begin with the implication that children are a burden on the environment, and must always be equally burdensome, at least in the west. Here children are just one of many ways you might use your resource allotment. Here the question becomes how we can make every child a “wanted” child through increased use of birth control, and how to encourage or enforce this policy. But the difficulty is that the category of “unwanted” children is itself a product of modern industrialism’s emphasis on the child as commodity.

I’m troubled by this for several reasons. First, because I think it flattens a complex discussion - if everyone is entitled to a fair share of children, and only a fair share of children, there is no bioethical issue with any of the measures people having difficulty reproducing might take to have children, and it does not matter whether a child is Kenyan, and consumes 1/30th the resources of an American child, or an affluent American child who consumes double the average share. Consumption, we are told, isn’t the issue - equity here is transformed into a “we all get the same” - except that children don’t mean the same thing in Kenya that they do here - Kenyan children are still an economic asset, and the only hope of security for their parents in old age. This is unlikely to be successful. The Western, Industrial means of viewing children permits no real dissent, and while many population activists have more nuanced views, the public discussion finds itself dragged down one narrative. Thus, every child’s meaning is transformed - and not, I think in a good way.

I’m also troubled by the idea that children are fundamentally a choice like any other, not just because I think there are important philosophical reasons why that’s not true, but practically, because so many pregnancies are unintended. The standard answer given to that point is that the solution is more birth control, more medicalization of women’s bodies. And I have no difficulty with the idea that women who want access to birth control should have it. But it is worth noting that birth control comes with costs - economic costs to women and families - no solution except perhaps NFP (which is not feasible for some women, and not for some religious groups like Jews practicing niddah) or celibacy is low cost over a woman’s whole childbearing years. They come with dependency on a medical system that is only inconsistently available to many people. They come with physical costs, as any woman who ever got a yeast infection from a spermicide, had a reaction to a latex condom, side effects from birth control pills, etc…. These costs may be worth paying, they may be absorbable in the society as a whole. But as yet, I do not feel that the larger discussion has taken them fully into account. In China, for example, their solution has included the transport of many of their children to Western families - the one child policy has plenty of failures, and those children who are disabled or female and thus not able to meet the family’s need for one perfect boy, then either spend their lives in orphanages or are sent abroad to other families in other countries. This is not a solution to the world’s population problem. And its outcome is utterly predictable - a society in which children who are disabled, the wrong sex or unintended are disposable.

Moreover, few people like to admit that even expansion of birth control will not fully solve the problem. People like to observe that X or Y method is 99.999 percent accurate. But, of course, this implies the removal of the human factor - the failures to use it, the failures to use it correctly, the failures of the birth control (that last is the one for which I am the poster child ;-)). Unless we are willing mandate abortion and sterilization - physically intrusive and painful acts that IMHO should never be state-required or sponsored - the problem of “unwanted” children will always be with us. That is, there will never be a society in which all children are fully and consciously chosen - and that’s another issue in this question of how we view children. If children are fundamentally about our intentions at conception, if their existence and value is fundamentally about our choosing and wanting them, rather than adhering fundamentally to them, what does that say about the value of human beings? If a society that fundamentally believes that children are a blessing is hard on people who don’t want them, and worse on people who do, but can’t get pregnant, a society in which children are commodified at every level, and emerge primarily as a social choice for the affluent is one that creates two classes of living human beings at the end - the valued and the not valued.

Now it would be completely ahistorical to suggest that all children have always been valued. This, of course, is nonsense. There is considerable historical debate about how certain historic societies viewed their children, but there is no question that the children of the poor have often been perceived as valueless. The 18th century slum children of London, or the slum children of India, for example, were always seen as extraneous, a burden. But while there have always been “unattached” children who were enslaved, abused, mistreated, there is a difference. The first is that indigenous culture generally (not always, but generally) have had few unattached children - the problem with orphans is that they reveal the cracks in the idea of a blessing - they are an economic burden, because they return nothing to any household, unless adopted in. They are a larger problem in industrial and urban cultures than they are in smaller agrarian ones, where family ties tend to be complex, and where fewer children are “outside” relational boundaries. In urban societies, where there are many such children, either orphans or from poor households with no family ties in the area and no tribal or community identity, the children as a whole are seen as a burden, and we get Ebeneezer Scrooge’s famous question - “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” That is, are there no industrial solutions to this fundamentally industrial problem?

To me this illustrates how tightly tied the idea of children as a blessing and the idea of children as a future measure of security are. We seem to be most convinced that children are truly a blessing *regardless* of whether they are perfect, if we experience them that way, that is, if most children and parents really do have reciprocal relationships. It is hard in our society to make a case for children as an economic asset - we really are dancing on the edge of taboo, and many people regard this as a kind of slavery, as fundamentally destructive. The sense that filthy lucre, always involved in familial relationships, ought never, ever be acknowledged is both powerful and pervasive.

And yet, that doesn’t change the fact that most people *do* end up dependent on their family members at some stage in life - whether dependent for day to day assistance and care, or dependent on regular nursing home visits to ensure humane treatment. Most of us will end up taking care of our parents, and struggling with that burden - in part, perhaps, because we are so badly equipped for it, and so unprepared. What the “I must retain a separate household, I must not be a burden” narrative does for most of us is put us at long distances from aging family members, with frequent long car rides and disruptions of family, and deny us the benefits of combined households, resources and strong connected families. It does not spare us the difficulty of someday depending on someone - it does not change the fact that at various times in our lives we all become people who are not productive, not perfect, perhaps disabled, and that the devaluation the disabled, of the non-productive, of our reciprocal and inevitable dependencies undermines our ability to rely on one another. Ultimately, this hurts everything but the industrial economy, which will happily supply you with a nursing home and the gas to drive to visit Mom.

Moreover, and mostly ignoring (and these deserve attention but aren’t my primary focus) the cultural and national implications of such an attitude towards children, and the costs to families and children themselves, I’m not convinced that the erasure of the idea of children as a blessing - and the actual experience of it - does any real good to those who would like to see population questions brought to the table. I would argue that one of the reasons we cannot talk about population, as the advocates so often complain, is that we have no terms to talk about population. All of us are burdened by the totalizing industrial discourse that attempts to transform complex family decisions with multiple meanings into one meaning - that of children as economic and ecologic burden. All of us know that this is not all our children are to us, or all our dreams of family are. And yet, we are given no other language to speak in - only religious communities seem to have an alternative, which is why, as I’ve noted before, there is such a resounding silence from everyone between “population is the only problem” and “we must be fruitful and multiply.” The complexities of demographic imagination are necessary to speaking on this subject - without them, as long as children are just a commodity to be capped and traded, the terms don’t allow us to begin.

How would a discussion about population, the future and reproduction that began from the premise that children have complex multiple meanings, that in most societies, and at most times, we do depend on our children, as they depend on us, and that a baby is more than an asset or an expression of Mommy-Chic? How would a discussion of our very real plight proceed if we were to begin with the assumption that children are a gift and an asset? Would it lead, as many people seem to fear, inevitably to everyone running out and having a dozen children, to the end of restraint? Many population limitation advocates seem to believe religion is their enemy - rather than acknowledging that with “be fruitful and multiply” come traditions of self-limitation, of celibacy and personal restraint, of ties to land and place that required careful restraint. It is true that these multiple narratives are in tension with one another, but that tension does not mean they are not present.

Most of all, I cannot imagine a case for self-limitation that does not begin from the presumption that children are a blessing and an asset - any declining population society is going to struggle to support its increasing number of elders from a smaller base of children. Ties that once were spread among several children in a family for one set of parents may now have to encompass multiple parents and extended childless family. To deny that this is our reality is fundamentally false. There are real worries to fear the burdens we are placing on our children, but we do not serve them by pretending those responsibilities will not exist, only to spring them on them when the old models fail. At the root of however we deal with our collective crisis, whatever methods of restraint we eventually enact - and I think we will enact them, so let them be good ones, that lead to a just and honorable society - we must begin from this - every child that we have, every birth is a gift, and if our gifts are fewer than in past years, we must only treasure them the more.


Editorial Notes: I've been very frustrated at the repetitive nature of discussion about population. It's the same arguments again and again (re-heated from the 1970s). Thanks to Sharon for moving us forward. UPDATE (April 21). Replaced the text with the most recent version from Sharon. She fixed some typos, etc. -BA

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