by Kelpie Wilson
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.