The BBC has been running a Climate Watch series the past month. It’s been one of the few channels that have taken climate change as an apolitical issue that needs to be covered comprehensively at this point of time. For the most part, it has shown a sincere concern in what it is trying to convey. There is a bit of the colonial condescension here and there, but it is honest journalism – academic, in-depth and detailed.
It has had a report or more from all the most important corners of the world--the ones who are at both ends of climate change. In each report you can hear phrases like “at least a few million people will be left homeless”, “several thousands of people have been displaced”, “famines of this kind are likely to be responsible for at least a million people’s death every year.” People, people and more people.
Without having to go into details, it’s safe to say that increase in population is not helping any of the problems we are facing; climate change not being the least of them. But hardly do you come across anyone making a suggestion about that. Sure, people talk about birth control just like they have been for over fifty years, but not in the context of climate change. At least, it’s not a popular discussion point yet.
I really wonder what they have in their mind when right-wing intellectuals in India patronize ‘developed’ countries like Norway and Sweden for having low fertility rates. That their liberal, rather individualistic, lifestyle has landed them in such misery that we should feel ‘blessed’ to have our culture? A culture that makes procreation—obviously within marriage—and bearing children the prime responsibilities, or duties if you will, of every human being? “Do your share, have at least one child” is the subliminal message that is not so subliminally spread in everything that constructs social reality, in India and most of ‘less industrialized’ world. Then there’s the economically charged version of the same kind of flaunting--“we are one billion consumers”, “we are one billion strong labour force”, “it’s a billion people market”--subverting a very obviously worrisome number into something that we ought to feel excited about. Some are actually happy that we’ll surpass the Chinese in the next decade.
Coming back to the BBC Climate Watch series, they had an interesting documentary last week titled ‘Ethical Man.’ It’s basically about an average white, white collar Englishman with a wife and two children trying to adapt his life for changing times, for a better, lesser carbon emitting life. It’s a documentary meant to suggest an alternative lifestyle. One that is out of the current norm – without a car, without centralized heating, and reduced air travel. The concept is not so unique though. It’s something that many of the ‘environmentally conscious’ people have been campaigning for. Of course there are those who take the side simply because it makes better economic sense.
Here’s the connect: isn’t it high time that documentaries, soap operas, movies and other popular media start suggesting more alternative lifestyles? If they did I would probably not have to face a fellow Indian who thinks that I’m being selfish because I said I’m never going to have any children. I’m selfish for not having children? Really, what kind of a world is he envisioning? Whatever it is, I’m sure these 'reality constructors' had a big role in it.
Let’s bring in the philosophical side of the debate, just to the extent that it’s relevant to the main discussion. Most people who don’t plan to have kids don’t need a special recognition or claim that they are sacrificing their lives in order to save the world. They’ll be happy, I suppose, as long as they are not be pitied, ridiculed or patronized. There are several reasons ranging from conventional 'selfishness' that guides them to avoid the bullshit that children can bring, to having infertile spermatozoa. Given that there’s no macro goal or purpose for our existence in this world, at least to the rational mind, there’s no particular reason to believe that one of them is better than the other. Or worse than the other lifestyle altogether--one with children and 'stable family'.
I was evangelizing the ‘alternative lifestyle’ to one of my cousins and he had an interesting point. He said that he knows only two old unmarried men from the entire community and both of them had to resort to some ‘ashram’ type life before they could be left undisturbed. He said it would be practically impossible to live the regular life--going to work every day, hanging out with friends and relatives, watching TV and movies (let’s leave the sex part aside for now)--in our society without getting married. Not after you’ve crossed thirty.
He’s right. In India, every TV channel, every magazine column offers advice on managing your family or your relationships. There’s hardly any mention of the desirability of having a family without any children or being single for that matter. Mornings in Sun TV start with Sugi Sivam offering advice on doing random things citing random stories. All that with unwavering authority; doing his part to perpetuate the same lifestyle whose only uncontested merit (if you can call it that) is that it’s been around for a very long time. But these are strong forces. Omnipresent and overbearing. They build yardsticks for you to measure yourself--your 'progress', your status etc. So it takes quite a bit of training, reflexive deconstruction if I may, for a 40 year old Indian bachelor to not envy a 'happy family' with children. Or simply, disconnect from one's cohort in this regard.
As someone who trusts positivist knowledge for several things, I have little hope that the ‘alternative lifestyle’ will be embraced even by a tiny minority, in this century. Because, I don’t think the ‘forces’ are going to change their ways anytime soon. We may have more “ethical men” who cut down on their carbon emissions. We may develop better technologies that bring down green house gases. But the climate is going to worsen. Wars are going to be fought over water. Population growth is going to go on as predicted.
At least the ‘alternative lifestyle’ will ensure that there will be fewer, however marginal, people to witness all that.
Disclaimer: I have left a few points out because of the post’s length. I hope they would find a mention in the comments. Some of the references are specific to the South-Asian context.