Alternative Lifestyles

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.


redcentredoc said...

I totally agree. Population growth is alarming and I personally think we have crossed the point of no return. Even if it is curbed now the fact that the next generation is going to have to support an increasing proportion of frail elderly who will be miserably .
Wars probably will be fought not just for water but land and limited resources. More reasons as to why people should think twice before bringing children into this world. Its truly selfish to have children to satisfy one's needs to be a parent without considering the quality of life for that child.
I am glad to be doing my part for the environment. I ride my bike to work, grow my own vegetables organically using gray water recycling and harness energy from the sun as much as possible.
As for the situation regarding Indian men who choose not to marry and have kids : the ashram is one solution as is moving to another country. Apart from that it is sadly true that at this time it is nigh impossible for an unmarried man to go about his business within society. The blueprint for the ideal Indian lifestyle is etched in stone. It even seems that is more acceptable to have been married and divorced that to have never married at age 40. I will never understand this unrelenting persuasion/ sense of duty to get married and procreate.

nan said...


I will never understand this unrelenting persuasion/ sense of duty to get married and procreate.

Some Indians believe being unmarried signifies homosexuality or erectile dysfunction. Given that there’s no macro goal or purpose for our existence in this world, at least to the rational mind, at least show people you're a 'man' before you die.

Suresh said...

Living in relative isolation from your "pressure points" is a very viable option. It doesn't have to be abroad (but it's better), even a different city with little communication with your family is practicable. Actually, marriage itself isn't a big problem as long as both parties agree to not multiply any further. But as nan says, being married without children would let others think that you have some kind sexual "disorder."
Now, that in itself is interesting (read problematic). The supposed necessity for a man to prove his "manliness" and woman to prove her "fertileness." The only means to do that is by making babies.
It's so frustrating that characters who weep every episode because they cannot bear any children are still there in TV and movies. There's a whole plot to be made out of it-- particularly from a woman's inability to bear children. Even KB didn't fail to exploit it (Sindu Bhairvi, Kalki, Sahaana etc). "thaaimai" is a blessing. My foot.

I wouldn't say that having children is irresponsible or selfish either. After all, if it's going to get ruined gloriously, they might as well do their part for it. But it's the perpetuation of homogeneity that I have problems with. Don't make it full time struggle for those who lead "deviant" lifestyles to defend it constantly. And let's not make this debate absurd by citing pedophiles and serial killers as examples for deviant lifestyles.

murthy said...

reading your blog after a long time. i thought you lost it man. nalla velai idha post senja..but I think you should do a podcast on something other than movies. what happened to the second part of the train podcast?
as for this one, i think we've discussed it once in chat, was it about population? i remember it was about the irony of nihilism or something, right?
i'll probably read it again and comment on it.

Preethy said...

"Population control" is a very particular racist discourse that is always imposed upon Third World contexts. We've got plenty of resources to go around, the trouble is that in "developed" countries in North America and Europe, people are using way more than they should be. It's called exploitation - and that is related to how some lives are deemed as less worthy.

Also, your whole "alternative lifestyle" stuff is not the kind of thing that leads towards social change. Social change would have to radically alter consumption patterns so that the First World doesn't consume 1/3rd of the world's energy. That would be something. "Alternative" lifestyles sporting yoga, meditation mats, and birth control is all just individualistic brouhaha. A neo-liberal fantasy with no revolutionary meaning.

Preethy said...

"I am glad to be doing my part for the environment. I ride my bike to work, grow my own vegetables organically using gray water recycling and harness energy from the sun as much as possible."

This is exactly the sort of individualized, atomized, naive view of social change that we are forced to accept. It's a position that comes out of a feeling of powerlessness. We can't do anything that is actually meaningful - we can't act upon social injustices, so let's just recycle, do our taxes on time, and buy organic sunscreen. This is exactly like buying shoes from Winner's to support "charity."

It's a rather sad reflection of how powerless we are made to seem - and that, of course, ties in with the forced naturalization of inequalities. As if the First World is entitled to consume obscenely, and while exploiting the Third World.

Preethy said...

Have you ever considered how this neoliberal logic doesn't at all consider the motivations that poor women might have for having children?

When the state doesn't provide for the marginalized, and when all it can do is further neoliberal power equations - export tea, look the other way when sweatshops are made, sign state deals with Coke - then people have to at least have children who can provide for them.

Many children in slums die in India from malnutrition or other harms - people who are not as privileged as us live precarious lives. Some people have more children to ensure that at least some of them will live and be able to provide for them - because the state will not; it will only exploit them, and people like us will only help the state exploit them as we spew our self-righteous rhetoric while recycling our Coke cans.

Preethy said...

And to consider all of the things I point to above, you'd really have to consider questions of class (how are certain economic relations structuring or helping structure existing inequalities), gender (why are women valued/devalued based on masculinist notions of motherhood), as well as neo-liberal realities like Coke in India, GAP sweatshops and all that.

Suresh said...


Population control is not necessarily what the post intended to talk about. There's no mention of any particular country or a society here. So I don't really agree with your equation of whatever the post conveyed with 'population control in third world countries'. I'm talking from an average Indian middle class perspective - where they don't have children so that they'll earn their bread (or take care of them when they are old). I'm talking about a culture - particular to a social class, to be clear - where the practice of marriage and bearing children is carried on because that's what structure guides them.
Of course, we can talk about why the structure exists and how it came about. Because the post did not even venture into it (because I thought it was irrelevant to what it was saying) I don't think the considerations about why poor women might have children is relevant. Sure, you can accuse me of not talking about them - as if the 'middle class' are the only ones worthy of any discussion.

Nothing on its own really brings by social change. I don't think you'll disagree with that. And I didn't forget it when I wrote the post. So what I'm suggesting is just minor part of the big set of things that contribute to the consumption pattern you are talking about. Imbalanced, disproportional consumption isn't specific to the western world, it's common to the wealthy class in general. I think you'll agree with this too.
The program in BBC that I had mentioned is doing what you expect. Sure, quietly, and often smugly, riding your bike or recycling Coke cans is not going to radically alter consumption patterns, but programs like the 'Ethical Man' will at least encourage the growth of those smug individuals. Wouldn't that bring any social change at all?

The same way, if I don't multiply and end all the consumption of an entire generation from me, it isn't a big deal. But if I could propagate that lifestyle to many - through media like the BBC or whatever - wouldn't that bring some social change? So you may take the post as a neo-liberal shallow elitist question to the elitist class to bring about an elitist change. But why is that of a lesser value? I think it's just as elitist as the 'Inconvenient Truth.' It may not be most conventional form activism, but it wouldn't be terrible mistake to call it that (Not what I'm doing, I mean documentaries like 'An Inconvenient Truth').

I said...

climate change is commie propaganda.

Suresh said...

^^ Yeah, right.

I said...

Yesterday, the weather guys said it'd be sunny today. Afternoon, it was raining like hell. Who wants to believe climate projection models 150 years after? Weekly forecast is at least done with radar, satellite images etc. Climate change study is based on computer models. One slightly off-the-mark random variable is all it takes to skew data. And it's never been conclusively proved human acticity causes "global warming"

Suresh said...

I think you need to sit and do some serious reading on this subject - articles from academic journals. You'll then understand why close to 95% climatologists agree with the human involvement in climate change. It will be useless exercise for me to counter your views in this space.

Gasquet Fan said...

I understand that you are trying to fit in every observation into your free market ideology assuming that there will be natural correction for every event in the world.

Sadly, Man today is so disconnected from the rest of natural world that the natural correction happens only inside his own domain (i.e., society). It simply cannot be extrapolated to the outside world. Meanwhile the rest of natural world changes drastically and is going to affect him anyway.

Post a Comment

©2009 english-tamil