I resisted Twitter for years before succumbing to it. And now I’m there, I really like it, mostly because I follow some interesting sites which constantly tweet links to articles I might enjoy (and I generally do enjoy them). The trouble lies when I start to read the comments. I mean, this is the internet, so why am I surprised that comments can be like diving in a cesspool? Generally, I avoid them, but sometimes… I guess I’m my own worst enemy.
The other day, I read an article about overpopulation where I became mired in the comments. I didn’t respond, so at least I have some semblance of sense, but there were people who did annoy me. Mostly, because they remind me of myself, and because I’m now on the defensive.
Backstory: I used to be really green. In the environmental sense, I mean. I was obsessed with composting and recycling and reusing whatever I could; I avoided using the car whenever I could. I would never accept a plastic bag when I was buying something from a shop. I bought locally produced food, and avoided excess packaging. I really walked the walk.
And I was so, so righteous.
I might not have said anything, but I judged people harshly. Taking not one, but two plastic bags to wrap up their factory farmed chicken? Driving when they could have walked somewhere? Using the heater when they could have just put on an extra jumper?
WHAT UTTER BASTARDS.
I even put a lot of thought into whether or not we should even have children, due to my concerns about overpopulation. I read a book about choosing to be childfree, and considered the implications for us, should we not have children, but ultimately, we decided to have them. In particular, I felt that it was an experience I didn’t want to miss.
However, I wanted our the experience to be as environmentally friendly as possible. I chose a birth centre birth, partly because I didn’t want to be in hospital, but also because I figured that with reduced medical intervention, there would be less medical waste, and a quicker homecoming. When we had First Offspring, I was strongly committed to breastfeeding and cloth nappies. Because, why wouldn’t you be? What possible reason could you not have to do these things which would lessen the impact of your child on the world?
I’ll admit, overpopulation has been a bit of a bugbear for me in the past. I remember talking to a school friend about her family’s sponsor child in Africa. ‘Oh, I don’t really believe in sponsorship,’ I said. ‘I think there are far too many people in the world as it is.’
Yes, that was me, aged sixteen and fairly bursting with empathy for my fellow humans. Wasn’t I delightful?
You can imagine, then, the kind of baggage I brought with me to the decision of having my own children. I really, really struggled with the idea of having more than two, but I knew I really wanted more than two. And by that stage, I was aware that having the best of intentions when it came to raising ‘green’ children was fine, but the reality was quite different. I began the whole endeavour with a detailed green agenda, deciding that my children wouldn’t watch television before they were two years of age, just like the child development people suggested. I wanted to feed them an organic diet. I decided I would only buy toys which were made from sustainably resourced materials and produced in ethically managed factories.
That basically went by the wayside when I realised how expensive, time consuming, and at times, unfeasible these plans were. At least, they were not feasible for me. I really struggled with my energy and at times, my mental health, and the children’s channel was a lifesaver, as was regular-brand beans on toast, and a plastic fire engine which was made in China. First Offspring had–wait for it–formula, when he went to daycare. Second Offspring wore disposable nappies! How could I?
I was contributing to the exploding population of human beings, and I wasn’t even doing a good job at it.
And yet, the silver lining (because there always is one!): I am a better human being because of this.
The experience of pregnancy, birth and caring for children has given me such capacity for empathy. And I know that there are many childfree people who are extremely empathetic and caring; it is not an essential requirement, that you need to have children to possess these traits, but for me, it was.
I am also a lot less judgemental when it comes to the ways in which people live their lives. I still have a very strong sense of environmental responsibility, which might sound odd, considering we have four children, but I believe that it’s still very important to compost, to recycle all we can, to consider every purchase carefully, to reduce and avoid waste. And I’m obviously leading by example to four very impressionable young people. But now, I can understand that there are some cases when people simply do not have the capacity to do those things. Sometimes it is simply too much effort; sometimes getting out of bed is too much effort. I understand that it is not always an easy choice to, say, make an organic vegetarian meal rather than buy a cheap takeaway, on a day when you’ve had no sleep or you’ve just worked 13 hours straight or you’re in terrible pain. Whereas before, I would have dismissed all of those scenarios as excuses, I can now imagine myself doing the same (and I’ve done it, too!)
There are a lot of people. A lot. And by having our four children, we’ve absolutely contributed to the stresses humankind is inflicting on the world. But I was recently considering this in the sense of environmental ethics. When I was doing reading for a paper I was writing on this topic, I came across the idea of valuing the environment for its own sake. The concept is that rather than thinking of the natural world in terms of economic value, or of value to humanity, which has often been the way to justify preservation, we should consider that the environment has intrinsic worth–worth, whether or not, it is useful to us. It has worth, simply because it is there.
Of course, I had worth, before I had children. But having them has given me a new insight, a more intense relationship with fellow humans. Whereas before, I used to consider humanity to be the problem, now I think it is our only solution. Unless people feel safe, and are assured of their food security, and unless they have access to education and healthcare, and are able to see a future for themselves beyond a daily struggle for existence, then a commitment to sustainable living will always come second. It makes no difference where one lives, either. Unless we are able to evolve to a level of contentment with our lives, and an empathy with other creatures, both human and not, we can’t even really begin to address overpopulation and all the thorny issues it encapsulates. Each person has intrinsic worth. That is so very important to remember, and I didn’t get that before.
So perhaps it’s better for everyone that I did reproduce. My life is worth something, for its own sake, and that worth is greater, for having had children. I’m less judgemental and less righteous. What’s the good of living a low-impact life if you have a superior smugness when it comes to other humans? I may be less green than I was, but I feel as if I’ve added value to my life, and therefore, to the lives of those I meet and with whom I interact.
Or perhaps I’m just telling myself that, so I feel less guilty about having so many offspring?!