Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Reproduction and Veganism in the Age of the Anthropocene

This is going to be a blog post about overpopulation and having children in the age of the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene, as I am sure you know, is the geological epoch we live in, the one where the earth itself has been shaped by humans. This is, like most claims about humans, kinda a lie. Depending on when you want to start dating the Anthropocene from will determine how much of a lie. But clearly not all humans are equal members in this geological formations (for better and for worse). Claims about the anthropos are never really about only and fully the anthropos. But that is fine, we know that we are living in an age where some humans have managed to create geological and climate realities. This reality has brought heighten feelings that humans have a moral duty to decrease their population. Fears about overpopulation, of course, are in no way new, and are not only caused by knowledge of the Anthropocene. One of the things that is new to me is the particular ways certain vegans are taking up the fears of overpopulation.

If you look at this blog post entitled "Liberation, not procreation" for one example. This powerful post is from a vegan mother and moves within the animal liberation community to shame her (or even make her justify) having had a child. Before I go any further, I want to make a few statements: Pro-natalism is almost always sexist, heterosexist, and often fascist (at the least). And while I might have some disagreements, I agree with Lee Edelmen that there are certain problems with reproductive futurism. But just because I oppose pro-natalism does not mean I think we need to advocate a politics of anti-natalism. Nevertheless, a politics of anti-natalism seems increasingly common in vegan community, and I want to focus on the arguments against overpopulation in anti-natalism arguments.

It was helpful that while I was figuring out how to respond, we got these two articles in the NY Times about the carrying capacity of earth (see here and here). What Ellis is arguing is both fairly simple and rather convincing. The short version is that there are many times that humans would have been projected to hit the carrying capacity of earth at the time, and every time the carrying capacity of earth increased. There is, according to Ellis, no predetermined amount of humans that will exceed the carrying capacity of earth. Does this mean we will never hit a carrying capacity? No, but if we do it will almost certainly be through a failure of social systems, not through an absolute limit in carrying capacity. I agree with Tim Morton that Ellis' framing is anthropocentric, but I see no reason this rules out the basic principles of Ellis' argument.

I also know these sorts of arguments are often put forth by conservatives, many of whom use these arguments as part of their kettle logic on global warming. You know the one I mean, (1) there is no such thing as global warming, (2) global warming is happening, but not anthropogenic, and (3) global warming is happening, but it now so badly advanced only unfettered capitalism can produce the technology needed to save us all. Conservative denial about global warming is part of a broader denial of the Anthropocene, and the solutions we have to the problems that the age of the Anthropocene are raising. So, when Ellis argues that advances in social systems and technology means we cannot know the absolute carrying capacity of the earth, many conservative hear that as saying "FREE MARKET CAPITALISM TO THE RESCUE", which is bunk. While Ellis is a little cagey in those articles about what the social system changes will require, we know it will include many of them that look nothing like the conservative agenda. And indeed, veganism strikes me as one of the most likely social system changes we can take on to increase the carrying capacity of the earth and to fight many of the threats produced by the Anthropocene.

As with factory farming, our inability to stop global warming is mostly what Peter Hallward, in his best Green Lantern Corp moments, would call a failure of the will (see here and here). We know what needs to be done, but we somehow lack the popular will to make it happen. There is no reason to believe that children will have to live in the same world we were brought into. There is no reason to believe we will live in the same world we live in today. The bad news of the Anthropocene is that certain humans have made the ability of living on this planet harder for so many types of beings. The good news of the Anthropocene is that it means that certain beings would therefore have the power to reshape the earth in different ways--the earth is not done becoming. Vegans worry that another life would be another murderer, speaking to our own great guilt on never actually being able to be vegan, just becoming-vegan. The challenge, then, is to create a world that is different. I don't know why we would then encourage vegans to be uniquely the ones to stop having children?

Ursula Heise has recently written a beautiful essay on literature trying to come to grips with the environment in the age of the Anthropocene. In it Heise starts mapping out the possibilities of hybrid ecologies and natures for the future. And one gets the feeling that the anti-natalism of certain vegans come not from a radicalism, but from a profound conservatism, a conservatism that is based on conservationism. Perhaps what we need is less conservationism, and more constructivism for thriving ecologies for nonhumans and humans-- a constructivist ecofeminism, if you will. Perhaps we need less Heidegger, and more Arendt.  Deleuze and Guattari, in What is Philosophy, wrote about the importance of producing a new people and a new earth. Perhaps it is time we focus on both of those terms.

Gary Francione tends to end his emails and blog messages with the announcement that the world is vegan, if we want it. I'd only make a small, but important correction-- The world is vegan, if we make it so. Here is to the constructivists ecofeminists, and to all the vegans (parents and nonparents, bioparents and nonbioparents) who are working to make it so.