Population Control

I recently returned from a brief sojourn to the North Shore of Minnesota where the sun is always shining and the temperatures are pleasant. It is truly beautiful. We met my wife’s brother in St. Cloud and drove up together to spend a few days hiking and visiting. It was delightful — though the return to home base with the temperatures in the 90s, the humidity off the charts, and the lawn burned out from the prolonged drought was a bit of a shock.

In any event, on the return trip we had to wait a while in St. Cloud for the train to arrive to take my brother-in-law back to hot and steamy Montana and we turned on the television in the motel room and watched a National Geographic special that touched on a timely topic: world population.

Now I have blogged on this in the past and have made my position clear: exploding human population is in my view the major problem facing the future of this planet — especially if, as expected, food production is adversely affected by global warming. But this program revealed an apparent truth I was unaware of, and that is that population in “developed nations” has dropped and is predicted to drop even further. The program focused on Japan where the country has taken it upon itself an effort to induce young Japanese couples to marry and procreate. It was mentioned that in Russia a young couple is given a refrigerator by the State if they have a child! In any event, there is concern among a number of those countries that their populations are dropping off and that this is a trend that will continue.

One would think this is very good news indeed — declining human populations are a good thing, surely! But it raises a provocative question: why would the countries by worried and making various attempts to provide incentives to young people to have more children? The answer is glaringly obvious once you think about the problem a bit: it’s all about the economy. These countries want bodies that will work, earn money, pay taxes, and buy things they don’t need. Fewer people endanger an economy that requires people to earn and spend.

Joseph Schumpeter, whom I have referenced in earlier blogs, predicted in the 1940s that capitalism would fail not because of the rise of the Proletariat as Marx predicted, but from its own successes. In a word, as young people become more affluent and more self-absorbed they would become more and more calculating (“rationalizing” was his word) in their approach to life and would decide that children would only be a deterrent to the satisfaction of their desires and they would wait to get married and have fewer and fewer children — if they had any at all.

As Schumpeter himself put it, young people

 “. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.” Moreover, they would think, “why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

As a result, Schimpeter predicted, population in those countries that depended on capitalism would see a decline in population and this would eventually cripple the economy. This, of course, explains why the “developed” countries are worried about the decline in human populations in their countries. It’s all about the money.

In sum, it would appear that reduced human populations would be a blessing as far as the preservation of the planet and the reduction of a great many of the global problems humans face at present, but if it hurts the pocketbook then it must be discouraged.

 

Other Cultures

I have been rereading Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness and came across the following description which made me think. It comes early in the story about a middle-aged man, Oki Toshio, who has been sitting by the window reflecting on his first love from whom he separated 20 years since:

“He looked out of the small French window of his study. At the base of the hill behind the house a high mound of earth, dug out during the war in making an air raid shelter, was already hidden by weeds so modest one barely noticed them. Among the weeds bloomed a mass of flowers the color of lapis lazuli. The flowers too were extremely small, but they were a bright, strong blue. Except for the sweet daphne, these flowers bloomed earlier than any in their garden. And they stayed in bloom a long time. Whatever they were, they could hardly be familiar harbingers of spring, but they were so close to the window that he often thought he would like to take one in his hand and study it. He had never yet gone to pick one, but that only seemed to increase his love for these tiny lapis-blue flowers.”

This passage, like so many in this novel, reflect the main theme of beauty and sadness. The description of the beautiful flowers almost hides the reference to the air-raid shelter that harkens back to the Second World War and makes the reader recall the terrible effects of the fire bombings that destroyed an estimated 40% of the population of the 64 major cities in Japan toward the end of the war, coupled by the dropping of the Atom Bombs that killed another 129,000 men, women, and children. The end of the war was followed by a seven year allied occupation by 300,000 men that brought about the Westernization of Japan, with its sports, music, movies, clothing, fast-food restaurants, and love of money. The older Japanese, like Kawabata himself, struggled with the loss of pride coupled with transmogrification of their culture from the old ways to the faster, more frenetic new ways. His novels are filled with references to this struggle within himself and in the hearts of his countrymen.

But what struck me powerfully was the fact that we can read passages like this in a novel written by  a man in another culture and “relate” to it, because we share a common humanity. We have lost  sight of this fact in our preoccupation with  the differences in cultures stressed by anthropologists and social scientists like Margaret Mead who started the movement toward cultural relativism that lead us, wrongly I insist, to the conclusion that we are not in a position to judge what folks do in other cultures. From the undeniable truth that we can never fully understand what people in other cultures feel and think we draw the unwarranted conclusion that we can not sympathize with them at all. But this flies in the face of the human sympathy that the moral sense theorists in the eighteenth century brought to our attention that allows each of us to sympathize with other human beings, all other human beings. In stressing difference we have lost sight of our fundamental similarities.

We can read passages like that above, read poetry, hear the music, watch their dances, view their art, and we can feel many of the same things those people feel — not all, but many to be sure. We are not all that different. And, as a result, when we read about Suttee in India, or the stoning of adulteresses in the Middle East, or clitoridectomies forced upon young women in Africa, or the denial of fundamental rights to women around the world, we can judge these things to be wrong because we do know better. Values are relative to cultures to a point, but that point is reached when a violation of fundamental human rights are in question. We know this because we feel it deeply and because our reasoning capacity tells us that if it were us we would not stand for it.

In a word, there its such a thing as “human nature” and it is something we share with the world at large and which, even though many of those in power and those who posses great wealth seem to have denied, defines all of us as human. But why is this discussion significant? Or even of interest? I can do no better than end with a quote by one of the finest minds I have ever encountered, Hannah Arendt, who tells this in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“If the idea of humanity, of which the most conclusive symbol is the common origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then nothing is more plausible than a theory according to which brown, yellow, or black races are descended from some other species of apes than the white race, and all together they are predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth.”

Refuge of Scoundrels

Samuel Johnson famously said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. During the Viet Nam war we learned what he meant when the “true patriots” of the “my country right-or-wrong” variety were telling critics to love their country or leave it. But unqualified love, blind love, is the sign of a bigot and a zealot, not of a true lover. One who loves his or her country is aware of its faults, but loves it just the same — much like the couple who have stayed together for 50 years and plan to stay together for the rest of their lives.

When traveling abroad in years past I was proud to carry an American passport. I have always thought this was a remarkable country, one that provides an opportunity for all to achieve their dreams. This is the country that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War, a war we entered in our own small way on behalf of Britain even before Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. But this was the country that also locked up Japanese citizens in concentration camps during the war, so one had to maintain some sense of balance and perspective. Still, we seemed to be on the right track, concerned about the moral high ground and doing the right thing by the rest of the world. After writing a Constitution that protected slavery, for example, this country eventually managed to free the slaves and years later struggled against Southern bigotry to guarantee those former slaves the right to marry, vote, ride on buses, and eat in restaurants. We even came to realize that women ought to be able to vote! We seemed to be on the right track.

This is the country, after all, that managed to put a bridle on the unfettered greed of capitalists like John D. Rockefeller and J.P, Morgan and bring them to heel, softening somewhat the blows of the predatory rich against those who worked in their dark mines or stifling tenement sweat shops for pennies a day.  This is a country that seemed, not long ago, to still know where the moral high ground was located even if we weren’t holding it quite so tight.

But then something happened to turn the country away from the moral high ground and it seemed to be slowly disappearing in the distance. While our education system began to fall toward the bottom of the heap, we learned that our country was engaged in torturing prisoners, spying on its own citizens, incarcerating people for years on end without the fundamental right of trial by jury, killing suspected (I stress suspected) terrorists living half-way around the world with unmanned aircraft, breeding hatred in those we suspected might be our enemies. All in the name of  Homeland Security. Moreover, as we know, America leads the so-called “civilized” world in the number of shooting deaths and gun control is not seriously discussed. Somehow, the moral high ground that folks like Martin Luther King so eloquently urged us to seek and find not so very long ago was becoming an empty phrase. We had lost our way as the corporations once again grabbed the reins of power and filled out the dance card of the puppet politicians they bought and paid for, the military increasingly determined foreign policy, and the middle class began to slip into the gap between the very rich and the very poor. Soon less than 1% of the people in this country were contributing nearly half of the money needed to elect a politician who would be beholden to that money interest, money that might better have been spent on maintaining a tottering infrastructure or, perhaps, helping those in need, those living in cardboard boxes and eating out of trash cans. We seem to have become a nation of “ugly Americans.”

So, how far does patriotism go? At what point does one cease to love his or her country when aware of the sins of omission and commission it is committing on a daily basis? As suggested, I answer that true patriotism consists in an awareness of those sins coupled with the determination to point them out and do whatever can be done to mitigate them somehow. Criticism and rebellion were the forces that created this country, after all. To pretend the sins don’t exist, to rewrite history, to curse those who insist that they do exist, is not the mark of a true patriot. It is the refuge of a scoundrel. The true patriot, if there are any left, continues to love his country in the hope that it will once again turn toward the moral high ground and do whatever it takes to hold it and not let go. The only worry is that some day, after hope has died, the love will also die.

 

 

Dollars and Sense

I have been reading the third novel of the four that comprise Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy titled The Temple of Dawn. The four novels in the group focus on the life of Shigekuni Honda before during and after the Second World War. The third volume is written around the years of the war, especially the final years when Japan was being fire-bombed relentlessly by B-29’s and Honda picks his way through the ruins of his beautiful homeland trying to make sense of a world in chaos.

The Japanese signed an agreement known as “Comintern” with Germany and Italy, late in the 1930s in order to unite against the threat of the Soviet Union and Communism, which was sweeping Europe and the Far East at a time when the world economies were in serious trouble. But the old line Japanese worried as much, if not more, about capitalism than they did Communism, according to Mishima. They saw capitalism as an insidious force that was gradually destroying the ancient values that made Japan a unique culture — and it was undermining the ancient religion as well.

Early in 1932 there had been an abortive attempt to establish a military dictatorship in Japan by a group of young idealists who were intent on restoring the ancient values. This attempt included the intent to murder of several leading bankers and industrialists. Mishima deals with that revolution in his second volume. But in this third volume his hero, Honda, comes across a poem written by one of the young men who had been involved in the failed attempt to bring down the existing government. “The poet expressed the disillusionment that followed the revolution for which he had been so ready to give up his life.” In that poem, Honda reads the following couplet: “Yesterday’s wisdom is beclouded in luxurious baths of profit.” That thought alone justifies the reading of this fine novel, which is full of insights and profound observations about the world at that time, not only in Japan, but elsewhere as well.

In any event, in reflecting on that particular thought I find it remarkable that Japan was fighting at that time against the very same capitalistic forces the Roman Church was fighting against during the European Middle Ages. Capitalism won out and the battle was over between the love of money — which is condemned in both Christianity and Buddhism — and the love of God and our fellow humans. In both cases, the fight was lost and lofty spiritual ideals were replaced by the most crass, materialistic values humans have ever come to espouse. One really must sympathize with those young Japanese men who were willing to die in order to preserve a culture that was in so many ways superior to the one they knew would inevitably replace it. Just consider Japan today, with its Western dress and ideals — and especially its commitment to capitalist objectives. And consider the insidious influence of great wealth on the government in this country which is virtually crippled because those who govern are determined not to pass any laws that might infringe on the right of a few wealthy men to become even wealthier. In both cultures, Japanese and American, it is now all about money.

A Third Alternative

In a recent blog I spoke of the delicate balance we must strike between the possible harm to wildlife and the environment and our development of alternative forms of energy. I suggested that despite the possible harm that might result from the development of solar and wind power, it is preferable to the continued reliance on oil and coal. I also suggested that the development of clean energy seems to be the “lesser of evils.” But, as Hannah Arendt reminds me, the lesser of evils is still evil. The problem with this type of reasoning is that it gives the appearance of providing moral support for a position that may not in fact be morally justifiable. It goes like this: A is preferable to B since A has the more acceptable consequences. But if A is still a bad thing, then we may say A is preferable only if there is not a third option, C which might be better than either A or B. In this case we simply assume that humans will continue to demand more and more energy and thus we will require more energy sources. But let’s check out that assumption.

Some years ago I led a conference at my university on the ethics of nuclear power usage, examining the pros and cons of the continued development of a “clean” source of energy that has built-in dangers — as we recently found out in Japan. A spokesman for the Texas Power and Light Company spoke while a nuclear chemist (who was also a medical doctor) spoke against nuclear power. At one point in the discussion the spokesman from Texas said that Americans shouldn’t have to alter their life style. And that’s the key. It’s not only a key to the nuclear power debate, but it is also the key to the delicate balance I am speaking about in this blog. The question is: why shouldn’t Americans alter their life-style?  We waste nearly 40% of the energy we burn, according to recent studies. Power plants waste an estimated 75% of the energy they use and all of us waste as much as 12% of the energy we use as “stand-by” energy because we don’t turn off appliances. And we keep our houses much warmer than we need to. With climate change continuing to raise the temperatures in this part of the world, we will use more and more energy to keep our houses cool in the Summer months as well.

But let’s just take the matter of the hot houses in the Winter. I recall a television commercial in which the actor left his home and with his telephone he reduced his thermostat in his empty home from 72 degrees to 68 degrees. And this was supposed to be exemplary behavior! But think about that: he is heating his house to 68 degrees while there is no one inside that house! It’s bad enough that he keeps the house at 72 degrees while he is inside, but leaving it at that setting while it is empty is irresponsible if not downright stupid. I live in Minnesota where it does get cold in the Winter and we set our thermostat at 62 degrees in the daytime and at 59 degrees at night. That’s why God invented sweaters (and blankets), my wife tells me. It took a bit of getting used to, but I wouldn’t want it any other way now. And I have seen films of Inuit people inside their igloos with naked babies where we are told the temperatures are in the low 50’s. It is really a question of getting used to a new “life-style.” And if our current life-style is wasteful, why shouldn’t we alter it?

We can do so if we choose to do so. With a serious attempt at conservation we could use less energy and we could also do a better job of protecting wildlife and the environment. I wonder how many of those folks in Martha’s Vineyard who want to protect Nantucket Sound set their thermostats down at night and when they are not at home? (I’m just sayin’). As long as there is a viable alternative, the lesser of evils is still evil, as Arendt says, and we could be doing better.