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Saving the World Part 2: Literacy
Hamish Alcorn is a philosopher, and possibly quite mad.
As I failed to promise in Ecological Keynesianism, this is Part 2 of an unpublished and unqualified philosopher’s sermon on how it is that the globalised middle classes must set out to save the world. Part 3, Democracy, I also don’t guarantee, but you never know.
I want to first make a very general comment about the quite long, diverse and pleasingly civilised discussion that ensued after Part 1. I’m not sure if it’s the World in general, Australian intellectual culture or just Webdiary, but with one exception (and Barry is an old friend of mine and possibly the most naturally enthusiastic person alive, as well as new to Webdiary) what I perceive is a total failure of nerve. This is more dangerous in my view than all the coal-fired powerplants in the World. Now there were diverse views, so let me elaborate just a bit.
I don’t think anyone contested that what I was proposing was completely possible and even desirable. There was out-and-out despair and self-hatred (“What’s the point?”, “Good riddance to horrible humans.”) There was various forms of political despair (“The horrible tyrannous government will never do it”, “We are all too greedy to do that”). But even the non-despairing, in my humble view, showed a failure of nerve. I can hardly criticise attempts to pressure the government to set lower emission targets, or to reduce personal consumption. But they are hardly solutions to the problem. The old Earth is suffering from more than a flesh wound.
I mean, where’s your bloody mettle people? Just because there’s 7 billion of us doesn’t mean we're not just a group of folk who need a plan to get out of a spot. Can we at least face the problem and not just say it’s too hard?
Anyway, one issue that kept coming up was apparently a decisive ingredient of people’s despair, and I purposely didn’t comment because I was leaving it for now. It’s the population thing. You see, there’s a solution to it, demographers are eyes-wide-open aware of it, and interestingly in all of people’s comments about population it wasn’t mentioned.
Malthus was wrong, as Jay alluded and as demographers well know. It’s well known that the projections Malthus made of the English population failed to unfold, and the steep upward curve of population plateaued and now actually creeps downward, not just in England but in many parts of the World. Australia itself has a fertility rate below two (2.1 is the considered replacement rate) and we only increase through immigration. We know perfectly well what the key factor is in causing that plateau, and it’s not affluence as such, it’s not telling the Catholics to shut up (Ireland and Italy have among the lowest fertility rates in the World), it’s not giving out free condoms and abortions, it’s not an authoritarian imposition of small families, and it has nothing to do with immigration. It’s teaching women to read.
Again, this is something that, in my understanding, demographers are very clear about. There’s not a lot of controversy. When women learn to read, it gives them opportunities and the ability to dream widely, they have children later, further apart and less. Many literate women decide not to have a family at all. In parts of the World where there is universal literacy, fertility is very low. In some parts of Europe depopulation is a serious planning problem.
A lot of crap is talked about the population explosion, and I largely blame Paul Ehrlich’s, The Population Bomb, which is essentially a racist, reactionary essay. If you want to know what I mean, just read the first page which is one of the vilest most racially prejudiced passages I have had the misfortune to be exposed to, but he goes on to take seriously solutions like ending immigration, sterilising people after two kids and putting sterilising chemicals in the water supply. I don’t want to go on about it but the guy’s a dickhead with no solutions that would work without an absolutely repulsive regime. Unfortunately he’s had a huge impact and you see him quoted favourably everywhere. He proceeds as if Malthus was correct, and he completely ignores the fact that the upward population curve has plateaued in many parts of the World, without following any of his hysterical advice.
Now I want to get a misconception out of the way. I’m not talking about ‘women’s education’ in the sense of fertility education and condoms. I’m talking about literacy, with which a comprehension of fertility issues is but a minor but virtually inevitable concomitant.
Universal literacy of course is the basis for universal citizenship and democracy, and a basis for maximum creativity, flexibility and potentiality in the economy. It’s the basis for traditions to be challengeable and for critical faculty to develop. Quite obviously it’s the basis for an effective print or on-line media. It can be a basis for a deeper appreciation of one’s own culture, as well as the rest of the World. These aren’t minor benefits.
Like pro-active forestry, a proactive campaign for universal literacy must become a standard demand of the world’s middle classes upon their governments and institutions. Every child in the World must have every opportunity to learn to read. Like forestry, this is so achievable with everyday effort and organisation that it’s a joke that it isn’t a global priority. Especially as, as so many people keep pointing out, population may well prove to be the final choke on our species regardless of all other efforts.
If I’m right about this, then what are we going to say? Oh yes but it’s too hard. Our governments will never do it. Whatever the fuck! Jesus, there’s people seriously lobbying the government of Queensland to introduce daylight savings again. There’s a spontaneous and potentially huge campaign to tell the Australian government that a 5% emissions cut is just not enough. These and many other things are fine I guess but they’re simply not solutions to the World’s problems, and without those solutions they are vain. Come on Webdiarists, show a bit of intellectual and spiritual muscle! If there’s a solution to a big (decisive) problem we simply have to pursue it, and if we don’t it doesn’t matter how smart we are, we’re fucking wimps.