When the Bough Breaks, the Cradle will Fall: Ecofeminism and the Problem of Population Density By Ben Siegel

This  post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium,  Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

Ben Siegel is a 2nd year graduate student at the Claremont School of Theology, working on his M.A. in Religion, Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. He is a loud-mouthed native New Yorker, a Jewish atheist, a passionate feminist, an unapologetic tree-hugger, a raging comic book nerd and long-time lover of punk rock music.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s World Population Clock,* the earth sustains the lives of approximately 6,976,289,710 human beings and counting. Unfortunately, the carrying capacity of our planet is anything but unlimited. Unmanaged population growth will demand, among other things, encroachment into more hitherto unindustrialized regions, meaning further despeciation and environmental degradation. A globalized capitalist economy, seemingly undaunted by such paltry concerns as labor laws and emissions standards – with its preference for monocultural farming techniques and yields – threatens to eliminate biodiversity in the pursuit of a broader profit margin. This begs the question: are we demanding too much of Mother Earth? 

The earth’s ecosystems are rapidly becoming incapable of supporting the human and non-human organisms that are dependent upon the stability of their respective biomes for basic daily needs. Humans require clean water, food, and safe shelter within a stable community. Furthermore, they need to be able to access affordable medical treatment in order to maintain healthy bodies. Healthcare is a particular concern for women whose biological capacity for pregnancy and birthing makes special medical demands and cannot simply be thought of as just another routine procedure. Every pregnancy is different because every woman’s body is unique, but even simple complications can become life-threatening when the availability of medical support is lacking during pregnancy and delivery, especially in lower-income contexts.

Considering the global population boom, legal and religious policies that restrict and deny women’s right to healthcare may be fairly recognized as an assault against ecofeminist values, women’s bodies and the environment itself. Communities of would-be mothers and the planet earth – our collective mother – bear the gendered expectation of silent self-sacrifice in the pursuit of producing more children than they are capable of supporting. Population growth is, therefore, as much an issue of women’s rights (particularly the right to affordable healthcare) as it is a matter of ecological responsibility.

Despite the desperate need to curb the global spike in population, religious and secular world leaders and policymakers apparently fail to see the harm that anti-choice edicts and bills have upon women’s health options and the human carrying capacity of the world. The Bible commands us to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it,” (Gen 1:28).

It’s highly unlikely that the authors of the Bible’s unrestrained, earth-dominance-oriented paradigm of human reproduction could have imagined either the industrialized global economy in which we live or that an unlimited procreation policy could have such profoundly negative environmental effects. However, faith in the infallibility of such scriptural “truths” undergirds Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 statements about the inability of condoms to prevent pregnancy and the spread of sexually-transmitted infections as much as they support religio-political conservative lawmakers within the United States and the world at large in a vicious crusade against women’s rights and access to reproductive health.

Now more than ever, with Roe v. Wade threatened by dedicated and mobilized legions of anti-choice activists, we need to continue the fight to preserve women’s right to choose. We also need to encourage our officials, whether mundanely or divinely elected, to advocate on behalf of policies that ensure the overall health of individuals, communities and ecosystems in dire need of relief from the pressure cooker that is overpopulation. Just as there are limits to what mothers can provide for their children, so are their limits to Mother Earth’s capacity to support our ever-growing species. If we wish to have a future on this planet, women must be empowered and educated in order to be active agents of choice in their own reproductive processes and understand that systematic unmitigated childbirth draws us closer to the tipping point.

*As of 10 pm, 11/20/2011 < http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html&gt;

28 thoughts on “When the Bough Breaks, the Cradle will Fall: Ecofeminism and the Problem of Population Density By Ben Siegel”

  1. Hello to you, my “loud mouthed New Yorker” student (loved that self-description). Questions of sustainability are so urgent and, as you rightly pointed out, the idea of the earth’s unlimited resources can no longer be credibly maintained. I was particularly intrigued by your gendered analysis of the earth (Mother Earth) and comparison to real mothers. As you probably know, the strategic use of a feminized earth to drive home ecofeminist aims is itself controversial in ecofeminist discourse and so I trust, by your usage here, that you fall on one side of the debate rather than the other. I’m looking forward to our class discussions on ecofeminism in weeks to come! Thanks for your post!


    1. Despite the inherent problem of gendering any entity, I agree with Carol P. Christ’s statement below that “the image of Mother Earth can function in a context in which all people–that means including men–can view ourselves as her children.” Essentially, we’re talking about family planning, the individual/communal responsibility towards the planet, and recognizing our shared kinship as Earthlings who have similar biological functions despite cultural/geographical differences. Too many people think of their parents, especially their mothers, in utilitarian terms. What can my mother do for me? But I want to advocate an attitude of justice for women and the planet and reverse the question. What can we do for our mother?


      1. Ben – I have defended publicly (i.e., in published writings) the strategic use of “earthcare” or “ecomaternalism,” so my comment to you wasn’t to suggest that I was critical of your usage, only to flag that your usage (and my defense of it) is isn’t contested by others. We’ll have a great discussion, no doubt!


  2. Mother Earth may be seen as essentialist by some, but the debate is far from settled. The authors in Dauthers of Mother Earth/Make a Beautiful way ed. Barbara Mann make the point that in many native American cultures the connection to Mother Earth in matrilineal tribes went hand-in-hand with respect for women as mothers and the mothering principles of giving and nurturing in human and other than human lives.

    Essentialist fears seem to me to be based in “essentializing” dualism and paradigms of mastery as the “essential” way the symbolic connection between woman and nature can and must function.


  3. PS I believe that the image of Mother Earth can function in a context in which all people–that means including men–can view ourselves as her children, each and every one of us equally “nature” and part of “nature.”


    1. I first read selections from “Womanspirit Rising” in undergrad. Your work was deeply influential in my decision to study Hebrew Bible from a feminist perspective, particularly in light of discoveries that support arguments in favor of the historical reality of the Israelite goddess Asherah. Personally, you also provided me with a way of thinking thealogically that allowed me to go beyond the male divine imagery of the Reform Jewish tradition of my upbringing.

      I think your comment about humans as nature/a part of nature are important to remember, particularly for those of us from religious traditions that posit a strict binary between nature and supernature and privilege of the latter over the former.


  4. Your comment: “Now more than ever, with Roe v. Wade threatened by dedicated and mobilized legions of anti-choice activists, we need to continue the fight to preserve women’s right to choose,” is a great point! Thank you for this wonderful post Ben and for keeping the issues that we address on this blog current! Amazing post!


    1. I appreciate that, John. It’s important to remember that each step forward is always under threat by those thoroughly against any social progression or ideology of progressivism.


  5. Hi Ben, I think you make some very important points here. When me and my husband were married we had to go through pre-cana classes in the Catholic Church. We had several meetings with our priest and the only thing I remember from the entire experience was my priest telling me that it was nice that I was working in a domestic violence shelter, but now that I was getting married it was time for me to own up to my real responsibility of being a mother. I was told to quit my job, stay home, and start pro-creating. According to this priest, this was my only duty as a woman. Sustainability never entered the conversation. How disturbing – not to mention the oppressive view of women’s roles.


    1. Gina, thank you for sharing your eye-opening personal experience. I find it so insulting and dismissive of what victims of domestic violence endure for the priest would to your crucial work as “nice.” It strikes me as incredibly irresponsible and arrogant to tell anyone that you categorically know their role in this world simply because you base modern sex/gender roles on ancient texts. What of God’s plan for each individual person? And what of our moral responsibility to each other?


  6. Thank you Ben for climbing onto my favorite soapbox with me. My background is biology with a lot of ecology. Your points are excellent and there was a time in the turbulent 60s when thoughtful couples at least discussed replacing themselves only, if they had children at all. I am no longer seeing that trend or hearing anything about managing population growth at home from young couples or seeing anything in the media about birth control. Most media addresses the need to save Mother Earth with no discussion about the human sexuality Margaret Farley brings to the table as critical for world wide ethics conversation. Yes, I know the popular media may lack the weight of scholarly papers but I think we must start talking about our personal bodies and decisions instead of generalities, and we must do so where everyone sees it. Thanks for your thoughtful post.


    1. Peggy, I find the American media pretty conservative, repressive and shame-based in terms of human sexuality, what with our national Puritan background. We did just celebrated their culture and its dominance over that of First Peoples in America with Thanksgiving. You’re absolutely right that there needs to be of an open discussion of our embodied nature, especially as sexual beings, in order to have an honest discussion about sexual, biomedical and environmental ethics.


  7. Hey Ben,
    I enjoyed reading your blog post. I think we could bring another element into the discussion of over population and motherhood and that is what value is there in pro-creation if there are millions of children without parents and a loving home? There are already innumerable children for whom both their biological mothers/parents (it does take two after all) and mother earth cannot sustain. The mere fact that every five seconds a child dies of hunger/hunger related causes (http://www.bread.org/hunger/global/) shines a strong critical light on procreation without limits.

    Of course the question is (since the private is political) is it up to every person to decide for themselves how many children they will have (if any) or do we require some sort of government intervention? (And if the latter, how do we keep it from not falling into the traps of gender-preference?)

    Great post =)


    1. Angelinaduell,
      I think the last question you asked here is so important!!! I too really enjoyed you post Ben and believe this is such an important issue. It is my hope that education and increased commitment to ecofeminist concerns would help with our over population issues or sustainability issues. But this particular issue becomes so complicated when it enters the political realm in terms of actual policy or law!
      I once read a really fantastic piece of fiction that addresses the issue of ecology and population in terms of race, class and disease. I have to admit– the book is a quite gross in its depiction of disease, particularly in the first section, but it is so worth a read. Its called “The Rag Doll Plauges,” and takes place in the past, “present,” and future. I read this a long time ago, but the images have stayed with me and it definitely addresses some of the complexity that you both raise here!


    2. You’re right, Angelina. The staggering number of children in orphanages and foster care who need good homes gives us serious food for thought. As for government intervention – China’s one-child policy has not been nearly as effective as expected. With a socialized preference for boys, millions of girls fall between the cracks. To avoid this, we need to look at the root causes of sex difference and understand that we live within a value-based hierarchy that legitimates preferential treatment of the male gender.

      I think that as denizens of this planet we each have a responsibility to the welfare of the earth and each other. While I can’t advocate government intervention (except in substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect), I will say that we have to overcome the vast discursive chasm that is our sexual taboo. This is the first step in opening up the conversation and connecting “private” acts of procreation with the “public” reality of overpopulation.


  8. Great Post, Ben.
    Your post is really supportive for my ecofeminist theology. Thank you for your thoughtful post. Undoubtedly, we need “ecofeminist spirituality” to “re-edenization” of all creations. Let us join our hands together to save our “Mother Earth.”


    1. Sam, while I agree that Theology with a capital T could always benefit from a healthy dose of Goddess, there are some problems with “re-edenizing.” We’ve already left Eden. As I’ve learned in my travels across this country, revisiting all my mom’s old hippy haunts with her, you can never really return to the way things used to be. Growth and development cannot be regressive. I also understand the desire to heroically step in and “save” the earth. Conceiving of the earth as an inert entity to be acted upon creates a false dichotomy between humans and the earth. We are a part of the earth and, when it comes to the overpopulation of Homo sapiens, we are the problem. We can’t just save the earth from ourselves. We need to recognize the ways in which we’re a source of danger and destabilization before anything can be saved.


  9. Hey Ben,

    Great Post. I agree with you that it is important to think about the larger effects of the individual choices we make (as well as ensuring that everyone has the ability to choose). I have heard similar arguments before, but I do wonder if the reasons you’ve named (overpopulation being one of them) will ever carry enough weight in people’s hearts and minds to convince them to stop having children. My guess is that we will always weigh other factors much more heavily – the financial burden of having children, the emotion allure of simply wanting to bring another child in the world, etc. I just can’t imagine many people, when deciding on something that is going to profoundly affect their lives (positively and negatively), considering the


  10. (oops!)

    …considering population growth to be more of a concern than their own wants and abilities.

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive for this, however. I agree with you Ben, that there needs to be a shift in mentality regarding procreation. I’m just not sure what the most effective approach will be.


    1. Jeff, I’d heard that, generally speaking, economists are not having children due to the financial cost. As with all the relevent factors, awareness of the realities of bringing children into this world can have a profound impact upon one’s reproductive choices. With education about the personal, local and global impacts of pregnancy, women can see themselves as agents of systemic global change. Not to say one should have a sense of self the world, but rather self as participant in the world.


  11. First we change the whole sexual context. Men stop having penis in vagina sex unless the woman is planning to get pregnant. You have no “accidents” this way, men stop their dangerous sexual practice, the ambivilent pregnancies end. Women are absolutely in charge of their bodies from day one. There would be a huge drop in urinary tract infections that women suffer from, in large parts of the world, pregnancies result in the death of the mother. Imagine having PIV sex hundreds of times with women throughout history knowing full well that 14 kids means the possible death of the mother every time. That men do this to get sexual pleasure and that they don’t give a damn about the health of the mother… 16th century, 17th century, 21st century Ethiopia.

    Think of the pregnancies that result in men raping women to impregnate women, and this happens all the time. Think of the farse that is consent, when consent by the woman is the legal standard that determines rape… think Julian Assange.

    So you want a sustainable planet, then men, you have to change the entire sexual culture of other men. No you don’t get to coerse women and subject them to PIV, something that is not very sexually pleasurable for women, and an act that puts women at risk for death, disease and financial servitude.

    All children should be wanted children, not the product of the sexuality of men, so change the culture men. Get out the word. If a woman gets pregnant it is completely the fault of the man, because the way to avoid pregnancy is to stop your entitled sexual practices. Stop the rape that you think is sex, stop the down low sexually transmitted diseases, stop the over population of the world. You don’t need drugs, pills etc., you need a complete change in patriarchally based sexuality, and you need to give women 100% of the power over this. Men don’t die in childbirth, women do. Men kill approximately half a million women a year due to death in pregnancy, think of that.


    1. Clearly the context of the conversation regarding reproductive agency needs to shift. There’s no doubt in my mind that we live in a Rape Culture, fueled by a mad masculinist thirst for domination, degradation and destruction. I think an awareness of this fact, and the statistics your bring up, can be used to open men’s eyes to the great drama of gender injustice.

      However, I fear that you’re neglecting the role of individual women as empowered moral agents in cases where enthusiastic consent is an undeniable reality. My main point is to empower women through education and access to affordable medical/social support, striving to give them 100% of their power to choose. It seems to me that “If a woman gets pregnant it is completely the fault of the man” is a statement detached from the concrete realities of each individual conception. Rather than assigning universal blame, we should encourage men in intimate relationships with women to be conscious of the dire necessity for them to assume an attitude of sexual responsibility.


  12. Thank you for your post, Ben. If you can tell by the below response to your post, I, too, am a loud-mouthed New Yorker. :) Exhibit A: I’ve always found it fascinating when people quote the Biblical passage you mention above concerning our fruitful multiplying. As you say, this message was delivered during a time when the earth held far fewer people and was far “smaller” than it is today (in terms of limited access to other cultures versus our current global society), which meant the compartmentalization of beliefs/religions to a larger degree, of course, than is the case today. Thus, I mention this because that passage was written and first distributed during a time when Christians still represented a relatively small and persecuted group of faithfuls. To acquire new believers was to acquire a larger, more permanent, and safer community. And what better way to acquire new believers than to produce them themselves! Today, I think we can all agree that Christianity is doing alright; no need to worry over it’s continued existence or proliferation, at least for the present. Though, with the decline of young church members, and new controversial issues being brought to the proverbial alter, the opposite argument has been made: Christianity must be saved! Indeed, many anti-Roe-v.-Wade activists are reasserting the old adage that Christians must listen to God’s message to be fruitful and multiply BECAUSE the Christian flock, so to speak, has been picked off over the past sixty years or so by marauding wolf-like cultural practices. I find this mentality rather remarkable given the plethora of countries around the world where Christianity represents the dominant religion, such as the one in which we live. Anyway, food for thought!


  13. Ben, this is a great post. Motherhood was a central issue at the NWSA conference this year, according to my advisor and some peers who were in attendance. For many feminists, an emphasis on choice in motherhood is of primary importance. While I certainly support women’s freedom of choice in reproductive decisions, there is something to be said about personal responsibility in light of contemporary trends in population growth, and the aspects of celebrity and martyrdom that are so commonly tied to popular perceptions of Western motherhood.

    In no way am I attempting to say that mothers are adequately supported in this, or any country. Nor am I disputing the obvious (and sometimes not-so-obvious) social, economic, emotional, physical, personal and even political sacrifices that women who choose to become mothers make. But, when these sacrifices are valorized without recognition of the selfishness involved in making the decision to have a child (not adopt, foster, etc…), when women who choose not to have children are persistently perceived as lacking (not ‘whole’ women, unfeminine, etc…), and when legal contraceptive methods such as the morning after pill and abortion are consistently stigmatized as irresponsible and extreme, we can understand how any woman’s ‘choice’ regarding her reproductive capacity is slanted from the beginning.

    When I refer to ‘selfishness’ it is certainly not to cast judgment on those women who do choose to become mothers. In part, I use this term to acknowledge that selfishness is not inherently negative. However, I also wish to emphasize that motherhood is not inherently positive. If we are to view women as having a real choice in the matter, we must acknowledge that the personal choices and decisions individuals make everyday often exclude global-minded considerations. When I opt to spend money dining out rather than to use those funds for a more altruistic purpose, I am acting selfishly. I do not, however, feel guilty for this, as there will always be some better, more selfless way to use that money. I worked to earn it, and I am not obligated to be selfless with it; I can decide/choose to do with my money what I want. But I do feel responsible to acknowledge my choice as selfish, to see this choice as stemming from a privileged existence.


  14. Ben,
    Thanks for such a great post! And, just so you know, you are not the loudest loud mouth New Yorker that I know : )

    Overpopulation is a concern that my wife and I discuss frequently, but often for different reasons than our mutual environmental concerns. For her, this issue is related to the socioeconomic status of many of the people who have large families. Working for the Social Security Administration, she has noticed that many people who are on Supplemental Security Income (or Welfare as most people know it by) have larger families than one would expect given their income level. Logically, you would think that if you are struggling to take care of yourself you would not introduce another person into the family. However, this may not be an option for many people who do not have access to birth control (or at least do not know how to get access) or if they come from communities where small families are seen as a-typical.

    I firmly believe that everyone has the right to determine of they want to have children, so I must admit, I have reached a state of “paralysis” on this issue. I don’t really know the best way to address it. Perhaps, there isn’t a “best” way, but just multiple ways that different communities will have access to…


  15. Hi Ben,

    With the earth’s population increasing dramatically, I do agree with you that there needs to be some conversation around what is happening, but to me I always get a little uncomfortable with the direction that the conversation typically goes.

    For me I think the question is not so much women’s access to birth control and reproductive rights, but how we view women in general. In patriarchal discourse, women are valued for their ability to procreate (make sons!), not for many of their other incredible talents, skills, thoughts and dreams.

    One of the best ways to decrease the number of children women give birth to is to give them access and opportunities in the workforce outside of the home. To me this isn’t just a question about sexuality or procreation, but a fundamental question of how we view women altogether.

    I think if we spread this out to your Mother Earth metaphor, often humanity is grateful to her for the bounty that she provides. I think it’s telling that we look at our relationship to her in a very dualistic way, “How much food can we force out of her” and “Oh my God, why does she hate us so much because of the latest earthquake/hurricane/forest fire.” If the gendered metaphor of Earth as mother occurs, then those very same gendered expectations of women as provider or dangerous occur. As you say, with the corporate interests in mono-crops and emissions, clearly we need to look at mother earth not just as a provider, but something that has incredible value in of itself.

    You’re spot on that the rapid increase in the world’s population is a women’s issue. The solution I don’t think is simply access to family planning, but something more intagible and difficult as fundamentally shifting the way that we value women’s contributions to our society.


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