Printer Friendly

Religious responses to the population sustainability problematic: implications for law.


In an Atlantic Monthly article, Charles Mann asked the question, "How Many is Too Many?" for the earth to sustain.(1) Mann argues that since the 1700s, the answers to this question have varied between those who believe that continued population growth will eventually lead to an environmental catastrophe (e.g., the economist Robert Malthus in 1798 and the biologist Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book The Population Bomb) and those who argue that increasing technological efficiency and changing social and economic patterns will solve the problem (e.g., the Marquis de Condorcet in 1794 and Amory and Hunter Lovins in their 1991 essay Least-Cost Climatic Stabilization(2)).(3)

At the Rio Earth Summit, the developing countries of the South responded to the developed countries of the North on this issue. The developing countries argued that the problem is not one of overpopulation in the South, but of excessive consumption of the earth's resources by the well-off few in the North.(4) It is said that a baby born in Europe or North America, for example, will likely consume thirty times the earth's resources (and produce thirty times as much pollution) as a baby born in a developing country.(5) But even this generalization is too simple. It ignores the fact that there is an increasing number of well-off people in developing countries who consume at the same unsustainable level as their counterparts in developed countries.

The debate over how many is too many has ranged across the disciplines of biology, economics, ecology, anthropology, philosophy, and demography. Mann's brilliant summary of this long, complex, and crucial debate is particularly significant in that the role of religion is never mentioned. Yet, it is clear that religions can and do shape people's attitudes about the environment, practices surrounding fertility and reproductive health, and the just sharing of the earth's resources. This was evident at the 1994 Cairo United Nations Conference on Population and Development (Cairo Conference) where the human rights issues raised evoked a strong religious response. The views of the world's religions, especially Islam and Christianity via the Vatican, had a strong influence on the drafting of preliminary documents, the Conference discussions, and the resulting "Programme of Action."(6)

Unlike earlier UN summit conferences, the Cairo Conference opened the doors to input from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including religious groups. This was evident at the three preparatory meetings at which the agenda, themes, and drafts for the Cairo Conference were prepared. It was also true at Cairo itself, and at the subsequent UN meetings in Copenhagen and Beijing The views of the religions, along with those of scientists, social scientists, and secular thinkers, are now very much front and center as the world attempts to solve its most pressing problems. While the Cairo Conference was originally focused on the population problem and the developments (especially in the education, social status, and employment of women) needed to deal with it, the analysis quickly made clear that the issue of environmental degradation could not be left out.

Thus, the three-pronged problematic of population pressure, excessive consumption, and environmental degradation has emerged as perhaps the major challenge facing us today. Current trends in reproduction and consumption appear to threaten the well-being of both future generations and the ecology of the earth. The Cairo Conference taught us that target-driven population policies guided by demographers must be replaced by approaches which recognize that women's education, empowerment, and improvement of status are important ends in themselves. To respond to this challenge, the knowledge of the natural and human sciences are being called upon together with the wisdom and teachings of the religions. The Cairo Conference demonstrated that religions still exert a major influence in our struggle toward world solutions.

This Article addresses religious responses to these issues and identifies the ways they can work with or against policy and legal attempts to address the problem. Part II focuses on the question of whether religion can become a force for change in the post-Cairo era. Part III asks if the policy and law of the "modem liberal state" pose an obstacle to the engagement of the religious responses.


On the issues of fertility control and the education of women, the world's religions have frequently been obstructions rather than forces for change. Virtually all religions have been strongly pro-natal.(7) At one time or another in their histories, most religions have opposed giving women education and a status equal to that enjoyed by men. However, the patriarchal domination of religions by male scholars and leaders is currently under challenge, as is the traditional pro-natal stance of the religions. Theological thinking within the religions is changing. Despite this change, the religions are not relinquishing their claim to be based on divine truths usually given in revealed and unchanging forms (e.g. scriptures). How does this happen?

Theology proceeds by what Paul Tillich called "the method of correlation."(8) In response to the challenges and questions posed by human existence, theology searches its sources of revelation and tradition for answers. It is only recently that the various religions have had to question their sources with regard to the interaction of humans with the environment. This has occurred in response to the population explosion and the resulting human strain being put on the earth's resources at a rate that threatens to exhaust its life sustaining capacity. Thus, we have witnessed the advent of ecotheology in Christianity, in which the themes of nature and the environment (which one searches for in vain in the works of the early Christian thinkers) are cutting edge issues of the day.(9)

It is when questions about population growth are removed from the narrow and exhausted debate over birth control or abortion and considered in the context of consumerism and environmental degradation that the traditional sources provide new answers. It is perhaps not surprising that much of this eco-theologizing is being done by women scholars, for the analysis suggests that just as nature has often been treated as a resource to be exploited, so have women. Indeed, the Christian theologian Rosemary Reuther argues that patriarchal societies and religions have categorized women together with nature and treated both as commodities to be used.(10) Reuther argues that "what is necessary is a double transformation of both women and men in their relation to each other and to `nature.'"(11) Reuther offers militarism as the strongest example of this double rape of both women and the earth, and concludes that the change of consciousness needed "is one that recognizes that real `security' lies, not in dominating power and the impossible quest for total invulnerability, but rather in the acceptance of vulnerability, limits, and interdependency with others, with other humans and with the earth."(12) In the Hindu context, Vandana Shiva offers a similar critique.(13)

The ecofeminist theology response points out the necessity of a fresh approach to the population problem. Rather than meeting demographic quotas through the imposition of fertility controls such as family planning aimed at slowing population growth, the new approach introduced during the lead-up to the Cairo Conference is aimed at reproductive health.(14) This new emphasis on reproductive health signals a change from seeing the population pressure problem as subject to a scientific solution through the imposition of medical technology (often through the sterilization of women) to a holistic approach which involves "reducing poverty, improving health, decreasing mortality rates, enhancing education, augmenting reproductive health services, achieving sustainable development, abating environmental degradation and excessive consumption, and attaining gender equity and equality."(15) The voices of women from nongovernmental organizations and religions around the world were a powerful influence in achieving this significant shift in approach at the Cairo Conference. What this shift makes clear for theologians of all religions is that one can no longer deal with the challenges of population pressure, excess consumption, and environmental degradation as questions to be addressed separately.

While this makes matters more complex, it also opens the door to exciting new theology. When, following Tillich's correlational method,(16) we ask our traditions for their wisdom on the three-pronged problematic of population, consumption, and ecology, we find fresh and creative answers forthcoming--answers that we could not get by asking about the ethics of reproduction, consumption, or our relation to nature separately. I say this on the basis of personal experience. Some years ago, I put together an interdisciplinary research team to do an ethical analysis of possible scientific and social responses to the challenge of the greenhouse effect. In analyzing the teachings of the various religions, I was able to sift out their "theologies of nature."(17) But the result was not satisfying because it remained at the level of theory and lacked the ability to engage the world's very real problems.

A major weakness in the study was our failure to include the population variable. Even if decision makers in governments and the private sector made the `green choice' based on our ethical analysis, the environmental threat would continue to worsen due to the increase in the earth's population. As a result, in 1993, under the auspices of the Center for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, I brought together a new team of scientists, social scientists, secular philosophers, and theologians to reexamine the issue with the population variable included.(18) But scholars from the developing countries, especially from India, quickly convinced us that to look at population without consumption resulted in an unjust saddling of the developing countries of the South with both the problem and the responsibility for its solution. This is so because it is in the developing countries that the rapid population growth of today and in the future decades will take place, yet it is the few babies born in the developed countries that will excessively consume and pollute the environment.(19)

Thus, we were forced to enlarge our focus from environment and population to include issues of consumption of the earth's resources, sustainability, and just sharing. The result of this enlargement in scope was the three-pronged problematic. We could find no religion that addressed this multifaceted problematic. The task called for truly new theology from each religion, and the result was exciting. For although we could only begin the task, new creative openings began to appear.

For example, our Muslim scholar found that the Qur'an teaches that humans, as custodians of nature, were free to satisfy their own needs only with an eye to the welfare of all creation. Thus, humans must share natural resources and population pressure will dictate limits to consumption so that there can be equal access to resources by all. While fertility control is generally forbidden by the Qur'an, and the production of children encouraged, combining the Qur'anic teaching on nature and consumption with reproduction provides a way of suggesting that fertility control may be acceptable if seen as part of self-discipline required from humans to avoid upsetting the divinely created balance of nature.(20)

In the Jewish tradition, the mystical thought of the Kabbalists "suggests that humans must learn to limit themselves--their rate of reproduction, their use of natural resources, and their production of fouling wastes."(21) As humans, we are to pattern our behavior after the example God gives in the creation of the world.(22) "If God is omnipresent then, reasoned the Kabbalists, the only way God could create would be by an act of tsimtsum--of voluntary withdrawal or limitation to make room for creation."(23) Similarly, as humans we must withdraw or limit both our reproduction and our wants, so as to make room for coexistence with our environment in this and future generations. Therefore, we must change our behavior by cutting back on both our reproduction and consumption.

A Christian scholar on our research team concluded that Christianity had a major responsibility for fostering much of the world's excessive consumption and overpopulation.(24) Yet, within Christianity there are strong forces at work transforming Christianity into a self-critical force for justice, peace, and the maintenance of the integrity of nature. The ecology of the planet cannot be separated from population and social justice concerns when seen through Christian feminist theology. In this context, the traditional Christian opposition to fertility control is just beginning to be critically examined in relation to the looming crisis of overpopulation. Christian thinkers are recognizing that it is overconsumption by the developed Christian countries of the North that is both polluting the environment and depriving the developing countries of the South of the resources they need. It is the babies of well-off parents of the first world who pose the largest threat to the ecology, not the babies of the underdeveloped Asians, Africans, or Latin Americans.(25)

Therefore, it is the child who has the most, the first world child, that the world can least afford. This leads Keller to the radical conclusion that well-off Christians should choose to reduce their own populations and resource consumption, so as to make room for the migrating poor.(26) Such an ascetic choice is not seen by Keller as a denial of pleasure, but as a responsible practice of fertility in relation to others and to nature.(27) It also challenges the traditional patriarchal family patterns basic to many Christian cultures. This teaching, says Keller, is in line with the teaching of the Hebrew prophets who maintain that humans and nature are required to live together in justice, and with the teaching of Jesus that one must love one's neighbor in need, as did the Good Samaritan.(28)

Christians today are realizing that their neighbors' welfare is strongly affected by the way they treat the environment and by the number of children they produce. The prophets addressed the issue of resource consumption from the vantage point of the poor. The lesson for Christians today, says Keller, is not to multiply the quantity of life, but to enhance the quality of life through the sharing of nature's abundance.(29) The result is an ethic of interdependence with the rest of creation, which may also mean an ethic of `non-creation' for well-off Christians, for the good of the whole. For the early New Testament Christians, the notion of an imminent end, the second coming of Christ, led them to counsel the wisdom of few possessions and no children. Christians today are hearing a similar counsel, not because the Apocalypse is coming, but in order to avoid another kind of end--an ecological catastrophe.

Rita Gross, in Toward a Buddhist Environmental Ethic, offers a detailed development of a Buddhist response.(30) Gross argues that we need to be unhooked from our religion of consumption while giving equal place to our need to discourage excessive reproduction.(31) In her mind, "the key question is what values and practices would convince people to consume and reproduce less when they have the technological ability to consume and reproduce more."(32) Buddhism, she maintains, offers an effective answer.(33) Effective because it not only offers a viewpoint that would safeguard the environment, but also offers a proven method for putting that viewpoint into practice.(34)

While all religions have at least an implicit environmental ethic, Buddhism has focused on meditational techniques that do have the power to actually transform one's consumerism into something better--the middle way of Buddhism.(35) Meditational practice allows one to actualize the central Buddhist teaching of the interconnectedness of everything in one's daily life.(36) This doctrine has profound implications for one's response to the ecological challenge of our day. It means that our individualistic sense of identity is expanded, through meditation, until one experiences a connectedness to everything, and everything to us. Reality is composed of a web-like causality in which everything affects everything else in some way; everything (including humans, animals, plants, earth, air, and water) is interdependent.

Gross's specific application of Buddhist teaching to consumption and population is original. She begins by making the point that the urge to consume more and the urge to reproduce more are both equally serious.(37) Both spring from egocentric motivations and produce results which seriously damage the environment. While Buddhist literature contains many condemnations of personal, corporate, and national greed for consumerism (and the awareness of how such greed damages the interdependent ecosystem), parallel discussions are lacking of how excessive population growth is also morally unacceptable due to its damaging impact upon the environment. Yet, such reproductive behavior is also fueled by individual or communal "ego-selfishness" and is just as unacceptable, in a Buddhist analysis, as greed for assets.

Gross thinks the lack of sensitivity in Buddhist texts to "reproductive ethics" is due to the fact that Buddhist societies, like most others, have been patriarchal in nature, viewing women as producers of the children needed for family continuity.(38) Meditation on the interdependence of humans with nature, she argues, will result in the negation of selfish desires for children or material possessions when having them would harm other persons or the environment.(39) Nor would women be seen primarily as producers of babies.(40) Men and women equally would limit their reproduction and consumption in response to the ethic of interdependence.(41)

To translate Buddhism into the terms of our more familiar language of rights and responsibilities, the rights of other beings, including animals and future generations, must not be infringed upon by our excessive reproduction and consumption. We are obligated not to harm other beings unnecessarily through our reproduction and consumption. All of this happens when trishna, or desire, is renounced through meditation. Happiness comes when the self-centered greed for more of everything, including children, is given up. It is only then that limitations on consumption and reproduction, such as our current ecological crisis may require, are experienced not as personal loss, but as normal and pleasant in the interdependent matrix.

From the Hindu perspective, Vasudha Narayanan notes the close connections between the teachings in the Hindu epics and puranas on dharma (righteousness, duty, justice) and the ravaging of the earth.(42) When dharma declines, humans take it out on nature.(43) It is in the dharma, rather than the moksa or enlightenment texts, that Narayanan finds resources for a Hindu response to the contemporary need for positive practices in the face of the problems of ecology, population pressure, and excess consumption.(44) In another good illustration of Tillich's correlational method,(45) Narayanan searched out dharma texts with helpful teachings and matched them up with positive dharma practices in which present-day Hindus are engaged. She found many teachings which condemn the cutting down of trees and support the planting of trees.(46) A fine example is found in the goddess Parvati's teaching that one tree is equal to ten sons!(47)

While governments may be the leaders in the non-dharmic behavior of harvesting forests, Hindu temples such as the Tirumala-Tirupati temple in South India are showing great initiative in fostering the dharma of tree planting. This famous pilgrimage temple used to give pilgrims an Indian sweet called laddus as a prasada or material symbol, which when blessed by the deity and eaten, gave one divine grace. Around 100,000 laddus; were given out daily. Now, however, sapling trees are given instead and the pilgrims are instructed to plant them at home or in the temple grounds. As a result, over 2.5 million temple trees have been planted. This practice is more powerful than it may seem since the Tirumala-Tirupati temple is the richest in India and carries considerable dharmic clout with Hindus at home and in the Diaspora communities. The practice is catching on. For example, the chief minister of Tamilnadu requested that, in lieu of other devotional expressions on his birthday, trees should be planted. According to reports, over 100,000 were planted. In Hindu texts, trees, like cows, are recognized as preservers and sustainers of life and therefore as appropriate symbols of God.(48)

Turning from trees to rivers, Narayanan notes that rivers are also featured in dharma texts as sacred purifiers of pollution, with the Ganges as a prime example.(49) She observes that the rivers of India are rapidly being dammed and fouled by both industrial and human waste.(50) It is the women of India who lead the fight against these practices, which is appropriate since most rivers are considered to be female. Some successes have been achieved, such as the protest led by Ms. Medha Patkar which has prevented the Narmada river dam project from going forward.(51) Women have also led the way in pressing classical Hindu dance into the service of ecology, thus spreading the message through art.

Turning to India's population problem, Narayanan points out that the dharma texts that emphasize the duty of procreation were formulated during periods when epidemics and famines kept population levels down, child mortality was high, and death came early.(52) Modem medicine has changed all this and India's population has rapidly increased to levels that are causing serious ecological damage. However, in certain states, such as Kerala, where girls are educated and women are employed at all levels, reproduction is at the replacement rate only.(53) Thus, the key may be to find texts such as those in the Upanishads which encourage the education of girls and women, and examples in the epics and puranas of women who do not conform to the patriarchal dharmic ideals espoused in these texts.

With regard to consumption, Narayanan notes that the Hindu texts are replete with the dangers and futility of possessions.(54) Yet consumerism is rapidly taking over in India in the name of modernization. Even worse perhaps is the use of the dowry system as a convenient way of fulfilling greed for consumer luxury items. While the Hindu theological response is showing some success in producing positive ecological practices, it seems to be losing ground to the influx of the market economy into India.

In the aboriginal traditions it is not new theology that is needed, for evidence suggests that their population approach was "interdependent" rather than "pronatal."(55) Fertility was regulated in a variety of ways to keep it in a sustainable balance with the natural resources upon which the aborigines depended.(56) Missionary influence, especially from the Roman Catholic church, led to an increase of family size from two to three children spaced widely apart to large families with children spaced closely together.(57) Today, most aboriginals practice birth control and have families of two to four children. They are recovering their traditional beliefs and practices and are attempting to follow the ethic of living in a sustainable interdependence with the environment of which they see themselves as a part.

The above sampling of new theology on population, consumption, and ecology demonstrates that religious wisdom is not stuck in the unbending pronatalist dogmas of the past. If time and space permitted, similar examples could be given from Chinese and African religions. Of course, such new thinking will take time to permeate the various institutional and instructional layers within these religions. The process, however, as Cairo and Beijing demonstrated, has already begun. Each religion has its own women's movements and when the patriarchal leadership of a religion refuses to change, it is simply bypassed. The contemporary combination of large numbers of well-educated women, infrastructure support provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the speed of modern communication technology is resulting in rapid changes in thinking and behavior taking place, whether or not orthodox religious leadership approves.

For example, Riffat Hassan, a Muslim theologian and a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Louisville, clashed openly at Cairo with Abdel Fattah H. El-Sheikh, Rector, Al-Azhar University, Cairo, and the voice of orthodox dogma for Islam. It was Hassan's "new theology" which was taken back by many of the women delegates and is now spreading through the Islamic world (especially in Asia where the majority of Muslims live) by grassroots movements. In terms of its effect upon women, the new thinking that so influenced the Cairo Conference has been summarized as follows:

The claims for the full human dignity of women in the private and public as

well as sacred and secular spheres of life, therefore, will likely find

increasing support among and within religious communities, even when the

official position of a religious tradition is at variance with the

views held within the larger body. And while women in different parts

of the world may reflect the distinctive character of their cultures

and faiths, the fundamental and universal rights of women as human

beings can be expected to receive support from a broadening spectrum

of religious communities.(58)

What does this mean for law and public policy? Simply put, it means that the religions are rapidly developing the resources to join hands with international law in supporting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its call for dignity and justice to all.(59) But the ethic of the Declaration is, as Louis Henkin has pointed out, a minimal ethic.(60) Human rights "are essential, but not enough. The Declaration, the ideology of rights, says nothing about brotherhood, or love."(61) I would add our interconnection with nature to that list. That is the added plus that religion brings in its cooperation with law, a maximal ethic.

In addition to insisting on the dignity and development of women, the new theologies summarized above require a just sharing of the earth's resources and the protection of the environment. While law may provide the requirements of a minimal ethic, the world's religions, through their new theologies, are establishing a maximal ethic as the goal to be achieved. Richard Falk, Professor of International Law and Practice at Princeton University, suggests that the great potentiality of religion is that it can set forth maximal social, economic, and environmental norms and translate them into reality in people's lives.(62) Law may set forth minimum standards which depend upon civil support for actualization. Religions can be a major social force in this regard. Professor Falk observes that "[t]he great potential in world religions is that they can reach peoples around the globe more directly and more fully than any other societal institution."(63)

While the United Nations may convince governments to sign on to its Declaration of Human Rights and its Rio, Cairo, and Beijing agendas, these agreements are written in modern liberal language that comes from a world-view which is foreign to many cultures and thus will not change their behavior. But if the religions, with their diverse world-views, translate these United Nations legal agreements into the norms of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or Confucianism, then there is a much better chance of these norms being embraced by ordinary people and changing their behavior. If village women in Pakistan, for example, see a Qur'anic basis for limiting their fertility out of respect for nature and the need to share resources equitably, they will be more likely to respond positively to that framework than to a modern liberal statement which is not part of their belief system. I agree with Richard Falk when he says, "If the religions of the world, despite their diversity, could begin to educate people based on their diverse interpretations of the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights], it would eventually have an enormous impact on daily life."(64)

As I have shown above, the religions of the world, through their leading women scholars and grassroots movements, are already hard at work on this task. They are creating new understandings of the entitlements of women and our responsibilities to the environment. These are understandings from which the human and environmental agreements of the United Nations can be embraced and actualized. In this way the world's religions can be strong copartners with law and public policy in achieving the goal of sustainability.


I have shown that religion in its responses to population, consumption, and ecology problems can become a powerful coworker with law by putting international declarations into practice. I now examine the question from the other direction and ask if there are obstacles on the side of law and public policy which get in the way of working with religion.

One such obstacle is the way in which modern human rights policy and law construe identity. Those of us shaped by a modern Western upbringing and cultural context tend to experience our personal identity as created by being a chooser of options. This is the modern liberal concept of individuals as choosers. Our identity in a liberal society is a construct of the choices we make or fail to make. We see ourselves first and foremost as consumers or as constructors of options. Our natural, social, and economic environments are not givens, but are potentially manipulable elements in our never ceasing struggle for what Thomas Hobbes termed power after power.(65) This causes us to seek the maximum benefits for our individual selves, here and now, over the good of other persons, future generations, or nature itself.

We tend to structure the world so that the individual choices we make in reproductive, economic, or environmental situations will bring us maximum benefit. The ethic is one of self-interest defined in individualistic utilitarian terms rather than self-interest through identification with the larger whole, such as humanity or the cosmos. This produces a focus upon human rights (often defined as isolated individual rights in law and public policy) as a way of ensuring that each person gets his or her fair share. It fosters an economy which, when meshed with modern technology, expands to supply enlarging needs (with increasing levels of consumption) and to keep pace with the world's rapidly growing population. The result is a nonsustainable degradation of nature in the name of serving human needs defined as human rights. Human beings, and their needs, are put at war with the sustainability of nature, which according to some readings of the Bible and the Qur'an was created for the purpose of supporting humans. This one-sided ontology may have helped foster the modern liberal emphasis on the individual. When combined with utilitarian secular ethics and the market economy, the effects on the global ecosystem may be devastating.(66)

Although the individual as an atomistic, isolated chooser is the identity that dominates the self-understanding of most modern Europeans and North Americans, for much of the rest of the world identity is understood quite differently. In traditional Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, and Aboriginal societies, self-identity is constructed not by individual choice but by participation in a "family" which may extend out to include caste, tribe, and all humans as well as plants, animals, and the cosmos. For example, in the Chinese world-view it is never the isolated, individual self, but the self as interrelated with community, nature, and with heaven as the ethical agent. Identity is in one's harmonious interrelationships, not in one's choices, rights, powers, or privileges. Such a broad self-understanding leads to a focus on obligations to the whole rather than an emphasis on individual human rights--although the safeguards of the latter are an important defense against abuses of the individual (especially children and women) that the former has sometimes produced, and therefore they need to be retained but balanced. Let me move from the level of broad social, political, and economic analysis to that of psychological processes to further explore the different understandings of the self as an ethical agent that I have sketched above. I begin with a personal illustration.

Several years ago when I was just beginning my career as a university professor, I attended a conference with a colleague who was Hindu, born in India. I am a Canadian Protestant Christian. Now I knew all about Hinduism on an intellectual level--in fact I taught a course in it at the university. But until this trip I had not really understood the tradition from within. The differences began when we selected our seats on the plane. Of course, we would sit together, but my colleague insisted the seats should be chosen so as to avoid certain inauspicious numbers. When we got to the hotel room which we also shared, other differences began to become apparent. I noticed my friend using my toothpaste. To me, this was an invasion of my privacy and property, without even the courtesy of asking permission. To him, there was no clear separation of ownership because we were together. Our identities and possessions were merged into a collective unity. It was our toothpaste, and as it looked interesting, he was trying it. I soon understood that being together also meant that whenever we left the room to attend sessions, eat, or do some sightseeing, we did it together. This was quite different from my usual conference-going experience of room sharing where the only time you might see your roommate was at night or upon waking in the morning. Being with my Hindu colleague and sharing his world view meant we did everything together. The two of us were merged into one. For me to venture off alone would have caused a serious rupture in our collective personhood. No longer was I an autonomous individual. We made our decisions as a shared identity.

This collective as opposed to individual identity has important implications for issues of population, consumption, and ecology. As doctors, nurses, or ethicists dealing with reproductive issues, for example, it means we are not interacting with an autonomous person (our usual experience), but with a person who understands their self-identity in terms of a larger whole such as an extended family.

Alan Roland, a New York psychiatrist, reports just such an experience.(67) Roland found that his Indian Hindu patients (highly educated professionals) did not respond to his usual modern Western therapies, which assumed a strongly individualized sense of I-Selfness characterized by a self-contained set of ego boundaries with sharp distinctions between self and others.(68) Roland found that his South Asian patients had a familial We-Self that enabled them to function within extended families.(69) Rather than the self-contained ego boundaries of the typical North American I-Self which allows us to function in a highly autonomous society, the We-Self of his Indian patients had highly permeable ego boundaries.(70) These permeable boundaries opened the way for the constant empathy and receptivity to others necessary for life in an extended family.

Instead of actualization of the individual self, the personal and spiritual goal of the South Asian is the reciprocal responsibility required to live in harmony within the hierarchical structure of family, society, and, ideally, all of nature. Whereas the North American I-Self sharply separates between self and others and self and nature (often in a competitive fashion), the We-Self of Asian cultures extends outward to include family, caste-group, linguistic-ethnic culture, and even the natural environment. From the Buddhist perspective, which is dominant in the cultures of East and South-East Asia, it is our false attachment to the I-Self and its selfish desires that is the cause of unethical action and suffering. Understanding ourselves as but a tiny interdependent part of the complex We-Self of the cosmos leads to compassionate action and Nirvana. Yet, within that complex We-Self, observes Roland, a highly private ego is maintained.(71)

What does all this mean for reproductive issues in health care? First, diagnosis and treatment in many cultures will have to pay more attention to the extended family and the environmental context in which the person lives--the We-Self. For example, my wife, a nurse working in a family practice unit serving prairie Stony Aboriginal patients, had frequent We-Self experiences. When a young woman or older teenage girl would arrive with gynecological problems, she would be accompanied by her mother, aunts, and grandmother. All would insist on going back to the examining room together (a room designed to hold just two or three). When the doctor was talking the history, often it would be the grandmother who would do the talking, relating, for example, when the girl had had her last period. Everyone knew everything, naturally, as they were a We-Self. And everyone expected to be involved in the treatment and any ethical decisions to be made.

This raises a second point, namely that issues of consent must be approached with the understanding that the ethical decision maker in such a culture is not just the individual, but the We-Self of which they are but a respected part. Recognition of this fact should cause us to reexamine our methods and forms of obtaining consent which, for the most part, are devised on the assumption that the person is an autonomous individual, an I-Self, sharply separated from others in one's family or society. The existence of cultures with We-Self expanding identities challenges autonomous conceptions of health and human rights often assumed in UN declarations, especially relating to women and children. We should not be surprised to discover that the feminist movements in traditional cultures do not always express the goal for women in terms of individual women's rights. Rather, it is the just and respected place of women within the We-Self of the family and even the environment that is the focus of ethical analysis. When ethical issues surrounding reproduction arise, a woman within the We-Self ideally ponders the good of the extended family and the sustainable capacities of the environment, along with her own desires, in coming to a decision. Nor should we be surprised to find that in such cultures the idea that children or adolescents have ethical standing independent of the family raises reactions of incomprehensibility and hostility.

Our modern Western notions of individual autonomy and human rights can serve to highlight ethical abuses and exploitation that can and do arise in the extended family (an important contribution often liberating to women and children). However, the We-Self ideals of mutual responsibility and respect between ourselves, others, and the environment are a much needed corrective to a self-centered selfishness that our modern Western competitive I-Self so successfully generates.

Does conceiving of identity in We-Self rather than I-Self terms make a difference at the level of ethics in public policy decision making? This is an important question for modern democracies which have officially embraced a pluralism premise that promises to respect the differing world views of minority cultural, religious, and ethnic communities. Particularly in law, the I-Self emphasis upon rights as a way to resolve problems and ensure justice runs into problems. In law, rights are usually attached to human individuals and their property. Thus, identities that understand themselves in a collective We-Self sense simply do not fit and are therefore passed by in ethical decision making. There is enough difficulty in dealing with collective identities among humans. Think of the discombobulation that would result if the I-Self world of law, economics, and politics was asked to deal with a We-Self that includes and gives ethical standing to animals, plants, and even inorganic nature.

Scholars working within the liberal I-Self world view are attempting to cope with this problem by developing a communitarian ethic--one which extends identity and rights to communities.(72) Basing itself on Kant's ideal of respect for persons,(73) "welfare liberals"(74) as they are called in philosophy, have argued that there is a positive duty imposed upon the state to protect the cultural conditions such as language, religion, and culture, which allow for the development of autonomous persons. One's identity is seen as acquired not just as an individual, but as a member of a community. Thus, the need for collective rights to provide linguistic and cultural security for members of minority immigrant religious and other groups.

But there is a fatal weakness in this welfare liberal defense of collective rights. First, the only groups to which the welfare liberal will extend collective rights are those whose cultures support the formation of autonomous individual--only those which meet the liberal individualist criterion of autonomous individual identity. This rules out many groups in pluralistic society. Second, welfare liberals actively discourage groups which reject the liberal identity presupposition. Groups which do not facilitate the growth of autonomous individuals for religious or other reasons (e.g., Amish, Hindus, Muslims, Chinese, and Aboriginal peoples) will be confronted by the activist welfare liberal state in areas like education (e.g., residential schools) or health care (e.g., treatment of the individual not the family/environment). Individual autonomy trumps all values and so renders the perspective of non-liberal based immigrant groups irrelevant. What is needed is a liberal approach in which communities are treated as fundamental units of value, while at the same time retaining a sense of personal individual dignity.

Can the classical liberal concerns of individual rights, freedoms, and interests (which we rightly esteem) be revised into a more holistic conception of ethics in public policy in which communities matter in their own right? And could communities ever be extended, as the Aboriginal, Kabbalists, Sufis, Daoists, Hindus, Buddhists, and some feminists do, to include animals, plants, earth, air, and water-the ecosystem itself.? This is the urgent ethical challenge facing the I-Self world, with its powerful possessions of prosperity, science, and technology, that somehow must be ethnically shared and used for the common good. Here law can perhaps help. We need to find ways of dealing with rights in collective as well as individualistic terms. We need collective terms that respect the world views of the various religions and do not undercut their normative ideals. If this can be achieved then law would no longer pose an obstacle to the traditional religions. The kind of cooperative partnership between international law and the world's religions, which I outlined in Part 1, could then become a full reality.

Religion and law can work powerfully together to protect both humans and nature from unethical exploitation. Law, with policy makers, can provide minimal international standards. But if the aim of law in areas like population and ecology is to change human behavior, then law needs the help of the religions and their maximal values.

(1) Charles Mann, How Many Is Too Many?, Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1993, at 47.

(2) Amory B. Lovins & L. Hunter Lovins, Least-cost Climactic Stabilization, 16 Ann. Rev. Energy & Env't 433 (1991).

(3) Mann, supra note 1, at 48.

(4) Mahesh Uniyal, India Says Rich Flouting Earth Summit Promises, Inter. Pres. Serv., May 11, 1994, available in 1994 WL 2581671.

(5) Americans, for example, are the largest per capita consumers of the world's resources. Alan Dunning, How Much is Enough 38 (1992); see also Gretchen C. Daily & Paul R. Ehrlich, Population, Sustainability, and Earth's Carrying Capacity, 42 Bioscience 161, 172 (1992) (estimating that the environmental impact of the average U.S. citizen is roughly thirty times greater than that of a citizen of a developing country).

(6) Report of the International Conference on Population Development, U.N. Dept. of Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis, U.N. Doc. No. A/Conf. 171/13 (Oct. 18, 1994), available at <gopher:.//gopher:.undp.ord> (report from Cairo Conference, Sept. 5-13, 1994).

(7) Harold Coward, World Religions and New Productive Technologies, in Social Values and Attitudes Surrounding New Reproductive Technologies 446 (Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies ed., 1993).

(8) 1 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology 60 (1951).

(9) See generally Rosemary Radford Reuther, Gala and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (1992).

(10) Id. at 2.

(11) Id. at 265.

(12) Id. at 268.

(13) See Vadana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India 14 (1988).

(14) Rebecca J. Cook, Reproductive Health Law: Where Next, After Cairo and Beijing? 16 Med. & L. 169 (1997).

(15) Amy L. Grist & Larry L. Greenfield, Population and Development, Conflict and Consensus at Cairo, Second Opinion, Apr. 1995, at 51, 61.

(16) See supra note 8 and accompanying text.

(17) Ethics and Climate Change: The Greenhouse Effect 39-60 (Harold Coward & Thomas Hurka eds., 1993).

(18) Population, Consumption, and The Environment: Religious and Secular Responses (Harold Coward ed., 1995) [herinafter Population, Consumption, and the Environment].

(19) See supra note 5 and accompanying text.

(20) Nawal H. Ammar, Islam, Population and the Environment. A Textual and Juristic View, in Population, Consumption, and the Environment, supra note 18, at 123, 127, 134.

(21) Harold Coward, Introduction, to Population, Consumption, and the Environment, supra note 18, at 17.

(22) Id.

(23) Id.

(24) Catherine Keller, A Christian Response to the Population Apocalypse, in Population, Consumption, and the Environment, supra note 18, at 109.

(25) See supra note 5 and accompanying text.

(26) Catherine Keller, A Christian Response to the Population Apocalypse, in Population, Consumption, and the Environment, supra note 18, at 116.

(27) Id. at 117-18.

(28) Id. at 120.

(29) Id. at 116.

(30) Rita Gross, Toward a Buddhist Environmental Ethic, 65 J. Am. Acad. Religion 333 (1997).

(31) Id. at 335.

(32) Id.

(33) Id. at 336.

(34) Id. at 346.

(35) Edward Conze, Buddhist Mediation 11 (1956).

(36) Id. at 16.

(37) Gross, supra note 30, at 339.

(38) Id. at 340.

(39) Id.

(40) Id. 41 Id.

(42) Vasudha Narayanan, One Tree is Equal to Ten Sons: A Hindu Response to the Problems of Ecology, Population, & Consumption, 65 J. Am. Acad. Religion 291 (1997).

(43) Id. at 292.

(44) Id. at 295-96.

(45) 1 Tillich, supra note 8, at 60.

(46) Narayanan, supra note 42, at 330.

(47) Id.

(48) Id. at 303.

(49) Id. at 305.

(50) Id. at 306.

(51) Peter Birnie, Film Documents Waves of Protest over Dam Projects, Vancouver Sun, Feb. 21, 1996, at C4.

(52) Narayanan, supra note 42, at 312.

(53) Betsy Hartman, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control 298 (1995).

(54) Narayanan, supra note 42, at 323.

(55) Daisy Sewid-Smith, Aboriginal Spirituality, Population, and the Environment, in Population, Consumption, and The Environment, supra note 18, at 63.

(56) Id. at 67.

(57) Id. at 68.

(58) World Religions and the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development 9 (Marty Martin ed., 1994).

(59) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA Res. 217, U.N. GAOR 3d Sess., 183d mtg. at 71, U.N. Doc. No. A/810 (1994).

(60) Louis Henken, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in The United Nations and the World's Religions: Prospects for a Global Ethic 74 (Boston Research Center for the 21st Century ed., 1995).

(61) Id. at 15.

(62) Richard Falk, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in The United Nations and the World's Religions: Prospects for a Global Ethic 21 (Boston Research Center for the 21st Century ed., 1995).

(63) Id. at 23.

(64) Id.

(65) Thomas Hobbes, Elements of Philosophy, The First Section Concerning Body, in The Metaphysical System of Hobbes 80 (Mary Whiton Calkins ed., 1905).

(66) See F. Kenneth Hare, The Natural Background, in Population, Consumption, and the Environment, supra note 18, at 27.

(67) Alan Roland, in Search of Self in India and Japan: Toward a Cross-Cultural Psychology (1988).

(68) Id. at 225.

(69) Id. at 142.

(70) Id. at 226-27.

(71) Id. at 227.

(72) Michael McDonald, Should Communities Have Rights? Reflections on Liberal Individualism, 4 Canadian J. L. & Jurisprudence 217 (1991).

(73) The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy 403 (Robert Audi ed., 1995).

(74) Id. at 628.

Harold Coward is a Professor of History and Director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. A specialist in world religions and environmental ethics, he has authored and edited over thirty books. His recent titles include Ethics and Climate Change: The Greenhouse Effect (1993), Population, Consumption, and the Environment: Religious and Secular Responses (1995), and Visions of a New Earth: Population, Consumption, and Ecology (1997).
COPYRIGHT 1997 Lewis & Clark Northwestern School of Law
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Symposium on Population Law
Author:Coward, Harold
Publication:Environmental Law
Date:Dec 22, 1997
Previous Article:The environment, population, and women's human rights.
Next Article:Environmental Malthusianism: integrating population and environmental policy.

Related Articles
Ecological design and planning.
Population control and sustainability: it's the same old song but with a different meaning.
The population explosion: why we should care and what we should do about it.
The international journal for the psychology of religion. (Journal file).
Crime factors.
Western Instream Flows: Fifty Years of Progress and Setbacks.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |