April 22, 1970 was the first Earth Day. Millions of people hit the streets. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” had started a movement that left a big impact (convincing Richard Nixon to respond with the EPA) but the movement lost steam and shriveled under Reagan.
Environmental activists have started to swell again, thanks to the persistence of scientists and journalists who have pushed the story of climate change to the forefront of the media eye. The PBS series “American Experience” just aired “Earth Days” this week, a moving and meticulous documentary that features a number of recognizable figures from the era: Stewart Udall (Secretary of Interior), Denis Hayes (founder of Earth Day), Paul Ehrlich (wrote “The Population Explosion”), Hunter Lovins (sustainable entrepreneur/professor), Stewart Brand (started Whole Earth Catalog) and student “radical” Stephanie Mills.
Mills gave an infamous 1969 valedictory speech at Mills College in which she vowed to not have children because the population crisis was destroying the world’s natural resources. Forty years later, she remains an ecological activist and sustainability advocate who stayed true to her word and did not reproduce. In interviews and writings she continues to ask young people to carefully consider their conscience and their true desires before they decide to reproduce. Mills College, much to their credit, invited Stephanie Mills back in 2009 to give their convocation speech. As Mills said in her speech (now on YouTube):
“We human beings are in the continuum of life—subject to its rules, available to its splendors. Our membership in this community is not a romantic idea, but a fact of evolution… Of all the calamities we face, perhaps the worst is the earth’s sixth great extinction crisis, which humanity is precipitating…
Direct and indirect effects of climate change alone, say Stuart Pimm and his colleagues, will result in the extinction of some 15 to 37% of species by the year 2050… The World Conservation Union assesses that 1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 3 amphibians… up to 51% of reptiles, 52% of insects, 73% of flowering plants are at risk of extinction.... It's a holocaust.”
Mills’s words should remind us to teach our children and our students that reproduction is not simply an inevitable product of sexual desire and coupling, but a desire that can be controlled through conscience and ethics. It seems surprising to be living through a period of conservative ‘push-back’ against discussions of or funding for birth control. Conservative, political and religious interests promote sexual abstinence, but not much else when it comes to population control.
All adults — parents and non-parents — should be yelling the facts about the extinction of species due to human food practices and population growth from the roof. Perhaps, especially, educated mothers need to speak about it.
Love of children and reproducing your genetic code has both rational and irrational dimensions. Perhaps it is time for a bit more rationality around parenthood?