There is an old Chinese Proverb that says, “It is not economical to go to bed early to save the candles if the result is twins.” Yesterday was World Population Day. This day is observed every year on July 11 to reaffirm the human right to plan for a family.
It all began in 1968 when a group of world leaders proclaimed that individuals had a basic human right to determine the number and timing of the children they would conceive. Then the world’s population hit 5 billion on July 11, 1987. Two years later, the United Nations established World Population Day.
The idea is to increase our awareness of population issues and to recognize that they have serious implications for nearly all aspects of life. Paying attention to population growth gives us an opportunity to look both at patterns of consumption and at other social issues such as gender equality, reproductive health, safe motherhood, and basic human rights.
You can see by this graph that the population has exploded in recent years. In 1987 we reached 5 billion. By 1999 the population had reached 6 billion. It topped 7 billion in 2011. And the UN predicts it will reach 9 billion in 2043 and 10 billion by 2083. That’s a doubling of the entire world’s population in just 100 years.
This year’s theme for World Population Day is protecting vulnerable populations, particularly women and adolescents. Leslie pointed out at Spiritual Inquiry a few weeks ago that the one of the things that most unites us in our common humanity is that we all begin life the same way as a consequence of a sexual encounter. But the burden of pregnancy and giving birth is undeniably one that falls to the female half of the population.
Women are the ones who bear the pain of childbirth, the consequence of complications, the physical after effects of a body stretched and torn. And yet women so often have no choice about whether they will endure these pains.
In today’s world with the advent of contraceptives, that is inexcusable. Every person should have the right to protect themselves from sexually transmitted disease and unplanned pregnancy.
Right now there are 225 million women in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy but who have no access to modern contraceptives. And tens of millions of women do not receive the basic pregnancy and delivery care they need. In fact, around the world, a women dies every two minutes due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth, likely with no medications, hospital or birthing suite.
Even though it is legally banned around the world, 37,000 child marriages continue to take place every day. In developing countries, 20,000 girls under the age of 18 will give birth today, and 20,000 more will give birth tomorrow. Many become pregnant before their bodies have even matured, helping explain why the second leading cause of death for girls globally are complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Those who survive will be forced to leave school or the workforce. Fewer women in school and in the workforce perpetuates these very problems.
Another painful reality. An estimated 100 million to 140 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation involves removing part or all of a girl’s outer sexual organs. It can cause loss of sexual pleasure, infertility, infections and maternal death. But there is good news. The Nigerian government outlawed the practice in March which may have repercussions throughout the other African countries where it is still actively practiced.
Another dangerous practice is that of illegal abortions. Every year 3 million girls between 15 and 19 undergo unsafe abortions and 47,000 of them will die as a result. It is these real life calamities that you responded to the need for contraceptives in Venezuela that resulted in 12,000 condoms being shipped there last month to be distributed at health clinics.
Today, nearly 40 years after the founding of World Population Day, modern contraception still remain out of reach for millions. In addition to the individual effects of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, this lack of contraceptives has another consequence – more people – and more hungry and impoverished mouths to feed.
A few years ago I spent the whole day at the hospital while my mother had surgery. Not wanting to miss any news, I sat for 3 hours before the nurse told me they expected things to take another 3 hours. I figured that was my opportunity to make a break for it and get some food. As I checked out with the registration clerk I made the comment, “I’m starving.”
Am I the only one who has said this? Show of hands – have any of you every said out loud or to yourself, “I am starving”? Keep your hands up if it was true.
Me either. I wasn’t doing any such thing. And I have worked hard to take that phrase out of my vocabulary as I have grown more and more aware of the real burden of people whose daily struggle for food can be all consuming, exhausting and overwhelmingly discouraging in the face of the overabundance of food that our culture celebrates. Here’s the great irony. My mother was in the hospital to have bariatric surgery.
The answer to hunger is as painful as it is obvious. There IS enough for all – and still not everyone has enough. It is human greed, human grasping and human violence that is at the heart of the atrocity of hunger. This is human flaw we all share. This is also the human need we all share. In our hunger, we are all vulnerable and utterly dependent on the land and the labor of others. Despite our myth of self-sufficiency it is in our hunger that we are forced to admit that we really cannot do it entirely on our own. There is an important relationship between hunger for food and hunger for justice. For if we cannot feel our own hunger, how can we learn to imagine and care about the hunger of others?
And not only strangers we have never met whose name we do not know, but also our neighbors – the people we work with and who play with our children at school, maybe the person you are sitting next to today. In the United States, 1 out of 7 people in US live in poverty.
According to Bread for the World, five out of every six low-income children who receive a lunch at school every day will go without those meals during the summer. Here in Grand Haven there is a program to address this need and kids can get a lunch meal at Loutit Library, but this is being underutilized. We need to raise awareness of this campaign while removing any feelings of stigma, embarrassment or shame for those who take advantage of it.
As people who seek to live a good life, we can’t ignore this. Over-abundance and poverty need to be brought into balance. If we fail to recognize the tangible need for our involvement in the world, we become morally bankrupt, as individuals, as a country and as a community.
That being said, we do not have to solve all the problems or find the perfect solutions. What is important is to offer what we have in the belief that together we can do more than we could imagine. Whatever we do has an impact. Whatever we choose not to do has an impact. We are not impartial observers in this world, but active participants who shape today and who shape the future.
If we are to address hunger, we need to address the underlying causes of poverty. It is an audacious goal, but it starts with one step. We begin by ridding the world of hopelessness. Our most important task is to Hope.
As people who seek to be more fully human, we should not be living as if there is no hope for the world. We should find ourselves not exhausted and overwhelmed with despair, but teetering on the very edge of foolish expectation.
Our task is not to save the world, but to do what? Hope. We begin by believing that small acts of faith and love matter. Our task is not to save the world, but to do what? Hope. We begin by advocating for those who have no voice.
Our task is not to save the world, but to do what? Hope. To hope and to act. To earnestly work toward the values we proclaim even as they chafe against our impulses of fear and greed. This is our vocation. Our various occupations: parenting, work, public service, volunteering, and the responsibilities of citizenship, become avenues through which we can express our vocation of being a witness to the truly good life.
When we advocate for change in public policy on behalf of those in need, we choose the values of community over selfishness. Such community values call us out of our self and into relationship and interdependence with other individuals.
The word “Economics” comes from the Greek oikonomia, which refers to the management of a household. The idea of economics is deeply rooted in communal relationships. If the engines of economic life are not driven by some sense of communal caring and responsibility for one another, then greed goes unchecked and unjust disparities only increase.
Throughout history, people who care have raised their voices up as the critics and the conscience of their nations’ leaders. Today, advocating for economic and public policy change is the way in which we continue their prophetic work. Indeed, Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion,
believes that the key obstacle to effective aid is uninformed public opinion. He argues that we need to stop demanding quick responses and instead encourage strategic interventions and concentrated efforts in the most difficult environments. Rather than focusing on lean operations, we need to encourage organizations to take more risks in order to be better positioned for long term gains.
In our advocacy we become more than bystanders and fulfill our political and moral obligation to enter into a web of relationships that opens our eyes and hearts to the interests, concerns and needs of others.
Every human being, by virtue of being born into this world unasked, has the right to expect the same basic human rights. Children dying, people going hungry, women and children deprived of contraceptive options – these are simply not acceptable. Yes, our resources are limited. Yes, our power is insignificant. The forces against us are strong and intransigent. And still we are called on to what? To hope.
We cannot change the world with our small efforts. And that’s absolutely fine. Because changing the world is not our responsibility. We can’t create change. Our role is to influence change, so that people and things change for the better and not for the worse. We do little things because they are what we CAN do. And in every little hope filled action we take, we steer this world toward more justice, more peace and a more healthy and humane environment.
We rid the world of hopelessness when we proclaim our belief in humankind. Then we place ourselves, our limited resources and abilities, where good is at work and we become co-workers with that good. We accept our responsibility to share what we have with others.
But even in sharing we have a choice to make. We can share out of arrogance or we can share out of humility. Too often we share out of our own exaggerated ideal of generosity. We have while others do not. We are developed while others are underdeveloped. We are privileged while others have less privilege. We reach out to them because we are different from them.
Sharing out of generosity is the instruction I’ve heard growing up American. And if that helps to lessen disparity, then I suppose it serves a purpose. But it is sharing from a distance, based on a perceived difference. It is arrogant at best. A perpetuation of injustice, domination and paternalism at worst.
The other choice is to share out of humility. To enter into relationship with others means that we cannot pretend superiority or claim to know the answers better than the people experiencing the problems themselves.
When we begin with humility, our sharing comes out of a sense of solidarity. We share because we understand and share the pain of others. We reach out not because we are different from others, but because we are NO different. We stand side by side with men and women struggling for their daily bread and see in their reality the reflection of our own poverty and powerlessness.
Then having seen our own weakness, our encounters with this world become more deeply authentic, more deeply meaningful, more deeply personal, and more deeply transformational. This is the hope we proclaim as citizens of a world that is continually growing in population and in complexity.
The Center for Biological Diversity reminds us that the unrestrained growth of the human population is also taking a mighty toll on other species. The Center is the same organization that donated condoms for Venezuela, and they have now distributed 40,000 condoms in the United States for World Population Day.
They want us to know that we add 227,000 people to the planet every day, and that those numbers are helping to push wild plants and animals to the brink of extinction. The United States has the highest fertility rate of any industrialized country, and about half of all US pregnancies are unplanned. So using a condom as a way of practicing safe sex is one easy way to slow human population growth, protect yourself and protect the planet.
As a result of our work together in Venezuela, the Center sent me a supply of endangered species condoms and asked me to call attention to the fragile existence of our own native monarch butterfly.
So I’m going to pass these out and ask that you take one for yourself or for your child or anyone else in your life who might use it. (They don’t expire until 2019.) If there are any left overs we will leave them on our community table outside so any of you can help yourselves to more.
The butterfly also offers interesting symbolism for this conversation. In early Christianity, the butterfly was a symbol of the soul. In China, it was a symbol of conjugal bliss and joy. To Native Americans, the butterfly was a symbol of change, joy and the miracle of transformation.
Metamorphosis is the process the butterfly can teach us. We have to shed the old before we can come into the new. We give birth to ideas, activities, or qualities. Then those ideas need to be shaped, formed, developed and honed. Finally, the product of our creative imagination emerges and takes flight.
The lesson of the butterfly is letting go of old behavior in order to be changed for the better. Each of us transforms through a variety of stages in our life. As you seek to find a new leader, C3 is moving through yet another transformation. It is only through intentionality and effort that we emerge into who we will be next.
It is only through awareness, determination and hope that we truly come to value our common humanity, respecting the dignity and worth of every individual.