Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Lifeboat Ethicist

We're all beyond sick of hearing about Nadya Suleman and her "miracle" brood, but The Oil Drum has its own proprietary take on the issue, naturally revolving around resource constraints.

As atrocious as an unemployed 33 year old with 14 children on welfare appears, this could be a watershed moment in a nations acknowledgement of resource limits.

I think that's roughly 100% unlikely to happen, and one only has to take a look at the annual pimping of the Duggar clan to figure out why. The outcry surrounding Suleman has not, as far as I've heard, even mentioned estimated eventual resource usage by her and her kids. The problem is that, already saddled with six kids, three of whom were receiving state disability payments, having squandered a six-figure settlement from her last job, and mooching off her parents, Suleman thought it'd be a grand idea to hit the IVF pipe again.

That doesn't mean that resource awareness doesn't deserve a broader level of discussion here, seeing as how the US comprises about 5% of the world's population and consumes 25% of its dwindling resources. It just means that since Suleman is already synonymous in the public mind with "addled welfare queen", shifting gears to a comprehensive resource management policy is not going to happen from that jumping-off point. If anything, it just gives more rhetorical ammunition to those folks who assume that every poor person is a lazy grifter, turning into another "end welfare" argument, a non-starter given the amount of people who had perfectly good jobs this time last year. So it's a wash.

Media and social backlash against this story suggests the general citizenry knows something is wrong with this picture, even without making the explicit leap to resource limitations.

Every American politician instinctively knows, just as he knows to praise Jeebus at every opportunity, never to talk about resource problems in anything but the broadest rhetorical strokes, and always, always bookended with homilies about how unacceptable it would be to have any conditions whatsoever placed upon our entitlements. This has been consistent from Clinton to Bush to Obama. It is not a partisan issue; it is an issue of an economy that is mostly predicated on convincing people to spend money they don't have on shit they don't really want or need. That jig is pretty much up.

If we were adults, we would already have been having this conversation about sustainability initiatives and transitional/resilient communities and such, and there would have been proactive measures taken in those directions. Instead, those areas of study and activity are populated entirely by self-selecting people who have already figured it out for themselves. It's already in progress, and the people lagging behind are just going to have to accept what they already know, perhaps by checking their pocketbooks.

Though the media has not yet extrapolated these childrens future energy footprints, outrage seems ubiquitous that an unemployed woman and her doctor freely planned to create octuplets without regard to the implications for others.

And it's been the media's role to stoke the outrage, not to inform anybody of anything useful. I mean, we are talking about the same media that has spent a good chunk of the last two days replaying 911 tapes concerning a marauding chimp. Are they really the people we're expecting to "extrapolate future energy footprints"?

Don't get me wrong -- I'm in on being pissed at what Suleman has done. She's been unbelievably irresponsible, and seems to regard her own family and the rest of society as crutches to pony up and support whatever her underlying issues are. Supposedly her antics have cost upward of a million bucks by now, plus apparently blowing her settlement on magic beans and egg implantations. It's fucking bullshit.

But by all news accounts, she did not freely plan to have octuplets. No reputable fertility specialist (admittedly, a dubious category at best) would deliberately do something like that, which would seriously endanger the mother and children. The fertility doc, who sounds like the Dr. Nick Riviera of the test-tube baby biz, implanted her with six eggs, two of which then each split into twins. Six is still way too many, especially for someone who already has six kids she can't afford. But it's not "freely planning for octuplets" either. The guy should have his license revoked permanently, and maybe some regulatory legislation is in order for limiting the number of implanted eggs to two, maybe three.

I do think that people who plan on these super-sized families are idiots, and irresponsible, but I also think there are better ways than resorting to coercive personal measures to curtail over-reproduction. There are plenty of non-invasive incentives and disincentives to try first -- changing tax and entitlement benefits after a certain number, encouraging the financial empowerment of women, not leaving the commodification of life up to greedy quacks....there are a lot of possibilities there, merely the lack of political will, the instinctive cringing around religious fanatics who think they're building an ark or outbreeding Mooslims or something. Coupled with the empty ethics of the hardcore medical capitalist, driven merely to push the limits of technology and reap the rewards, you have a problem.

Rather than projecting statistically ludicrous estimates of each of Suleman's children having 14 children of their own, and each of them having 14 children, and every one of them living to 78 years of age, it would be more sensible to look at the numbers that are there, to remember that the problems of inequity and disparity directly contribute to high reproductive levels, and are still more a function of access and distribution than actual scarcity. The reason many of these arguments get ignored, if not outright rejected -- despite their bases in empirical reality -- is that too often the debaters get caught up in these Paul Ehrlich scaremongering hypotheses, when all people need to do is look at the facts.


OneMadClown said...

...of the Duggar clan...

Point of order, Heywood, the Duggars now officially constitute a race, not a clan. They are an industrious and clean people, their native dress consisting of eerily matching outfits of faux-pioneer clothing, and whose ethnic cuisine boasts a staple diet of Wonder bread, mayonnaise, and crazy.

Joe Blow said...

"it is an issue of an economy that is mostly predicated on convincing people to spend money they don't have on shit they don't really want or need."

My wife used to "go shopping" she was bored/depressed. Some people spend hours "buying" stuff and taking it home to look at and then the next day go return it.

she wasn't that bad. BUT, I finally convinced her that she didn't NEED to go to the store..unless there was actually somethign that she needed/wanted to buy. seriously. now maybe she didn't NEED a pair of light blue 3 inch heel sandals, but she didn't have a pair and okay she wanted one.

but that is different than wandering around buying crap. for me its more like geez these shoes are beat up I have to go out and buy a few new pairs. or crap I ran out of toothpaste. (or booze)

but yes the system is designed to program you to buy the worst junk and then throw it out and buy more of it. Re-fi your house (secured debt) to pay off your credit cards (unsecured debt) so you can buy more plastic junk from china on your new increasing, unpaid balance.

Heywood J. said...


....ethnic cuisine boasts a staple diet of Wonder bread, mayonnaise, and crazy.

Love it. Hopefully enough of the kids get away from their nutjob parents long enough to realize that having a dozen or so kids is a trap, a dead end. Otherwise the statistical fears projected in The Oil Drum article might actually come to pass. The least the media can do is to stop encouraging them. They're narcissists, as is Suleman.


I think everyone indulges in occasional impulse buying or therapeutic shopping, to some extent. For me it's booze/beer, books, and CDs. I don't need any of those things, and I should be socking my money away for that magical day when we're all pushing wheelbarrows of useless currency to the bakery for a loaf of bread.

The system has conditioned us all to subconsciously equate (or hell, replace) happiness with accumulation and self-indulgence. It's when people are willing to ruin their lives and everyone around them that it's a real problem.

So maybe we should consider Suleman the ultimate therapeutic shopper. She's not only willing to wreck her own finances to indulge her psychological issues, but milk her parents and the taxpayers while she's at it.

Someone should tell Suleman and the Duggars that collecting children like they're stray cats does not automatically make you a good parent, nor is it an adequate substitute for having a meaningful life with fulfilling experiences.

OneMadClown said...

Agreed on all points, gents. The Duggars are also fundie Quiverfull freaks. Not content with one-upping the dusky Muslim hordes, they are apparently trying to impress Jesus by out-breeding the planetary insect population.