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Opportunity: Reframing the problem of "overpopulation"

Metaphor Project


The previous note has indicated how problems may be seen in a new light by exploring the implications for the sustainable development of the individual -- through the individual's eyes. This provides an integrative focus that is absent when such problems are projected onto the global level, where mutually exclusive perspectives retain some measure of credibility. But, however valuable, it is not sufficient just to see such problems in a new light. The key question is whether they enable some new approach to them. The ultimate test is the case of "overpopulation", which many would argue to be at the origin of the problems outlined above.

The following constitutes an exploratory exercise to determine whether there are more fruitful ways of comprehending the issue of overpopulation.

1. Difficulties

There are many well-known difficulties in approaching this problem (as opposed to those in the previous note):

(a) Overpopulation as a non-problem: There are strong constituencies that do not consider overpopulation to be a problem in the first place. These include religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, with a vested interest in increasing the number of people of that faith, as well as countries which believe that their own population does not reflect their desired importance, either in absolute terms, or because of declining birthrate, or because of the need for expanding markets, or because of a threatened reduction in the influence of one ethnic group due to the high reproductive rate of some other ethnic group.

(b) Opposition to birthrate reduction: There are strong constituencies which view with suspicion any suggestion, especially by outsiders, that their birth rate should be restrained or reduced. This may be seen as a violation of their rights, as catering to the interests of the outsider group, or as an effort to deprive them of the socio-economic benefit of children in the form of labour, income, and social security in old age.

(c) Opposition to contraception: There are strong constituencies that view prevention of conception and/or termination of pregnancy with repugnance (the abortion issue, etc).

(d) Opposition to discussion of sexual relationships: There is a very strong constituency that views any discussion touching on the intimacies of sexual relationship as improper and to be avoided.

(e) Political evasion of the issue: The above factors reinforce the tendency of politicians to avoid such a controversial issue or to dramatically de-emphasize it -- as evidenced by the fate of international population programmes under the influence of President Reagan.

2. Family planning and sexless euphemisms

Because of all the above factors, even discussion of the "overpopulation" issue takes place through euphemism and indirection. This is compounded by the tendency, reinforced by intergovernmental agencies, to discuss problems through terms denoting programmes to solve them or through the values enhanced by solving them. Examples include: the "peace" and "youth" problems, or literacy (instead of illiteracy). In this case we have "family planning", "demography", "fertility", "population dynamics", etc. Programme agencies favour this approach because it lends itself to upbeat reporting concerning their programmes, irrespective of the impact of such programmes on the problems. Academics favour it because it emphasizes theoretical and methodological issues, irrespective of their relevance to any substantive problem.

Use of such sanitized terms to refer to an extremely charged issue may undoubtedly be appropriate under many conditions -- just as any reference to sexual relations tends to be avoided in the presence of children. It is questionable whether the discussion can be confined in this way in attempting to respond to the problem in a more innovative way. The sanitized terms, which are in effect euphemisms when they are not deliberate avoidance mechanisms, can be viewed as a sort of "metaphorical dissociation". The term used provides an uncharged metaphor through which to view an uncontroversial aspect of the problem. In this sense metaphors are being used to distort perception of the problem.

In discussion of the population issue there is in fact remarkably little discussion of sexual relations (especially the individual's perception thereof) -- as though one had almost nothing to do with the other. This is all the more remarkable given the importance of sex in the media and especially in advertising -- and, much more explicitly, in worldwide warning campaigns concerning AIDS. Advertising has made an art form out of metaphoric references to sex -- reinforced by visual metaphors in product design and packaging. In contrast, and paradoxically, there is a sexless quality to "family planning" which impedes any imaginative response to the issues involved -- especially to those aspects exacerbated by advertising, given the natural interest in sex.

This sexless quality is rendered even more unrealistic to the popular imagination given the widespread and extensive use of sexual metaphors in informal discussion. This is most remarkable in many job situations, including those at the highest level -- as President Richard Nixon demonstrated in his choice of expletives. Such metaphors are a basic characteristic of management dialogue in most corporations, as well as on the shop floor where things get done. Some people make use of them in every sentence. For example, other than its use as a simple expletive, "fucking" ("screwing", etc) is widely used to articulate an attitude to a group (another department, clients, competitors, etc) to whom one is doing something or by whom one is being manipulated.

The question that merits exploration is how the tremendous amount of psychic energy articulated (however inappropriately) by this metaphor is related to the "fertility" issue. Is it that the use of this basic metaphor for "doing" or "being done to" channels -- as a form of sublimation -- some of the energy that would otherwise go into sexual intercourse? The contexts in which the metaphor is used must certainly feedback onto the perception of sexual intercourse.

The challenge of "family planning" and "contraception" is that these are essentially processes of "not-doing" and as such do not excite the imagination -- except to those inclined to philosophies of inaction (and action through inaction). It is questionable whether the metaphors for such processes are sufficiently meaningful in competition with the richer sexual metaphors. It could be argued that the "contraception" issue involves only the prevention of contraception, not the prevention of sexual intercourse, and therefore does not detract from the energy of sexual relations. This brings into focus the core issue of whether "contraception" calls for any modification in the attitude to sexual relations in order to be successfully implemented by those gripped by a variety of powerful metaphors of sexual relations. Specifically is there a possibility of discovering metaphors that would enable people to articulate their attitudes to sexual relations in a manner consistent with the objectives of "family planning"?

3. Sexual intercourse as a metaphor

It would be presumptuous to hope to explore here this central theme in literature, psychoanalysis and advertising techniques. But some questions can be touched upon as they relate to the "overpopulation" issue.

In social conditions widely characterized by turbulence, insecurity, savage competition for resources, deprivation and the like, the privacy and intimacy of sexual intercourse creates a world in which individuals can experience a sense of security, caring and personal value, whilst at the same time offering them opportunities for imaginative self-expression and enjoyment away from the censure of wider society. It is a world in which they have a real opportunity to fulfil their desires, to experience a sense of personal integrity and to repair the psychic damage suffered in daily life.

Morris Berman (Coming to Our Senses, 1989) cites Denis de Rougemont's Love in the Western World to argue that "falling in love is literally the one ecstatic or mystical experience left open , and it serves a haven from the culture of repression and control... It is the one tiny portion of their lives in which they can be truly kinaesthetic rather than visual; in which they can (theoretically, at least) live true selves as opposed to false ones...it remains, for millions, the only real counterculture they can enjoy, the only expression of inwardness left in the modern world." Sexual intercourse is the embodiment of this process, as well as being a substitute for it when the early intensity of love no longer holds sway.

But, as a metaphor, this private "world" also encodes many of the problems and dilemmas of the "sustainable development" of wider society -- the macrocosm mirrored in microcosm. It is a world in which one partner may seek to dominate and subjugate the other, a world of resources which may be exploited until they are depleted beyond any measures of conservation, and a world in which the frustrations of wider society may be given a new, and often crueller, focus -- often without any court of appeal. The shared intimacy may decay into alienation.

It is into this world that "family planning" endeavours to insert "contraception". But little is said concerning the implications for the psychic life of the individual. The matter tends to be discussed and described using plumbing metaphors, in "practical, down-to-earth" terms. And undoubtedly this may be totally appropriate for those of unimaginative temperament who believe that problems can be "fixed" with an appropriate device -- or for those who are so desperate that they will use anything provided it works in practice.

It is not clear that this approach is appropriate to others, and especially to those for whom contraception acquires some symbolic significance. In this sense it is useful to consider how contraception can function as a metaphor. Understanding its potential, and limitations, as a metaphor may suggest other approaches. Lines of investigation might include:

(a) Preventing, or aborting, completion of a process: With the increasing mechanization of society, and the increasing fragmentation of fields of activity, there are few integrative processes of which people are personally aware. The processes to which people are exposed in society are increasingly embedded in bureaucratic procedures, manufacturing cycles or information systems. Most processes are subject to "production deadlines" -- including academic research. There are few opportunities for process completion, which it could be argued are vital to the psychic integration of the individual. Even in manufacturing there is increasing recognition of the merit of allowing people to personally complete a process (eg assembly of a car). For those for whom the significance of the sexual process is not limited to the act, but includes the socio-biological consequence (and possibly religious implications), to what extent does contraception become a metaphor for a restraint which is increasingly intolerable in an alienating society?

How is contraceptive technology to be understood in the light of Heisenberg's observation that the purpose of technology is to arrange the world so that people do not have to experience it?

(b) Reproduction and impotence: Reproduction is a basic purpose of sexual intercourse. But in how many ways are people currently able to reproduce themselves, and how many of these are increasingly frustrated in modern society? People can, for example, feel that they are reproducing themselves by impregnating an individual or group with a pattern of ideas -- possibly to be passed on to future generations. To a lesser degree, but with more immediate impact, people "produce" themselves before an audience. Indeed professional performers, especially before mass audiences, describe this process in explicitly sexual terms. Such forms of reproduction (harmonics to the sexual process, are increasingly unavailable or of decreasing significance -- to the point that people experience a sense of impotence. To what extent then does this place an unconstrainable burden on the physical process that can compensate for this inadequacy in some measure?

(c) Rechannelling sexual energy: Does contraception have no effect on sexual energy and the way it is channelled? It can easily be argued that it is a liberator of sexual expression. It is less clear how it affects the quality of that expression. It is possible that exploring the limitations of the "channel" metaphor (see Lakoff and Johnson, 1980 on the conduit metaphor), and that of contraception in relation to it, might suggest a more appropriate approach. The use of such mechanistic metaphors, of the same class as the switch metaphor discussed earlier, inhibits recognition of less polarized insights into the movement of sexual energy (such as through diffusion or resonance processes, for example). The standard argument that access to a television at home reduces fertility needs to be reviewed in this light. What function is the television exploring and how is it affecting the imaginative life in relation to the need to fulfil sexual desires? Is the television an example of a wider class of opportunities for the movement of sexual energy that obviates the need for sexual intercourse? What is the function of dance and partying in this respect? Do these suggest the existence of processes which are metaphorically equivalent to intercourse, but diffused beyond the confines of the switch metaphor (making-it, or not)?

(d) The "developer mentality" of family planning: The community of international development agencies seldom accords attention to the "developer's" view of development -- by which land, for example, is "developed" when it is "cleared" of unproductive trees and wildlife, drained of unnecessary surface water, and segmented by access roads permitting construction of any required buildings. In arguing for greater literacy for women, UNICEF indicates that four years of schooling enables women to plan smaller families, to space the children for the better welfare of all, and to make use of preventive health care. It is quite unclear what effect the rationality of such procedures has on the imaginative life of those who accept them, and whether any resistance to them arises from a repugnance analogous to that of "romantic" conservationists towards the initiatives of developers. To what extent is psychoanalytical expertise used in population programmes?

4. Alternative metaphors

The above possibilities raise the question of whether other kinds of metaphor might prove more appropriate as a way of articulating the imaginative life of sexually active people. Or rather, whether they have access to other metaphors that conflict with those implicit in their perception of contraception and "family planning". And how a greater proportion of sexual energy might be expressed through activities which are metaphors for sexual intercourse -- a concern close to the interests of advertising agencies endeavouring to market products which effect this transfer. Can the objectives of "fertility reduction" be served by a transfer of this kind. In this light something as simple as more cafes (social "intercourse") and dances might achieve more than strenuous attempts to extend family planning programmes -- however ridiculous this might appear to those seeking a technical fix.

As with the other problems, discussed in the previous note, it might then be possible to move on to the metaphoric implications of the global dimensions of "overpopulation". Somehow the proliferation of the species has become an absolute good. The action of any inhibitory feedback mechanism has itself been inhibited. The same phenomenon may be seen with the proliferation of information and products -- and any form of creativity. All such processes could be explored as metaphors of a human attitude in which withholding or holding back is inhibited. This suggests the need to discover attractive metaphors for "withholding", but without becoming trapped in the switch metaphor. An early, and perhaps inadequate, example is the increasing fashionability of "soft" sex (as opposed to penetrative sex), as a result of the rising threat of AIDS.

The creative value of exploring such metaphors of relationship is well illustrate by a study of metaphorical theology, namely of possible new metaphors of a person's relationship to God (McFague, 1983). The justification is a similar one.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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