I have continued my father's longstanding membership in the National Geographic Society, and for the past year or two I have been receiving copies of the US-version magazine here in my home in Colombia. The only problem is that I always get issues a few months late. Initially there was a lag of only two months or so. Nowadays though, I believe the last normal delivery I received was the January 2012 issue! Because of this, I have to call National Geographic every six months to scold them and to ask for a bulk shipment of the past six months of issues, which then arrives within a week or two. At any rate, I wanted to share some good articles I've read in the magazine over the past year.
The first few come from the April 2012 issue, which despite its inauspicious cover dedicated to the Titanic (which bears very little interest for me), has two really cool treatments of African and Diaspora cultures. One is a photo essay on ceremonial masks and costumes from West Africa and Haiti. The other article profiles the Afro-Brazilian quilombo communities on the Amazonian fringe.
An article that seemed less well-thought was the magazine's recent offering on Brazil's rapid demographic transition from high population growth to low fertility rates. The article's base facts seem on the mark; Brazil did indeed go from one of the highest population growth rates to a relatively stable, low rate in very little time, and it would be interesting to examine the country's experience as an example for the rest of the world, which must make the same transition if we are all to keep on living more or less decently on this planet. That said, the article takes as its focal point the ubiquity of TV soap operas as a key factor in Brazil's demographic transition. Surely there must be some truth to the argument that television representations of independent, professional women with few or no kids influences popular norms, but to posit that Brazilians are making personal decisions about fertility and consumption based largely on watching TV series seems to me to sell them short as human beings. The article's series of photos of out-of-shape female slumdwellers watching TV in their sparse lodgings is not a flattering picture of Brazilians at large, either. I don't imagine that the author or the photographer were trying to offend anyone, but my wife (and surely other South Americans who saw the article) thought it was yet another ridiculous, condescending representation of an entire culture.
But beyond the possible cultural insensitivity of the article, it also brought up some points, or more precisely a way of looking at the world, that worry me. What the authors describe as a positive trend of "strong-willed
women and rising living standards" seems to be a recipe for a future of
unthinking, rampant consumerism, as we have in the US. The article's
depiction, which is probably more a reflection of the author than the reality in Brazil, is that a nation of TV-transfixed greedy
people are too busy chasing new shit they want to buy, so they can't have many
kids. The women interviewed in the article think of their body as a baby factory, which is now closed after one or two kids. While this surely has the socially desireable short-term effect of reducing population growth, I don't imagine that much positive can come in the long term from such a negative, objectifying perception of women's bodies and procreation.
The article speaks of Brazil's rapid industrialization as if it were a
good thing, but it was accompanied by land grabs and pushing the most
productive peasants off the land to make way for the large, low-margin
megafarms that the state favored. Likewise, in the article TV shows are seen as a way
to healthily break with tradition. But up to what point is it positive to break with tradition? It's obviously a good thing to break with having 7 kids
per woman, or with the oppression of a male chauvinist society, but what about all the other cultural aspects that ground
and guide a people and give them meaning? (And this is to say nothing of the ugly traditions that Brazilians have maintained intact or amplified, such as environmental destruction or grinding economic inequality. Try fixing those with a soap opera!) We in the US have at least a
century's experience of avidly breaking many of our traditions and
replacing them with TV and other forms of consumption, and it hasn't turned out at all
well for us. Will Brazil too become a brain-dead, Prozac-chomping
train wreck? The women interviewed at article's end are starting to
identify some of the problems that arise from a culture of conspicuous
consumption, but they still regard the traditional life as
"imprisonment". What can we say of the imprisonment of a life with no
rules, no grounding, no framework, only the master of your own greed and
whims and compulsions?
In the urbanized, petty bourgeois Brazil of the article (or at least of the authors' imagination), kids
become a big cost, which is to say they become something that we as shallow-hearted consumers should avoid. "Clothing, books, backpacks, cell phones--all these things are costly, and all must somehow be obtained". This doesn't at all jibe with my experience of childrearing, which for us has been relatively inexpensive thus far. We had to buy a bunch
of cloth diapers early on, some formula during the short period between when Sam was weaned and when he started eating just solid food, and then a babysitter
and preschool. Our major costs
are not child-related, and of our child-related costs, most is for our
teenage charges, who go to private schools and have certain luxuries that I don't
plan on providing for my boy Sam. I don't think I was very expensive either for my parents. I went to public schools from kindergarten to my college graduation, I was covered by my mom's work-related health-care plan, my baby clothes were hand-me-downs and my childhood and teenage clothes were from Marshall's or thrift stores. My parents paid nothing for cable TV or internet, and our phone service was a basic plan for a few dollars a month.
From what my wife and I have seen, basic care for a baby requires lots of love and
not too much money. The expensive stuff is if you buy a bunch of shit
from Fisher-Price, which is the goal of the women in the National Geographic article.
Likewise none of them want to use the public system for school or
health--they have the elitist attitude of the 1% in the US, who wants everything private. Toward the end of the article, an interviewee hints
at the problems of Brazil's model for reducing the birth rate. People may
have fewer kids now, but if they consume more, what is the benefit to the
society and the planet? I'd add that if Brazil remains as one of the most
violent, unequal, environmentally destructive societies on the planet, what can we say has been the real payoff of reducing the birth rate?
Anyway, the basic point of the Brazil article in Nat Geo is that people are consuming more, so they are obligated to reduce their family size. What I worry about is what the implication of this trend will be for society at large. In theory all countries must reduce their fertility rate to 2.1 children per woman (the so-called replacement rate) if we are to stabilize and eventually reduce world population. A family with two
kids seems like a healthy norm, but of course in a society with a stable reproduction rate not everyone will have two kids. The trend seems to be toward a split; a lot of people are forsaking
childrearing altogether in order to seek fulfillment through plasma TVs and spoiled puppies, and then
there are some religious nuts in the boondocks who are having 17 kids per couple. Of course I know plenty of normal people who are either childless or who have a lot of kids, but this caricature of consumerism's replacement of procreation (which is basically what National Geographic is summarizing in its Brazil article) does seem to be an increasingly important aspect in the US and many other countries.
At any rate,
it makes me sad to think of societies with fewer and fewer kids. To me such places seem like dying, doomed cultures. Of
course this isn't entirely accurate. Even countries with a fertility
rate of 1.5 kids per woman, well below the population replacement rate, will have
plenty of kids that can play with each other, and will even have some families
with three or four kids. And indeed, the smallish families of the kids I grew
up with (a fair number of only children like me, many two-child
families, and a few larger families) seemed loving, normal, not caught
up in consumerism or private schools or anything like that.
At the same time, perhaps the sharp reductions in fertility rates in the US, Brazil, and Europe are not a one-way, irreversible trend. Today many
of my friends, products of the US's supposedly low-fertility society,
are eager to start families. Yes, we're starting in our late 20s or in
our 30s, but our goal of personal fulfillment centers on having children and a spouse, not
on conspicuous consumption. Maybe it's because most of us are comfortably
middle-class, and aren't trying to buy our way up the social ladder.
Maybe it's because we didn't have kids early, so we had the chance to live a
child-free, immature life for a while without making any final, rash
decisions like tubal ligation in our late teens (the National Geographic article profiled many women who had one or two unplanned pregnancies in their teens, before opting for sterilization after one of their C-section childbirths). Or maybe our society
is now in a backlash against precisely the trends described in the
Brazil article. We don't want to watch TV all the time, we don't want
to buy our way to happiness, we don't want hurried cesarean sections and
In Colombia I see the same demographic transition happening as is profiled in National Geographic. In Bogota one sees smaller families, especially among the more wealthy, though in our provincial areas the fertility rate is much higher. I prefer the family-centered model of our area, with lots of kids around, not the cold, consumerist attitude of Bogota. That said, I see people of our generation in our town, products of 5-sibling families, now having just one or two or three kids. In the case of Caro's family, the transition was a generation ago. Her parents came from families of 7 or 8 kids, but now each aunt or uncle has just one or two kids. The people I see in Colombia undertaking this transition from many to few children per family are intelligent, thoughtful, hard-working, and very devoted to their kids and family. They are perhaps responding to the same factors (lower infant mortality, more urbanized lifestyles, desire for education) as the Brazilians profiled in the National Geographic article, but they are not vapid consumerists. The Colombians I know have personal goals to learn and to rise from poverty, they are thinking critically about the problems of our society, they are providing sensibly for their children (without buying a bunch of needless shit), they are learning how to operate computers. This reduction in population growth is a good thing, and is obviously a necessary step for every nation to take if we're not to flood the planet with more hungry human beings. But I prefer the approach I see in my Colombian surroundings, with less consumerism and TV wrapped up in the process. Surely if I were in Brazil my impressions would be different from the author's too, and perhaps I wouldn't get the sad impression of a vibrant culture plunging toward a cold, shrinking future in which unhappy people chase satisfaction through sterile sex and consumption.
National Geographic also did an article last year on the conservation of traditional crop varieties. It was a very good rundown of food biodiversity issues. One small error though--five of the supposed potatoes (Solanum spp.) represented in a photo in the magazine (and here, here, here, here, and here in the online version) are actually oca or ibia (Oxalis tuberosa). I noticed this some time ago in a copy of the magazine at my work, and I'm happy to say most of my student employees recognized the error when I asked them what was wrong with the photo. A colleague of mine, Colombia's foremost potato expert Carlos Ñústez, says his young daughters also rapidly noticed the error, and one of the world's main oca experts, Eve Emschwiller, wrote a brief blog about it. I'm also thrilled that the magazine profiled the Parque de la Papa en Pisac, Peru, where I visited as the centerpiece of my work trip to Peru. In general the article does an excellent job detailing the conundrum that our current agriculture abundance (namely our high yields) is based on a narrow genetic base, but our future versatility and ability to increase production and respond to new risks is based on maintaining the diversity of traditional agricultural varieties. Sometimes this truth gets confused or blurred by those who know or value only modern, high-input agriculture, or sustainable, traditional agriculture. The former are focused too much on the present, while the latter are often too focused on the past. National Geographic's article does a good job of looking to the future, when we will have to combine both a concern for high yields in the here and now and a cautious stewardship of the genetic resources our ancestors have left us.