Category Archives: Social Issues

The Childless Choice in America: New Data

Population Connection reports (scroll to page 9 of the magazine at this link) that 15% of all American women ages 40-44 don’t have biological children.  Most of these women are single. Among married American women in the same age group, those who have no biological or adopted children or stepchildren reached 6 % during 2006-2010, up from 4.5 % in 1988.  According to the report, polls have shown that couples and individuals are placing less emphasis on the necessity of child rearing for their happiness and personal fulfillment.  Because of our excessive consumption, an American child makes a much greater demand on the earth’s resources than a child born in most other countries; for example, compared to a child born in India, an American child will consume on average a whopping 30 times more resources.

On a dangerously warming planet where resources are limited but population keeps growing, any increase in the numbers of the childless is a hopeful sign.  Fortunately the rate of American population growth has been declining.  But unfortunately for the future of everyone on earth, a recent Gallup poll found that 90% of Americans either have children already or want to have them in the future.  We need to think of creative and non-offensive ways to educate and engage our fellow citizens on this critically important topic, so that the 90% number will decrease.  Numerous internet resources offer ideas–and videos–you can use to start discussions, such as the archive of articles here.

What Money Can’t Buy

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel.  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.

Anyone who is dismayed to see the unprecedented reach of advertising, corporate naming rights of public venues, and monetary payments for behavior formerly expected without incentives–like getting good grades or standing in line–will be glad to see an examination of how far markets should be allowed to penetrate our society. And those who haven’t noticed these things can use the book to catch up.
Sandel, a Harvard professor of government, doesn’t strive to make a particular case, however. In this the book was different from most I read about social issues, in which the author is trying to persuade the reader to a certain viewpoint. Instead, Sandel just wants the reader to take a close look at how much of our social commons is now for sale, and to reflect about whether benefits outweigh losses. The book is helpful, and the fact that he wrote it and teaches courses about the subject demonstrates his concern, but I would have welcomed a little more passion.

When Everything Changed

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins.  Little, Brown, 2009.

Older women will recall much of the material covered, younger women may be reading it for the first time, but all ages will be amazed at how sexist our society was! Rather than just a compilation of facts, this history is told largely in the words of women who lived it, obtained by the author through dozens of interviews.
Although our society is not at perfect equality yet by any means, change has happened surprisingly quickly, considering that women have been oppressed for millennia. We women are fortunate to be living at the present time, able to leave behind so many of the restrictions our sisters faced in the past, even the recent past.

The Last Runaway

The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier.  E.P. Dutton, 2013.

I’m always intrigued when characters face tough moral choices, and Chevalier’s latest novel takes us to a time in American history when acting compassionately was highly dangerous. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 required all citizens, on penalty of heavy fines and/or imprisonment, to assist slave hunters in returning slaves to their masters. Imagine you are a young Quaker–an abolitionist and pacifist–living on a farm on the Ohio frontier at that time, as our protagonist is, and runaway slaves are often passing through the woods next to your property. They are hungry, needing shelter and direction to the next safe place, sometimes ill or injured, cold in winter. If you are caught helping them, the resulting fine could cause you to lose your farm. What do you do? Continue reading The Last Runaway

The World Until Yesterday

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond.  Viking, 2012.

The old notion that pre-literate Stone Age people are “noble savages” has been demolished by current research, cited in detail in Steven Pinker’s excellent Better Angels of Our Nature, and given further weight by this latest from Diamond. Unlike Pinker, however, Diamond has actually spent time living among such societies over a period of years, mostly in New Guinea, so he has personal experience to draw on. A person’s chance of dying of homicide is much greater in a traditional society because without centralized governments, people have great difficulty stopping the cycles of revenge killings that arise from a murder, for example. Other reasons not to romanticize these societies include the dangers of wild animals and infectious diseases. Yet they have other aspects that we might like to re-introduce or strengthen in our own lives. Continue reading The World Until Yesterday

Walden, or Life in the Woods

Walden, or Life in the Woods, by Henry D. Thoreau.  Ticknor and Fields, 1854.

In observance of the sesquicentennial of Thoreau’s death, I read Walden for the third time.  I won’t be sharing this on Facebook, out of respect for the author.  This is a fellow who, long before there were telephones or even typewriters, calls his own time period “this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century” and questions the need to build a railroad. What would he make of social media? “It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow.”

Of course there is no end of quotable lines from him skewering mainstream society, but his basic ideas are still as rock solid as they were in 1854: 1) simplifying one’s life brings more satisfaction than acquiring fame and fortune, and–especially important–allows one to work less and have more leisure time to pursue one’s talents and interests, 2) spending time in nature is critically important to sane living, and 3) understanding oneself is more important than trying to keep up with the outside world. Returning to the book now that I am older, I do not have to believe him; I know these principles are true. Continue reading Walden, or Life in the Woods

Midnight Rising

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, by Tony Horwitz.  Henry Holt & Co., 2011.

Having grown up in eastern Kansas, I’ve been fascinated by John Brown ever since I saw, as a school child, the stunning mural of him in the Kansas State Capitol building. (The painting is “Tragic Prelude” by Kansas artist John Steuart Curry.) When I learned that Horwitz, one of my favorite historians, had taken up Brown’s story, I knew I had to read it, and what better time than on the anniversary of the Harpers Ferry raid Oct. 16? Horwitz presents thorough and impeccable research, gives his readers the necessary background, and then relates events simply and clearly. Continue reading Midnight Rising

A Mighty Long Way

A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, by Carlotta Walls LaNier and Lisa Frazier Page.   One World/Ballantine, 2009.

Those who try to carry the human race forward to greater fairness and inclusiveness must sometimes pay a high price.  Not many teens would have been able to withstand the taunts and overt hostility of their classmates to the degree that Carlotta Walls faced when she was among the first African-American students to integrate a previously all-white Southern high school in the 1950’s. Furthermore, her account reveals that the time of continual insults, danger, and deliberately inflicted pain wasn’t just a short-term hurdle to get over, but lasted throughout her high school years. Ultimately segregationist resistance came to pose mortal danger not only to herself and the other African-American students, but to their families and friends. Much of the fear and anger was internalized and buried, only to resurface much later to be processed and healed. Carlotta’s determination to continue at the school all the way to graduation required remarkable courage, and to read the story as only she can tell it is unforgettable.

EcoMind

EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, by Frances Moore Lappe. Nation Books, 2011.

Scientists are telling us a lot of depressing news these days about climate change, species extinction, overpopulation, and dwindling resources. In addition, we have unrestrained corporate power, vast wealth disparity, and workers in crisis. It can seem hard to stay hopeful and engaged–until, that is, you encounter Lappe’, who has taken on the role of cheerleader to show us positive efforts currently underway. Continue reading EcoMind

Beyond Religion

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

I agree with the Dalai Lama that only if the world’s people succeed in finding common ground Beyond Religion is there a chance of working together for any kind of a sane future. I wondered what he was going to suggest, and found myself reading with interest. He describes compassion–the foundation of secular ethics–in detail, what it is and isn’t (e.g. it isn’t meekness). He shows why the practice of compassion and restraint is necessary for a sustainable environment, stable governments, as well as personal well-being, and why such efforts must be undertaken outside of religion to succeed globally. Continue reading Beyond Religion