At 2010’s Kansas International Film Festival, there were several documentaries with positions which urged their viewers to act. “Stop drinking bottled water!” Tapped yelled. “Try not to use so much plastic!” pleaded Addicted to Plastic. In 2011, there was a shift at the festival toward the more biographical or narrative documentary. The only one which seems to have slipped through the cracks is the challenging Mother: Caring for 7 Billion, which tackles the taboo issue of over-population and proposes that the only solution to the problem is to give more respect to women worldwide.
What, you didn’t know that over-population was a taboo subject? While we all may be subconsciously aware of the problem, nobody is willing to face it head-on. In 1970, when the first Earth Day even was held in Washington, D.C., the population boom was a major concern and considered to be an environmental crisis on par with global warming, but today the booth set up during the Earth Day event barely draws any interest (though, come to think of it, Earth Day barely draws any interest). This is in spite of the fact that the planet’s population has almost doubled in the last forty years, from 3.7 billion humans to 6.8 billion, and the number is only predicted to grow exponentially. There are two contributing factors to this overpopulation: science and religion.
Scientific advancement has allowed for human beings to live longer, healthier lives. Where most children might have died from disease or malnutrition in the pre-scientific era, say in the year 3000 B.C. when there were about 450,000 people in the entire world, the invention of vaccines and other medicines combined with the industrial revolution and mechanization have allowed the population on the planet to skyrocket. The increased number of humans has affected other life on the planet, so much that there are 400% more endangered species today than there were during the first Earth Day. Where an elephant takes its fill of leaves and clear water, humans have the capacity for unlimited consumption. We don’t just use resources for sustenance, we use them to build stereo systems, clothing, cars, houses, and whatever else you can think of. Every day – think about that for a moment, every day – an additional 4.5 million cell phones are sold. The American model of financial well-being, which promotes growth above all else, feeds into our slow demise. As we near the brink of what the planet can sustain, as we use up all of the Earth’s natural resources, the availability of food and fresh water will plummet. Our self-destruction is assured.
Religion is the other force directly contributing to over-population, particularly through the patriarchal religions which control the majority of the planet. Some people fear methods of contraceptive out of a concern for how safe they are, but the most ubiquitous reasons are driven by religion. Women may intend to “leave it up to God” how many children they will have, they may be opposed to contraceptive based on their religious beliefs, or they may be influenced by their male partners who express opposition because of their lack of understanding. With greater access to family planning services, there is the potential for 28% less growth, but, as Mother purports, “over-population is a symptom of the domination system” of these religions. In male-dominated countries, women are seen primarily as technology for reproduction, and groups with strong identities want to maintain a young population as a sign of the group’s virility.
Even if you think the United States has become largely secular, the effects of these previously over-powering beliefs still remains. If a young woman goes to a doctor in this country to seek sterilization, says the movie, she may be encouraged or required to go to counseling first. “You may want to have children some day,” is the mindset of medical professionals, showing a bias toward childbirth. If you tell people that you do not wish to have children or if you remain childless late in life, society deems you crazy or uncaring. Meanwhile, “nobody says a word if you have three kids”. Or eight. Or nineteen. Instead, these people are made celebrities – and in the case of the Duggar clan, admired for their family values. Maybe they’re laughed at by some or mocked, but society will never scold them.
So the movie’s answer to this is to raise the status of women the world over. Stop thinking of women as baby-making machinery and give them an education. Educated women tend to have fewer children, and they also tend to begin having children later in life. This education, paired with equality of the sexes, will slow population growth by granting women more opportunities and a greater say in the way that their bodies and lives are run. As the movie provides this suggestion, the music rises in a triumphant way to really make it clear that you the viewer should agree with the conclusion being presented. This is the music of success, therefore the only way to succeed is to take the lead by encouraging your womenfolk to throw off their chains and go to college. I don’t deny that increased sexual equality would be a massively positive shift for humanity, but it seems like Mother only wants to treat one symptom. Though it says it’s breaking taboo barriers, the film could have gone one better and gotten to the root of the problem: what needs to be eradicated most urgently is not just the inequality of the sexes, but the religious belief that it derives from. If women are having ten babies because they’re leaving the decision up to God, there’s only so much prevention you can do by teaching them economics; what you need to do is remove their belief in God.
But this too ignores the other pressing issue, which the film brings up then forgets about entirely. Will raising the status of women worldwide stop technological advancement? Will it somehow create in humanity a new attitude toward the planet and its resources? It seems unlikely, and eradicating religion will not solve this problem either. Mother has ideas about how to curb the number of new people entering the world, but it has little to say for those already here, whose life expectancy is two or three times that of the same person a century ago. It’s the immigration debate played out on a global scale. Maybe we can put up a fence at the border, but we can’t simply grant the current population amnesty. Perhaps it’s best to think of the film less as a movie about over-population which suggests sexual equality, and more as a film about sexual equality which shrouds the issue in over-population.
Yes, Mother is a chilling and intriguing film. But as a position piece, it doesn’t fully understand what it hopes to accomplish, or have any real ideas on how it can be done.