Alternate Views

Braver New World-Blazing the Trail to a Sustainable Twenty-First Century

Imagine global harmony. Partnership has replaced competition, international disputes are solved nonviolently. Race, class, and gender inequities are banished, the environment is protected, and people grasp the fundamental interconnectedness of all issues and beings. This is the vision sociologist and women's studies professor Asoka Bandarage has for our world in the next century. And in a bold new book, Women, Population, and Global Crisis, she details both the vision and the reasons why today's world seems its mirror opposite. She believes that interrelated systems perpetuate poverty, women's subordination, ecological destruction, and other evils, but that a radical change in people's hearts and minds can reverse this.

Since the industrial revolution, Bandarage says, most of the world's ills have been blamed on rapid population growth, and birth control has been hailed as the savior of developing nations. While she supports birth control and women's reproductive rights, Bandarage believes international organizations are misguided in emphasizing population stabilization over eliminating poverty. She notes that population growth has been curbed in many countries without improving poor people's lives.

Asoka Bandarage

Focusing on world overpopulation is a smokescreen for the globe's more fundamental problems, says sociologist and women's studies scholar Asoka Bandarage. "Global poverty, environmental destruction, and political conflicts will deepen without a more equitable redistribution of resources," she believes.

"Widening global economic inequality, not population growth, is the main issue of our time," argues Bandarage, noting that the economic gap between rich and poor has been growing steadily for the last thirty years. "Today, the nearly 80 percent of the global population who live in the South[ern hemisphere] earn 15 percent of the global income, while the 20 percent or so of the world's population in the North[ern hemisphere] earn 85 percent of the global income." Consumption is also uneven, with each American having the impact on the environment of 250 people in a country like Senegal. These inequities, fueled by modern technology and ruthless capitalism, are what's behind many global crises, according to Bandarage.

If capitalism bypasses the average person and socialism is discredited as an alternative, what's a beleaguered planet to do? Bandarage suggests moving from a numbers-centered concentration on population to a qualitative focus "honoring the essential equality of all people and the right of all to food, shelter, health care, education, and decent livelihoods." She calls for a psychosocial transformation from domination to partnership and "a new global ethic and spirituality that is based on universal rights and social justice."

Turning the Tide

Bandarage says it's not only possible to change the world, but that the seeds of global transformation have been planted. "The forces for peace, justice, and environmentalism are already in the world, though they're currently obscured by the stronger forces of domination that drive capital and technology." What's needed, she says, is "strengthening the other values - caring, nurturing, cooperation, and compassion - without which humans would not have survived all these years."

Individual activism is crucial, and Bandarage sees it as a necessary balance to her teaching and scholarship. "We can't just wait for the day when the revolution takes place and then there will be paradise," she cautions. "I don't subscribe to that old Marxist model. We need an approach that is more realistic and nonviolent. We need appropriate technology and a balance between the need for growth and innovation and the need to take care of the planet and each other. And we need a balance between individual achievement and the health of the collectivity." These thoughts are echoed, Bandarage says, in "the middle way" of Buddhism.

Bandarage, who is Buddhist, says she has also been influenced as a social scientist by feminism, Marxism, third-world nationalism, and deep ecology. "But Buddhism has been most helpful in helping me understand the root causes of many situations and identify possible solutions," she says.

Her call for transformation is different from past efforts that put the onus on the poor and women. "If we are talking seriously about nonviolent change, people who already have privilege and wealth must look at themselves honestly and consider where they can make changes," she stresses. That puts most of the responsibility on Northerners in general and Americans in particular. Bandarage says individuals might begin with socially responsible investing, resisting war taxes, and voluntarily leading a simpler life.

The Classroom and the World

Bandarage sees the world with the dual vision of a woman raised in Sri Lanka who's lived in the United States since 1970. And it was partly to make sense of the violence and destruction in her native land that she wrote the book. Teaching MHC courses such as Buddhism, Feminism, and Ecology; Reproduction, Ecology, and Women's Health; Violence and Peace: Feminist Perspectives; and Women, Population, and Global Crisis helped her shape the book's content while expanding students' worldviews.

"It's hard for the students to read so much documentation of destruction and violence, but it's important to know about it. Students are always relieved when we study social movements and find there is some hope," Bandarage says. "In my future work I want to develop teaching the middle way in classes and incorporating it into my life. That's the challenge."

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