This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Carter Dillard is the policy adviser for the Fair Start Movement. He served as an Honors Program attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice and also served with a national security law agency before developing a comprehensive account of reforming family planning for the Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal.
There is a conflict between ecocentric people struggling for freedom, and anthropocentric people threatening that freedom. This conflict, which happens beneath the surface of most media, constitutes a “secret war” for what the future of Earth will be.
This secret war involves groups of people across the world using ecocidal pro-growth and inequitable family policies, as well as anthropocentric environmentalism, to quietly undo the progress that the world seemed to be making on multiple fronts: child equity, climate crisis mitigation, animal protection, as well as ensuring functional democracies. These groups involve many nonprofits that are knowingly undoing with one hand the success they claim to be making with the other. This last category of undoing—regarding our democracies—makes these family policies a secret war on freedom as well.
The conduct of war
Is it hyperbole to say war? The almost five children a week murdered by their own parents in the U.S. alone, some slowly tortured to death through beatings, starvation, burnings, etc. because of our pro-growth approach to family policy with no parental readiness standards are victims of that war. So are the children who lose the birth lottery bad enough to be born into horrific poverty, at best statistically destined to work for the children of millionaires and billionaires who will control their lives based on a system of random birth inequity that is backed by violence. That’s the servitude of a war.
It would feel like a war to be part of the non-human animal families and communities, parents and their children, exterminated by the trillions as the wave of human growth rolls over them. And who has the ability to change any of this? Not the average citizen. It’s irrational to even vote in things like national elections where, thanks to family policies, there are so many voters that each vote is pretty much irrelevant. In such cases, money—made on the same unsustainable growth—is what speaks.
Constitutive policies counter the Children’s Rights Convention
These family policies (which might be called constitutive or de-constitutive) do nothing to ensure that all children are born into conditions that comply with the United Nations Children’s Rights Convention—the minimum children need to comprise democracies—but instead push children into horrible conditions with no minimum levels of welfare, something done to ensure economic growth and to avoid “baby busts” or declining fertility rates. This puts wealth in the hands of a few, argues Nobel Laureate Steven Chu.
These policies operate under the lie that the act of creating other persons is a matter of the personal freedom or privacy of the creators; i.e., parents. In fact, creating new human beings is not personal; rather, it is interpersonal in nature. Bringing new people into the world shapes the future we all share. The notion that this is a private matter was created by the wealthy and powerful elites who do not want to pay their fair share to ensure children’s equality of opportunity.
These policies, designed around a system premised on unsustainable growth, aim to prepare children, already suffering from vast inequality, to become consumers and workers for shopping malls rather than preparing them equitably to grow up to become effective citizens in democratic town halls. These inequitable policies have created a fantasy world of self-determination—freedom to take part in markets—while stealing the power each voice should have in true democracies.
Groups like Fair Start Movement (where I serve as policy adviser), Stable Planet Alliance, Rejoice Africa Foundation and others are blowing the whistle on these policies and their devastating impacts, and treating the right to an ecosocial fair start in life for all children now and in the future—as an overriding basis to take back the wealth—by all means effective—in order to fund better family policies as the most effective way in the long run to protect children, non-human animals, democracy, and the environment.
Why “by all means effective?” Before some of the recent literature delving into the history of population policy, most academics and policymakers assumed political obligation—the need for citizens to follow the law—came from top-down systems like constitutions or the United Nations. But if systems of governance should actually derive from the people, that would make no sense. Instead, the systems that account for how we are born and raised would primarily or even exclusively account—bottom up—for our power relations, power rising up from the people themselves. And it’s very clear the top-down systems in place now have failed to protect us from things like the climate crisis and vast inequality. Why did they fail?
They committed what is called the constitutive fallacy—basing our obligation to follow the law on things like written constitutions rather than just and sustainable family policies that actually empower people to constitute just nations. To do that, to constitute, means being sufficiently other-regarding or ecocentric enough (perhaps using the baseline test below) to respect the agency of, rather than to exploit, other people and the nonhuman world our mutual thriving requires.
They assumed the borders of human power were defined by lines on a map, rather than the norms that account for our creation and rearing. The latter is what constitutes us. They never accounted for actual power relations because they never accounted for their creation, through functional family policies (based on a simple baseline test) meant to actually empower people while disempowering no one.
For example, these top-down systems never dealt with children’s need for nonhuman habitats protected by climate restoration, nor the vastly disparate impact on impoverished children of color from refusal to meet those needs. People like Peter Singer have relied on these top-down systems that begin with the appropriation of the nonhuman world and future generations, even when they undo the sort of outcomes—like animal liberation—Singer promotes.
It’s not about population, but choice
What is the hallmark of these systems? Some are empowered by disempowering others, robbing the latter of the capacity to consent to the influence others (greenhouse gas emitters, bad parents, the uber-wealthy, etc.) would have upon them.
For free and equal people to constitute a nation they must be acting, before setting down the basic rules, in one very particular way. They must be seeing growth in numbers as directly inverse to the absolute self-determination of each individual. That proves that people are actually being empowered as they join, and thus politically obligated, and sets a baseline for equitable child development and optimal population ranges.
This is not about population, it’s about choice, power, and the inseparable and antecedent nature of choices to be part of unjust and nonconsensual systems of political obligation that originate with our creation. We cannot think of or say anything that does not start with and orient from some form of political obligation, from a choice to be part of some form of power relations. And we cannot further anything we purport to value without possibly undoing the value based on our choice of fundamental political relations.
Each of us is inevitably choosing to be or not be part of such systems, given that we pay taxes, participate in a variety of official processes, benefit from these systems, etc. That is what it means for the government to derive from the people, and not from groups but rather from individuals, whose consent legitimates governance.
What would truly free people do?
Human rights compliance justifies governance, but if the first human right—the right to have children and the family policies that precede government—is not developed fairly so as to make a functional social contract, that justification never occurs. It has to come from the people, who must come from the conditions in which they were created and reared. The creation norm, and our decision to make it just or unjust, comes first and accounts for who we are and everything we do. We cannot claim to be just without making it just. A key aspect of the secret wars involves those responsible hiding this simple fact, its role in limiting the property rights of concentrations of wealth and power, and those concentrations impeding all children’s right to an equitable beginning in life.
If you want to know whether you are free, assess what it would mean to break your nation into a constitutional convention in order to make new basic rules. How functional—or self-determining for its participants—would that process be, honestly? And while the capacity to engage in functional town halls is vital, it is the day-to-day experience of having such relations that we should truly value, versus the chaotic commercial relations—based on exploiting and imitating one another—we experience today.
Truly free people will exist in systems where such conventions are easily viable. To ensure that state of affairs they will override dysfunctional systems of rules to actually limit and decentralize the power others have over them, and to build just and consensual communities organically, through things like deeply scaled baby bond payments that move resources from rich to poor kids and that help restore equality and nature, so that obligation flows bottom-up—from the people.
Truly free people will condition their obligation to follow the law (including recognizing property rights) on actually being empowered, and there is no other way to do that but through changing how we have and raise children to actually—in a measurable way using a simple baseline test—empower them. They will focus on empowerment in the creation of people and their actual relations, the people from whose consent things like constitutions derive their authority. That condition—of needing to empower—enables significant civil disobedience to achieve, something preferable to the violence disempowerment causes, the violence usually impacting the least culpable rather than the most.
Fair start planning
We can also effectively move towards fair start planning, and optimal population and power relation ranges as envisioned by Partha Dasgupta and others, through things like constitutional litigation meant to ensure climate restoration through birth equity “loss and damage” redistributions, steeply progressive baby bonds, corporate reforms that level the playing field for employee’s kids, requiring family policy and related conflict of interest disclosures (including having to change positioning) as part of ESG frameworks, furthering labor reforms to eliminate child inequity, a discourse and role modeling that centers family planning on birth and developmental equity, and by urging leaders to adopt a fair start as the first and overriding human right.
One clear step towards compliance with the best interpretation of these norms would be to urge that programming around the education of young women—around the world—begin with ensuring they understand that all children’s right to an ecosocial fair start in life (defined by concrete climate restoration and birth equity measures), overrides all competing rights and interests as the first and peremptory human right, including any conflicting property rights. This truth, which reverses the lie about family policy at the base of the misunderstandings of freedom that plague our world, shows a true unity of value to students.
That right must become the standard or baseline for cost/benefit analysis (using concrete metrics), and the guide for priority use of evolving loss and damage payments for climate crisis impacts—with a key use being socially equitable and ecologically restorative family planning entitlements that capture the true cost of all wealth. The standard for knowing whether something is good or bad is being a group of people capable of determining the question in a fair and inclusive way. That’s freedom through democracy.
Disclosure is key
How do we win the secret wars? The easiest path may simply be to urge everyone to disclose their views on these issues—including their views on climate restoration, birth equity redistribution, and other matters discussed above. Those blocking freedom for future generations win the secret wars by keeping them secret.
It’s trite to say that all things are interconnected. It is not trite to say that this is so not because of what we do, but because of who we should be. Changing the way we plan families is the only way to ensure that connection is just.