Seen from the door of the upscale cafe, three women sat frozen in a ‘tableau vivant’. Heads together, hands clenched in their laps, only their scarlet lips moved, and those movements were barely perceptible. Renada’s friends wore colourful print dresses and their hair was beautifully coiffed. They epitomized the new middle class of educated working women, and they shared a deep concern for environmental protection. Renada glided to the vacant chair, hating to disturb their concentration yet anxious to hear what so enthralled them.
“…the fetus was normal. She didn’t want to chance it. Many babies look normal on ultrasound, but you can never be sure,” Andrea said, sotto voce.
The three young women looked up and smiled as Renada sat down. She was the only one of the group with a baby with a small head. Microcephaly, it was called. Max was born before the health authorities had warned the public about the virus. She thought Max was perfect, but later her doctors told her his head was smaller than normal and his brain would be affected. What was normal, she had wondered as she studied her beautiful baby boy. She hadn’t brought Max with her today, hating how these women stared at him and angry at her hypersensitivity.
“We’re not having a child until they discover what’s happening, or someone makes a vaccine for that virus. It’s just too risky.” Maria said.
“No one with a brain is getting pregnant,” Andrea said, eliciting an abbreviated laugh from the other women.
Renada wasn’t upset. She had her own ideas about what was happening. In Brazil, almost three million babies were born annually. The number of babies born with microcephaly was typically under two hundred per year, but that number had risen to over four thousand in association with the recent appearance of Zika virus carried by mosquitoes and possibly transmitted through semen. Controversy erupted in the medical and scientific professions. What was the evidence for the virus causing this increase in microcephaly? Could it be caused instead by the pesticide used to kill mosquitoes? Why had the criteria for classifying microcephaly changed? Could the virus really be transmitted through humans? Lacking answers, the authorities had still issued warnings against travelling to infected countries or becoming pregnant if living there.
“Are you sure this isn’t a ploy to reduce the birth rate?” Renada asked. Her husband believed that a declining birth rate would be the end of the growth economy. He made it sound like a bad thing, but she couldn’t agree. Never-ending growth was illogical.
“Why be concerned about the population here?” Emilia said. “Brazil’s fertility rate has declined a lot. On average, women are having fewer than two babies now.” Her large dark eyes looked disappointed, not angry, Renada thought. They’d had this argument before.
“You know it’s not just the fertility rate,” Renada said. “It’s the numbers. Brazil’s population is four times higher since 1950. We’re the fifth largest country by population in the world.”
“Population density in the north is ten times lower than the coast, but we have more microcephaly here in the north,” Emilia said, smirking. Renada shrugged, feeling defeated once again.
She couldn’t win the argument because Emilia was right. Reducing population growth in Brazil, where the ability of the land to feed the people was still greater than the population, wasn’t as important as reducing it in India or England. Brazil had plenty of land, if you included the rain forests. Still, maybe that’s why the outbreak had started here. Maybe it was a testing ground.
The unsubstantiated threat of damage to the developing fetus had been enough to slow conception rate, or so the papers said. She’d read an article about couples choosing not to have children because of concern for an uncertain future on a planet that was facing ecological collapse within the century. Although few people were swayed by distant threats, the Zika virus was here right now. With a vaccine said to be two years away, most women, like her friends, would wait to conceive.
Earlier that week, Renada had an epiphany when she read that El Salvador, the most densely populated country on the continent, had asked women to delay conception until the outbreak was contained. No government had ever warned its citizens not to get pregnant, and this would be very difficult in a Catholic state where the poor could ill afford contraceptives but were most likely to be infected. To support their recommendation, the government had made a commitment to increase access to family planning resources as part of their emergency response to Zika. This was the beautiful part of the plan, she thought. When over fifty percent of births were unintended, access to free family planning would reduce population growth even after a vaccine was developed. Was this also happening in northern Brazil, she wondered? Could this be a the start of a global plan to reduce the population?
That’s why she’d come to the café today. Emilia’s husband was a font of knowledge on Brazilian politics and population growth, which was why Emilia had effective counter-arguments to all of Renada’s positions. But could she worm this information from her friend? She decided to pose the question directly.
“Do you know if the government has instituted access to free family planning?” she said, looking around the table but expecting Emilia to answer.
“We all use it, of course,” Andrea said. “It costs so little.”
“For us,” Renada said, “but for the poor, the cost is a reason not to use it.” She saw Emilia squirm, fighting an urge to speak.
“Yes, they’ve opened clinics and asked doctors to provide free condoms and pills,” Emilia said. I suppose we’ll all be paying for that.”
“Odd. I’ve seen nothing in the papers about free birth control,” Maria said.
“That’s because of the Church,” Emilia said, and Andrea nodded. They’d all seen the articles advising against abortion for women infected with Zika, but the Vatican had been silent on contraception so far. Renada thought it far more likely that the corporations would object if the number of consumers dropped. She suspected Emilia was too cautious to suggest that there was a long-term plan by governments to contain population growth. Once contraception was freely available, babies could be planned, and this was a good thing, she believed. “Naturally, they’ll only provide free contraception for a couple of years, until the vaccine is ready,” Emilia said. She was smirking at Renada, as if reading her thoughts.
Renada smiled back. If this virus were truly being used as a ploy to reduce population growth, perhaps it was only meant to be a delaying tactic until a better solution emerged. “There could be other reasons for the microcephaly,” she said, “or the population may demand that free contraception methods be continued.” Arranging her expression to try to appear innocent, she said, “It’s not possible to see into the future, but you have to agree that population growth must cease eventually.”
“Of course, and it will. Most countries show declining population growth rates already, if you discount immigration. There is no need to invoke some scheme by our government. I’m surprised at you. It’s tourism that’s suffering the most, and you haven’t mentioned a conspiracy there.”
“What do you mean?” Renada said, feeling her face warm under the scrutiny.
“Airlines and cruise ship lines are waiving cancellation fees for pregnant women. More than half the people in the United States said they won’t vacation here or Central America until this outbreak is contained, and I doubt if they’re all pregnant. I’m waiting to see what happens at the Olympics in Rio, whether fewer tourists will attend.”
“Ah,” Ranada said, “and cruise ships and airlines contribute huge amounts to global warming. Any global pandemic will reduce travel, and especially if people believe the virus can be transmitted between people and not just by mosquitoes.”
“Why are you smiling, Renada? That’s terrible.” Andrea said.
“Because she wants there to be a conspiracy,” Emilia said. “You thrive on them, Renada, but I have no idea why.”
“Don’t tell me all of you can’t see where our country and our planet are headed. There are too many people consuming too much, and we show no signs of controlling our addiction.” Her friends were looking at her wide-eyed, not because they didn’t agree with her but because she rarely displayed her passion. “I need to believe that we will be saved from the worst that’s coming. Andrea, you say we’ll be saved by technology, but there isn’t enough time. Now I’m wondering if we have evidence that our behaviour is being manipulated in our own best interests. Fear of Zika is leading us to control our population growth. We know there are corporations that manipulate us to achieve their goals, but surely there are others with benevolent motivations who work silently against them? Believing in a conspiracy helps me maintain my hope and sanity.”
Emilia’s eyebrows were raised, and she was no longer smirking. “You surprise me again, Renada. Most people who imagine conspiracies see malevolence, but you see good intentions. Unfortunately, I’ve never heard of a secret group manipulating people for their own good.”
“What about the Church?” Ranada said, and heard a sharp intake of breath from the three women. Maria and Andrea began speaking loudly, angry at Ranada for even suggesting this, but Emilia looked thoughtful.
“You’re talking about people in positions of power but not accountable to anyone. That eliminates organized religion, government, and even corporations. If I were imagining a secret group, arrogant enough to believe they know best how to run our world, I’d put my money on the old, guilty, ambitious and extremely wealthy,” Emilia said. “There are many who have made fortunes over their lifetimes, but now, as the end approaches, they may feel the urge to leave the world in a better state than they found it.”
“You mean, after a lifetime of plundering the environment for profit?” Maria said, looking doubtful. “It would be difficult to replace what’s been poisoned and consumed.”
“But not impossible. And changing the course of humanity? What could be more satisfying to an oligarch with visions of ultimate control?” Emilia said.
“People who leave a legacy will want others to know about it,” Renada said. “If this is a secret society, their efforts would never be acknowledged.”
“Not to be the bearer of bad news, my dear, but my husband says that we have already left it too late,” Emilia said, “so if there are altruists working behind the scenes, they aren’t working fast enough.”
“You talk as if money was enough to change our course,” Renada said, “but it’s only a part of the solution. We need to be led to stop consuming, just as we were manipulated to start down that path in the first place.”
“That won’t work,” Emilia said. “The reason we were made to believe consumption was wonderful is that we were being promised something better. A new car, a refrigerator, whatever. Giving up what you have enjoyed or believe you deserve doesn’t make anyone feel better and provides no motivation for change.”
“Then we need to sell the benefits of a simple life,” Renada said.
“Most on this planet already lead a simple life,” Andrea said. “They want more of what the wealthy have.”
“Besides, Renada, you argue against yourself. If we had no ambitious, greedy people, who would save the planet for you?”
This time, all the women laughed.
A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that the climate impact of having one fewer child in America is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, including driving a high-mileage car, recycling, and using efficient appliances and light bulbs. But what if your greatest contribution is not something you do but someone you raise?