Welfare Status 9.10. – Environmental issues and fertility rates

Hello again, this is Welfare Status and I’m
Tatu Ahponen. It’s autumn, getting colder almost by week, so it’s time for me to move the videos inside of my house. Of course, this week Finland got a bit of
notoriety outside of its borders – not due to Finnish politics, but due to Donald Trump’s
car crash press conference with Finnish president Sauli Niinistö, where Sauli was visibly uncomfortable
while Trump ranted about impeachment and his political enemies, and other such topics. You have all seen the memes, though, so we
can move on to weightier issues than the political rantings of one non-Finnish president – such
as the debates on the relationship between climate change and the welfare state that have dominated much of Finnish politics recently, or another weighty and, to some degree, connected topic
– the fall in the number of births per woman, which has been going on for several years
but has now reached numbers that are lower than ever before, and what this tells about security of families in the current environment in Finland. So let’s start with the climate change and
the welfare state. Of course, Greta Thunberg’s visit to Washington
DC was a catalyst for some debate, and was connected to the global climate strike, which
attracted tens of thousands of demonstrating schoolchildren and others also in the streets
in dozens of cities and towns in Finland but most of the discussions have been on topics
that mostly concern things very peculiar to Finland – and have accordingly been conducted
inside of the government. It certainly is a burning and divisive question,
many would say a huge culture war topic in Finland, with almost precisely half of population
in a recent survey saying that the climate issue is an urgent topic of concern and action
and half saying its importance has been exaggerated, predictably with Left Alliance and Greens
supporters being mostly in the first camp, True Finns supporters in the second, and the
supporters of the traditional parties being more divided. It has never been much of a secret that from
a left-green perspective, one of the areas where the government’s program – otherwise
a good list of pro-welfare-state measures – could be even more ambitious on the climate
change front. Don’t get me wrong – there is much good
in the program, there could just be so much more. One critical issue is biomass energy, a form
of energy that Finland currently gets from swamps. It used to be that Finland and Ireland were
the two only countries where energy is produced in this way – cutting away blocks of swamp
to burn it. However, Ireland has recently given this form
of energy up, so it’s no wonder there’s a now a push in Finland to make a decisive
push to end it. After all, it is a very polluting form of
energy, as I’ve mentioned previously. The governmental program has included a commitment
to halve the use of peat by 2030, but recently prime minister Antti Rinne appeared to commit
to ending all subsidies for peat energy production, but then appeared to backtrack after criticism
from the Centre. To the Centre, this is an issue that is connected
to the wider project of bioenergy, which was one of the centerpieces of the previous government
It is odd that the Centre sticks so strongly to this issue, even though even most of their
supporters support driving peat production down and even though recent reports indicate
the previous government’s bioenergy project was a failure on many counts, achieving little substantial either regarding environment or jobs. The press has portrayed government’s environmental
policy as hard on both Centre and the Greens, as Centre would have to accept ending peat
and Greens would have to accept nuclear projects – but the Greens have already indicated
they have no issues with the recently approved nuclear projects and have generally also loosened
their views otherwise, making it a moot comparison. The other main issue of these weeks has been
Finland’s crashing fertility rates, as there are less and less babies born per woman each year. Of course these rates have been a topic of
concern for years now, as the trend of fertility rates collapsing started in 2011, with it
going down each year since, often quite steeply – Finland used to have relatively good fertility
rates, close to replacement, but now they are lower than ever before. Of course, everyone makes their own choices
on how many children they wish to have, and no-one of any sense – wants to return to the
sort of rhetoric implied by Antti Rinne in an unfortunate statement back when he was
just an opposition leader that we need a “birthing effort” of some kind, that essentially put
the onus only on women to do their patriotic duty in getting pregnant and giving birth. At the same time, this issue can also be looked
at from the perspective of what this vast change tells about our security – how families
are affected by rising insecurity and how many families cannot achieve the number of
children that they would wish to have. To me, it is quite clear that one of the main
reasons is the tone of debate that has taken over the entire country since 2011, when the
trend began – the crisis mode, and the related tendency to subsume all other things in life,
such as family life, to the demand that everyone must work as much as possible and that the
most important thing in public policy is hitching up the employment rate by any means possible. This was exemplified by an article I recently reread from 2012, written by Juhana Vartiainen, a very prominent MP from the National Coalition Party
back from when he was just an “apolitical” top bureaucrat, basically saying that the
time has come for everyone to “stop lazing around” and get to work, whether they are
housemothers, unemployed, students or otherwise. Now, this is obviously just one guy and it’s
impossible for just one guy to make people stop having babies, but it’s indicative
of wider trends towards a certain breakdown of meaning in life – and the trend that
sees the meaning of individuals as the one of production of labor and the maintenance
of capitalist economy. Of course, there’s a variety of reasons
to look at – the general feeling of helplessness and uncertainty that may be caused both by
the rhetoric surrounding the economy as the onrush of the signs of the climate crisis,
the disconnections caused by structural societal change and urbanization, and so on. Whatever the analysis, though, the current
government is in a good position to find solutions, combining the left commitment to welfare state
with Centre Party’s traditional focus on bolstering families, and in a way that takes
into account all sorts of situations and families, from people who are quite simply not interested
in anything sex-related at all to, for instance, transgender people whose mandatory sterilization
this government is finally planning to end. But that’s it for these two weeks – good
day, night or evening.

Daniel Yohans

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