History and the people who make it: Dr. Ronnie Z. Hawkins

This month, April, The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program invites and encourages you to be mindful of the environment. As Earth Day approaches (April 22), we’re sharing a portion of an interview with environmentalist scholar Dr. Ronnie Zoe Hawkins (H) conducted by Clarence Walter Thomas (T) on April 2, 1989. Excerpts collected/edited by Donovan Carter.

Ronnie Zoe Hawkins, a medical doctor and environmental activist, was a doctoral student specializing in environmental studies at the University of Florida Department of Philosophy, at the time of this interview. She was born in California and was reared in St. Petersburg; at the time of this interview she lived in Alachua County. She is now retired from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Central Florida.

T: Ronnie, I would like to begin by having you tell us what you think the important issues or the important components are of growth vs. no-growth.

H:I think the concept of growth, first of all, is something people need to think a lot more about than they have up to this point. It gets thrown around as a slogan. “Oh, we want growth. How can you possibly be against growth?” But you have to look at the word growth and ask what is it that is growing.

I remember being at a conference about this a couple of years ago, and they started off by posing the question, “What is growth?” 

The first answer they got from the audience was, “It is getting larger. Something is getting bigger.” But when you apply growth to Alachua County or the state of Florida, the state of Florida obviously is not getting bigger. We have a finite land area, so we are not getting bigger. Alachua County is not getting bigger. There are different types of growth. If you are talking about population growth, you are talking about a higher density of human beings per unit area of land.

It seems to me that it is very important for us to try to separate out the two concepts of population growth and economic growth, but very few people – and very few politicians – seem to want to do that. I think it is very important that we do. I do not feel like I can speak as an expert about how to do that, but I think we have certainly gotten to the point in the county, in the state, and globally where we are going to have to recognize the fact that increased human population growth per se is not going to be a good thing. How that separates out from improving the standards of living for individual human beings is something I am interested in. I want to look into that further, but I have to begin looking into it by realizing that these are things that need to be teased apart and separated.

T: What is your stand on the growth vs. no-growth issue?

H: As far as locally, statewide, and globally, my personal stand is that it is time to turn around most of the trends we see. Personally, I would like to see fewer people in my immediate environment. I would like to see fewer people globally. I am not talking about some sort of extermination, but I am talking about over the long haul. 

We have to realize that it is important for things to level off and reach some sort of sustainable balance. In the long run, it might be better if the population were smaller than it is. That is something that could be attained over a number of generations, and I think it is important that at least a few people have the guts to say that might be a reasonable goal.

T: In terms of economic growth, what would your stand be?

H: Economic growth. I do not even like these terms because they seem so vague. I am all for improving the standard of living for everybody. In the ideal sense, I would like to see people in Third World countries having a very good standard of living and a high level of education. All these things are very important. 

People who are living in this country, in this state, and in this county ought to be considered part of the democratic process that is going on and ought to be living well, however you want to define that. But if you are talking about numbers of people and about those people dividing up some sort of economic pie of goods or whatever it is that fulfills their needs, the more people you have to divide things up among, the less individuals are going to have, in most cases. 

Maybe that is not true with something like education or higher values, but it is certainly true of material things. It is certainly true of land. I think as we get farther from our biological base and we get into these abstract concepts that we get when we talk about economics, we tend to forget that there are certain limitations. I think it is very important that we realize there are certain limitations.

Take full employment, for instance. If we want to talk about getting full employment, it seems important that we know how many people we want to employ. If that number is always increasing, it seems very difficult to deal with that. There is just this concept of finiteness that I think is very important. The way people tend to want to stand on this growth/no-growth issue right now, it sounds like there are people for unimpeded growth, and then there are people who say they want some kind of managed growth, but they still want growth; they still want increase.

Well, I personally do not. If we are talking about an increase in numbers of individuals, I do not see that that is a beneficial thing at all right now, certainly not to the things I care about. Like I said, the concept of quality of life has a lot of components to it, of which material goods is just one component… 

It is really strange that most people do not have a good handle on exponential growth. It is the kind of situation you get where you have doubling. If you take a course in microbiology, you deal with a monoculture, a single bacterial species on a petri plate. There is a certain lag time while this population slowly increases, but you have organisms that are doubling at a certain rate. At the very end, they are still doubling, but you build up a large base in terms of numbers of these monocellular organisms. Suddenly, in just one doubling, you have a huge number. 

If you look at a bacterial population growth curve in a closed, finite system, like a petri dish, it shoots up, and then it starts shooting down.

Now, the human species is smarter than bacteria growing in a petri plate, and I think that we can come to terms with this. We can realize that it is not in our best interest – it is not in the best interest of the ecosystem – for us to have this kind of growth. A lot of people are realizing that. What seems strange to me is that people here in this country at this time in history tend not to want to deal with it and face it. I feel like we have a big responsibility to start dealing with that. 

Twenty or fifty years ago, people were more interested in talking about it than they are now. We had the [President Ronald] Reagan era when [the thinking was] “Oh, we are going to have a good time. We are not going to think about the serious problems we face.” Meanwhile, those problems are growing and growing and growing. So I think it is very frustrating.

T: Are you concerned about the exponential growth because as the species begins to grow there is poorer quality of life for all, or because after it reaches a peak it begins to drop drastically, as you said, as with bacteria?

H: Well, all of those things, and more. I think at some point you are going to get poor quality of life for all. One thing that is happening now, unfortunately, is there is a great polarization. There are the haves and the have-nots in terms of countries and in terms of human population groups and things like that.

In one of the readings in the economics class that I am taking right now, there is an offhand statement made about the world’s continued human population growth: it may present some problems for feeding all these people, but we think we can overcome those problems. This provides a wonderful marketing opportunity for us. You can have all these Third World people, and we can sell them lots of things, while we in the developed world will make lots of money in that process.

I find that appalling. Never mind the human suffering that may result from having all those people. Never mind the nonhuman suffering and the nonhuman extinction that is going to result. This is a wonderful thing for the capitalist system in the short run. In the long run, even the people who are padded by more money and a developed society are going to feel the effects. I think that is happening here in Florida. I think Florida is going to be one of the places where we in the developed world are really going to come to terms with what growth, as far as human population growth, really is going to mean for individual people.

T:  Ronnie, how did you become interested in environmental issues?

H: Well, in a way, I have to say that it is kind of a life-long interest. It is funny in that, as I was growing up, I was responding to lots of things that were going on [without being aware of what they were]. I grew up in Pinellas County down around St. Pete. in the 1950s, and there were lots of rapid changes going on, things that are in some ways just getting underway up here in Alachua County. 

I had a very negative emotional response to that kind of thing going on. I would come home from school, and all the beautiful oaks that I used to climb in were suddenly lying down on the ground. I did not really understand why that was happening, but it was pretty awful to see it going on …

Personally, when I started getting active, it was really a revelation for me. I had always been very quiet and shy and unwilling to speak out about things. When I went through school, I would do anything to get out of giving a report in front of the class or anything. But suddenly the things I really cared about were very clearly being threatened, and I was amazed at myself to find that I could get up and speak in front of the county commission or I could get up and speak at a meeting of the [Florida] Game and Freshwater Fish Commission or at a number of different places. 

I was not thinking about myself anymore; I was thinking about these creatures and the land and the issues. Somebody has to say these things; somebody has to do it. It may be an unpopular position, but damn it, somebody has to do it.

It is interesting to see how long the fight for climate and environmental justice has been going on. We hope Dr. Hawkins’ words inspire you to take care of the place we all call home. You can find the interview at UF’s Digital Collections at: https://tinyurl.com/Iguana1573

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations. 

Comments are closed.