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To uncrowd Eden, stop at nothing

by 7 Apr 2010Reviews0 comments

More: Population, Nature and What Women Want
, Robert Engelman
Lysistrata cartoon

Roll Over Aristophanes: Young women, by putting the brakes on at 6.8 billion would do more to force the world’s decision makers to face their responsibilities than any threat to withhold sexual favours reminiscent of Lysistrata and friends. cartoon Hector Casanova

Stop at two!

Three decades ago it was acceptable to discuss zero population growth in polite circles. After all, it was unquestionable that the world’s population growth was unsustainable. ‘Stop at two’, briefly, resonated as entirely fair and reasonable.

Discussion of overpopulation is no longer considered politically correct, particularly when initiated by older, white, middleclass males born in developed countries. Which is exactly the demographic of Robert Engelman, author of More: Population, Nature and What Women Want.

Now this is not Bob Engelman, producer of no end of chainsaw massacre movie sequels that have done nothing to lift the human condition. Robert Engelman, who holds a masters in science, was a journalist before becoming a career population activist. Although he has clearly paid his dues in over twenty years in this field, as an older white male he may be no more acceptable to women’s interest groups than the other Bob with his career perpetuating cinematographically, amongst other things, the nasty little notion of the sacrificial virgin.

Robert Engelman’s contention, based on his years of research and work for first Population Action International and currently for Worldwatch, is that women want more for their children, not more children per se. His call is for women to be allowed to determine the size of their families—for their sake and for that of the planet.

Engelman’s goal in writing the book is patently clear, when he reveals that the book’s working title was Uncrowding Eden. Unfortunately he was persuaded to change the name, although it is retained as the title of the introduction. The anecdote he uses to explain the concession is that a colleague noted that Eden was never crowded. The ‘practical and direct’ colleague should have accepted that Eden is the metaphor for an uncrowded world—the nit-picking robbed the book of a title commensurate with its compelling content. Ironically, in spite of strenuously avoiding any whiff of population control on the book’s jacket, the More, and What Women Want in the title is deliberately raunchy, which the book is decidedly not. But nor is it prude—Engelman includes a number of moderately lurid accounts in his history of birth control and population.

Semantics aside, the book is well written, interesting and impressively comprehensive. But the strategy it advances is too little, too late. Consistent failure to heed the emphatic warnings made three centuries ago by Thomas Robert Malthus, and four decades ago by the Club of Rome, means that billions face starvation or worse this century. Of the present population of 6.8 billion, 0.8 billion are already chronically undernourished. And the total population is climbing by 80 million a year.

Overpopulation was always going to overheat the planet, regardless of whether the evening meal was cooked on a hob heated by fusion or dried cattle dung. While this was readily understood, assurances aplenty were being made that once developing countries became decently affluent, smaller families will automatically follow. But this approach is a luxury no longer available, even using greener technologies and aspiring to greener lifestyles—the developed world has already overtaxed the ability of the atmosphere and the oceans to absorb anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

Each successive generation has failed to do sufficient to safeguard subsquent generations. Now there is only one generation left that can avert a human catastrophe on a scale that would dwarf the Black Death, the 1918 flu pandemic and the genocides of World War Two, Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Sudan. And the generation that this daunting task has been left to? The current generation, and specifically the young women of this generation.

Young women could readily harness the power of the Internet and control of their own fertility to make a stand: To declare that they will stop not at two, but at nothing, until the world’s governments gear up the gargantuan effort needed to meet the fast-looming widespread humanitarian emergency. (Hint to the government of Aotearoa: Start by developing with Tuvalu a government-in-exile and trust.) This brand of girl power would represent an unprecedentedly potent political force—the only one sufficiently powerful to threaten the profits of multinational corporations, and the might of individual governments.

Such an action would be highly dangerous. Its leaders, who would become instant celebrities, would be immediately targeted by the same alliances that are currently keeping the world’s climate scientists pinned down—the same lobbyists and propagandists, and their successors, that got fat fighting the rearguard action for the tobacco industry.

What a shameful indictment of the fathers and grandfathers worldwide who have collectively failed to stand up to these few thousand bullies and the billions of dollars that back them.

Daughters and granddaughters, it is now down to you: Stop at nothing!


More: Population, Nature and What Women Want by Robert Engelman Island Press 2008
Scientific American article Population and Sustainability: Can We Avoid Limiting the Number of People?
Scientific American article Population Projections for the Continent are Alarming. The Solution: Empower Women

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