Reading environmental writer Bill McKibben these days reminds me a bit of reading Little Women as a child. I admired the earnest goodness of the>"/>
Reading environmental writer Bill McKibben these days reminds me a bit of reading Little Women as a child. I admired the earnest goodness of the Alcott girls, forever brushing up on the Christian classic Pilgrim's Progress and looking for new ways to help their self-sacrificing mother. I even wanted to be like them. But the feeling waned soon after turning the last page, and my newfound goodness was taxed by an actual chore that needed doing.
Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families
by Bill McKibben (Simon & Schuster, $23)
McKibben reads at Elliott Bay 5/30 at 4:30
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Similarly, you'd have to have a pretty hard heart not to give McKibben his due. A former whiz-kid writer for The New Yorker, McKibben eventually stepped away from the high-powered magazine world to live the quiet, examined life in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. From there he has churned out a series of high-profile books urging us to live simpler, eco-friendly lives, including the influential End of Nature, an early warning about the dangers of global warming. In his spare time, he works on local conservation issues, helps run a national campaign to decommercialize Christmas, teaches Sunday school, and along with his wife founded a new school in his town.
The worthy theme of his newest screed, Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families, is the population crisis. McKibben implores parents to consider stopping at one child for the good of the planet (though he has the good sense to condemn any Chinese-style government-mandated policy as abhorrent). In a characteristic show of integrity, Mc-Kibben himself had a vasectomy after his wife gave birth to their daughter.
His reasoning covers familiar ground, but serves as a good primer for the uninitiated. "The increase in human population in the 1990s exceeds the total population in 1600," McKibben writes. "There has been more population growth since 1950 than during the previous 4 million years." Unfortunately, he doesn't supply exact figures, but he does tell us that the planet's population now stands at nearly 6 billion people, and is expected to almost double by the end of the century. It's easy to grasp how that might strain the world's finite resources. Even the miracle of modern agriculture may not bail us out; since 1984, the level of grain production per person has fallen 6 percent a year.
And, of course, humans have created additional problems for themselves, even while solving others. Irrigation water leaves a residue of minerals that will eventually deplete farmland. Global warming, a mere threat when McKibben wrote The End of Nature, is arguably now under way.
While the population crisis is usually located in the developing world, McKibben argues convincingly that greater dangers lie in the West, where each additional person consumes and pollutes far more. This United States is slated to grow from 270 million to 400 million in the next 50-odd years—unless, as McKibben urges, more people decide to have only one kid, pushing the birth rate down to European levels of 1.5 per woman instead of the current 1.9. In addition, wading into the same territory that caused an upset in the Sierra Club last year, McKibben comes to what he knows is the "harsh" conclusion that the US should cut its immigration by half.
To make his main thesis palatable, Mc-Kibben takes pains to debunk the stereotype of only children as "selfish, spoiled, maladjusted loners." He points to studies showing that only children are differentiated solely by their high scores on measures of achievement and personal adjustment, perhaps because they spend more time around adult company and less time competing for parental attention with siblings.
As judicious as it sounds, his argument has some flaws. He strains to downplay the benefits of siblings, culminating in his assertion that sibling incest is far more prevalent than believed. More importantly, much of his doomsday warnings are built on speculation. He suggests that maybe we've gone as far as we can go in stretching grain harvests. Well, maybe not; maybe human innovation will come to the rescue, as it always has. As McKibben allows, writers since Plato's time have been warning that population growth will outstrip food supply. As for global warming, while undeniably a force to be reckoned with, we're still guessing at its consequences.
Moreover, it's not at all clear how much of a "crisis" our population is in. Since the '50s, the global birth rate has fallen, from five children per woman to 2.8, according to Ben Wattenberg's piece in the New York Times Magazine last year titled "The Population Explosion Is Over." In as undeveloped a country as Bangladesh, the rate has almost halved, from 6.2 to 3.4. Globally, when we reach 10 billion or 11 billion by next century's end, that's it. Demographers say the population will have peaked.
McKibben recognizes all that, but holds that the world may not be able to sustain one more population doubling. Maybe he's right. (Maybe again being the operative word.) But with no tangible emergency at hand, it's unrealistic to think that many people will take a step as profound as compromising on the kind of family they want, no matter how much they may admire McKibben for doing so.
The Atlantic's online conference with Bill McKibben
Zero Population Growth's Seattle chapter