Zero Growth
A population activist argues that birth control is the solution to the Earth's woes.

Reviewed by Liza Mundy
Sunday, June 22, 2008


Population, Nature, and What Women Want

By Robert Engelman

Island Press. 303 pp. $24.95

If population activist Robert Engelman is to be believed, when it comes to children, women are like cats before a food bowl. That is to say, women are modest in appetite, naturally self-regulating, not gluttons or gorgers. Given the choice and the means -- and desiring the best for our offspring -- we will usually bear few children rather than many. "Leave to women, more than to anyone else, the decision about when and how often to bear children," he argues in More, and the problem of world overpopulation will go away.

Is there a problem of world overpopulation? You might be forgiven for wondering. Overpopulation is -- Engelman acknowledges -- a back-burner issue, the kind of dystopian social ill that has been eclipsed by more pressing threats. "If they think about population growth at all, most policy makers tend to see it as a twentieth century worry that never matched its crisis billing," he notes. One reason may be that "population control" often carries an uncomfortable association with eugenics and the tamping down of ethnic populations; another is that the population crisis now feels confusingly dualized. In less developed countries, overpopulation does exacerbate problems like poverty and environmental degradation, but in some modernized countries, such as Japan, fertility rates are dropping to the point where population is actually shrinking. Moreover, he allows, it's always been a little hard to know how to think about population increase: The Malthusian view holds that overpopulation will usually lead to a self-correcting crisis involving, say, pestilence or famine, while the sunnier view is that more people lead to more creativity and progress. It sort of depends on whether you prefer Montana or Manhattan.

Either way, the fact is that the world's population is growing -- 78 million people are added to the world's roughly 6.7 billion each year -- and this affects the planet more than we admit, contributing to deforestation, ethnic conflict and global warming. More Malthusian than not, Engelman's examination of the issue is useful and illuminating, though his solution -- contraception that is easily available and socially sanctioned -- seems a little facile.

In the most provocative part of More, Engelman traces the astonishing success of our species back to the moment, lost in time, when human mothers became able to reliably produce not just two surviving children, but three. Engelman argues that primitive midwifery -- truly the "oldest profession" -- pushed our species past the tipping point. When enough women were able to have three children, growth -- and, in Engelman's account, many of the signal developments of human history -- resulted. "The consistent survival of third children pushed populations beyond what local animal prey and food plants could support," he writes, and led to early human migration. Population growth led to the development of agriculture (rather than vice versa); intensive farming and the gathering of humans in one place led, with mixed results, to complex systems of government.

In tracing this history of humanity, he argues that the growth of big government and organized religion is not always good for women. Often, he says, large families have been inflicted on women by authorities with a vested interest in procreation. He provides a history of informal birth control -- pessaries, herbs -- as evidence that women have always secretly endeavored to limit childbearing, and argues that when midwives and other informal healers were driven out by organized medicine (or burned as witches), birth control became scarce. In this view of world history, population growth fueled religion and government, which then denied women reproductive control, inevitably fueling more growth.

But Engelman's account gives the impression that women have always been more interested in preventing children than in having them. Surely, throughout history there have always been women wanting fewer children, but there have also been women praying to have even one. While human history may have seen lots of informal contraceptives, it also saw lots of fertility totems. Moreover, this argument -- give women birth control, and women will take care of any population crisis -- strangely ignores the role of men, who don't always want eight children, either. Give women birth control and their husbands and partners might insist that they use it.

And herein lies an unresolved issue of the book: It may be true, as Engelman argues, that women in poor countries welcome greater access to birth control and recognize the value in having a smaller brood. It may even be true that women, possessing some kind of ancient wisdom and sense of measure, by and large prefer not to bear litters. But it seems to me that "what women want" is really pretty variable depending on time and place. The idea that there are all these men who want women to bear all these children seems -- at least to any working woman -- laughable. Once women become valuable to the workplace, authorities' view of childbearing changes. These days, for sure, having fewer kids is not always the woman's choice.

It's certainly worth pointing out that women, in general, are better off when they don't have to bear 11 children. And by all means, yes, give women everywhere access to birth control. But to me, the best argument for reproductive choice and readily available contraception has to do with women's lives and women's health, and the well-being of children and families. We can leave the fate of the Earth out of it. ยท

Liza Mundy is a Washington Post staff writer and the author of "Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Men, Women, and the World."

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