February 25th, 2014


Author, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

Fred H. Bixby Endowed Chair in Population and Family Planning, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley

“Cabbages and Condoms” – is it a successful restaurant in Thailand, or a family planning slogan? If you ask Malcolm Potts, it’s both. Potts, a professor of family planning at UC Berkeley, thinks of cabbages as a family-friendly metaphor for contraceptives. “They're not a medical thing. They are choices. Like cabbages, they should be where your vegetables are.” Alan Weisman’s most recent book Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earthaddresses the question of the world’s teeming masses head on. It’s a question that’s not only hard to answer, it’s hard to talk about – population control can be a taboo subject, even among environmentalists. And yet, many would argue, the future of our civilization depends on it. With numbers projected to rise to 9 or 10 billion by midcentury, can the tide of humanity be stopped, or even slowed?
Weisman and Potts recently sat down with Greg Dalton at The Commonwealth Club to tackle this sensitive topic. (Another invited guest, Christine Mugridge of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, was unable to attend.)
Potts recalled his early days as an obstetrician in England. Abortions were illegal and unsafe; women were afraid to even bring up the subject of birth control to their doctors. “I was young and rebellious and I thought obstetricians ought to do that,” he recalls. After dedicating his life to advocating for women’s fertility choices, he says, “my experience all over the world is when you respect women and give them choices, they will decide just to have relatively few children, and on average, probably about two children or less.”
Both Weisman and Potts emphasized that education is key to reducing growth rates, and in particular, the education of girls. Weisman cites Iran as one example: “They realized if girls stay in school, women tend to postpone their childbearing until their school age is done. And then they've got something interesting and useful to do with their lives…Today, 60 percent of university students in Iran are female. And Iran brought themselves down to replacement rate, according to some calculations, a year faster than China.”
And the reverse is true as well. “People in developing countries want fewer children,” says Potts, “because they all know the power of education and they all know if you have a smaller family, your kids are more likely to get educated. If we remove the barriers between family planning, the knowledge and means to do it, then even illiterate people will have fewer children.”
So how did our species get itself into this mess? With the best intentions, naturally. Weisman traces the beginning of the population explosion to the development of the smallpox vaccine in 1796. Other medical advances followed. “And suddenly we had people living longer and many fewer babies dying…and then we did something that far more accelerated it because we hit 1 billion around 1815 and then a little over one and a half billion in 1900.” The 20th century brought the Green Revolution, accelerating crop production. “That translated into a whole lot more food,” says Weisman. “And as famines were avoided, more people survived to beget more people, and suddenly we quadrupled.”
“Look, imagine a national park,” Weisman went on. “Every one of us knows it just makes total logical sense that you have to keep the number of predators and prey in some kind of balance. Otherwise, the ecosystem can just get completely out of whack and even collapse.”
Connecting today’s bloated population to climate change, says Weisman, is a no-brainer. “We’ve jet propelled society. We can do all these incredible things. We have electricity but we also have these waste products and they float up into the atmosphere. And the more of us demanding this stuff, the more carbon dioxide is up there. There's more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere right now than there has been in 3 million years.”
Solving our climate problem could be simpler – and less expensive – than we think. “Carbon-free energy, we don't know how to do that really well yet, but even if we did, it would be really expensive.” Weisman says. But birth control? “This doesn't involve any technological leaps. To make contraception universally available, it's been calculated that it would cost about a little over $8 billion per year.”
Potts blames our species’ attitude towards sex for holding back the conversation. “The curious thing about it which separates us from, some may say, chimpanzees is that we’re very shy about it. We do it in private. We do it in the dark…But the good news about family planning is it's something that's wanted. It is the most cost effective way of reducing our carbon footprint. It's more cost effective than making solar panels or windmills.
“For 200,000 years, there was not a population explosion. We were roughly in balance with our environment” says Potts. “We've done wonderful things to reduce infant mortality. And we're being blind and stupid and curious about not offering people family planning at the same time.”
– Anny Celsi
March 23, 2014
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California