Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families

Posted: 1 September 2000

Author: Bill McKibben
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998, $23

"Population is a subject I've been trying to avoid for years, and not just because I know it will cause turmoil and angry controversy. It scared me more because it forced me and my wife to confront head-on the issue of how many children we were going to have... and in our case the conversation ended with me in a vasectomy clinic."

For an environmental writer to admit such a fear of his subject on the first page shows refreshing candour. When has the last activist, theorist, or even "leader in the field" examined their own lives so intimately before reaching policy prescriptions that affect, typically, everyone but themselves.

But the first person singular is a familiar voice for Bill McKibben. His 1989 alarm over global warming, The End of Nature, impassioned conservationists much like Rachel Carson had 40 years earlier. A later book surveying exemplary case studies in development, from health care in Kerala to mass transit in Curitiba, proved he could teach as well as preach. Thus the blend of intellect and feeling in this book about his own family planning comes as no surprise.

His argument is simple. The next 50 years will determine where America's population will peak and, because of its outsize consumption level and cultural models for the rest of the world, "will decide how healthy the planet will be for centuries to come. This is a point in time poised uniquely between hope and fear - it's possible we'll face unavoidable calamity, but also possible we'll see remarkable change for the better."

By modestly bringing down the family size and immigration rates that number will be 230 rather than 400 million, a population America has lived with before (in 1984), rather than more than 100 million higher than it is today. An average of 1.5 children per family, argues McKibben, would provide more time, "a bit more margin", to get our own house in order - to control greenhouse gases, wanton consumerism, profligately sized homes, and all the other sins of affluence he rails against and leads a life studious in their avoidance.

But what do the facts - that the TV show Baywatch is seen by some 1 billion people worldwide, that McDonald's hamburgers are considered brainfood by many Chinese one-child parents, and that gasoline prices in the US are hovering around $1 per gallon - have to do with McKibben's vasectomy?

He offers no fixed answer other than as one of his essay's personal truths, a problem consisting he says of one part moral and one part math. "There's no set of statistics to explain why it felt odd, why it felt a little shameful, why it felt sad," he writes. "But at the end of the 20th Century the signs of the time point me in the direction of the kinds of caring that come with small, not large, families."

Reviewer: Lou Werner

Reviewer Info: Lou Werner is a New York-based documentary film-maker and health education media consultant.