I just finished Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's latest novel. This is not a review, though I thoroughly enjoyed the book and Franzen's extraordinary ability to describe the molten center of modern American life. But I mention it because the novel's good-hearted protagonist, Walter Berglund, shares my concern over the world's limits for population and human consumption.
At one point, the novel veers into Berglund's feelings toward Americans who go blithely about their over-consuming lives without the least prick of conscience about the planet.
"(I)t wasn't just the jumbo everything to which his fellow Americans seemed to feel uniquely entitled, it wasn't just the Walmarts and the buckets of corn syrup and the high-clearance monster trucks; it was the feeling that nobody else in the country was giving even five seconds' thought to what it meant to be packing another 13,000,000 large primates onto the world's limited surface every month. The unclouded serenity of his countrymen's indifference made him wild with anger," Franzen wrote.
I felt some of that (though I was bothered rather than "wild with anger") watching President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech. While Obama did discuss the need for a clean energy future, he did not connect the dots to climate change. Obama focused on a plan for America's economic competitiveness, an understandable response to the drubbing the Democrats took in the mid-term elections due to a lack of job growth. And while his ideas on clean energy were bold and welcome, he failed to offer an environmental case for carbon limits — something Americans need to hear.
Americans will give more than five seconds of thought to concerns their leaders champion. But politicians need to lead and force a national conversation rather than pick issues based on polls. An October poll by the Pew Research Center found only 34 percent of respondents said global warming is caused by human activity, down from 50 percent in July 2006. That is what happens when Democrats let the party that stands for science go quiet.
The natural corollary to concern over climate change is growth.
A hidden time bomb of our economy is that it must grow to succeed. A constant expansion is necessary to keep the system humming. It's always sold as a net good. But with growth comes higher levels of consumption, waste and greenhouse gas emissions. At some point, infinite expansion will be an unsustainable economic model. Whether we collectively prepare for that point before wrecking our environment is the ultimate dilemma of a selfish species. So far, it doesn't look good.
Population is a major factor in all this. Like a giant Ponzi scheme, people add to economic growth, while making it essential that the economy expand to make room for them. America had 152 million people in 1950, now nearly 312 million, with a net gain of one person every 15 seconds. How much more of this kind of growth is good for us or for America's natural resources?
The same questions can be asked about the world which had its population double in 40 years from 1959 to 1999. This year, there will be 7 billion of us and that number will soar to 9 billion by 2044. Yet we seem unwilling to confront questions about sustainable population and consumption limits, as if we're waiting for human calamity to take care of things — which it will.
We know how to shrink family size: educate women, give them real economic opportunities and make birth control easily accessible. This has worked everywhere it has been tried when religion and an anti-woman cultural bias don't conspire against it. But we need to go further. While China's coercive one-child policy is certainly no model for the rest of the world, there is nothing wrong with promoting one-child families as a cultural imperative for the good of the planet.
In Franzen's novel, Walter Berglund held a brainstorming session over what to call his new population control advocacy group. Among the suggestions were: Feed the Living, Love What's Here, Dare Not To Bear and Enough Already! I second them all.