In 1968 Paul Ehrlich created an international sensation and made the best-seller lists with a book to which he gave an ingenious title, The Population Bomb. He predicted that "In the 1970s...hundreds of millions of people will starve to death." Well, every prophet's life has its disappointments. As it turned out, food became more plentiful during the 1970s, and cheaper as well. Food producers proved more ingenious, and the planet more generous, than Ehrlich imagined when he made what he thought were his absolutely fool-proof calculations.
No surprise there for anyone who reads the history of ideas. This has been the usual fate of Malthusians, right back to the Rev. Thomas Malthus himself, who in 1798 proclaimed his belief that world population would soon outstrip the food supply. Today, anyone predicting imminent planetary starvation is in the unfortunate position of the boy who cried wolf.
It's typical of Bill McKibben that he calmly replays this embarrassing story in his own neo-Malthusian tract, Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families. McKibben is an infuriating debater: he tries to control the argument by refuting his own views as soon as he makes them, or even sooner. Before you can nail him he jumps over to your side of the table and makes the very point that you expected would destroy his main premise. He admits that each new generation of Malthusians has ended up looking silly. On the other hand, he says, we know that everything has limits, and perhaps the earth is like everything else. Maybe the Malthusians will be right one day. What if the population leap we are now taking, from the present 6 billion to 10 or 11 billion, proves to be the one that destroys the planetary ecosystem?
Yet even as he ponders this potential disaster, McKibben in Maybe One appears more hopeful than in his most famous book, The End of Nature, which said humans had pretty well ruined forever that part of Creation we call "nature." Maybe One offers a solution of sorts.
For several reasons, McKibben says, we are approaching a crucial moment in history, when cumulative insults to the atmosphere may tip earthly existence into crisis and destroy permanently our ability to support the human race. It's true that a downward turn in world population appears to be on the horizon, but it may come too late. However, we can buy some time, he suggests, if the most energy-profligate, ozone-depleting people on the planet, the citizens of the rich countries, lower their birth rate even more than they have already.
To accomplish this, millions of couples should have just one child each. For many people, that's clearly a silly idea. Don't we all know that an only child is a lonely child? Haven't we known for generations that growing up as a pampered, pressured singleton makes you conceited and unsociable?
That's what many believe, but McKibben says it has no basis in reality. It was a mistake made in the 1890s by a wrongheaded American psychologist, and endlessly repeated as gospel. Today, nothing in social science supports it. The relevant studies show that singletons tend to score higher than others in achievement, motivation and personal adjustment. No other differences appear.
That doesn't begin to eliminate the potential disadvantages of singletons. Parents must consider, for instance, that in old age an only child may be lonely in a way that people who have siblings are not. Being able to say "my brother" or "my sister" is taken for granted by those of us who can do it. Those who cannot are in certain ways poorer. "There is no use pretending that won't be wrenching, and often sad," McKibben says--and leaves it there. There's nothing else to say.
McKibben, who teaches Methodist Sunday School in the small New York State town where he lives with his wife and daughter, emerges in these pages as highly agreeable, a polemicist for the age of compassion. We readers never know whether he's going to challenge us or hug us; usually it's the latter. He tries to avoid making us uncomfortable. "I'm not saying," he insists, "that everyone should stop at one child; just that if many more of us did so, it would help." He doesn't want to make those of us with more than one child feel guilty.
He scoffs (persuasively, I think) at accounts of Chinese boys in one-child families turning into spoiled little emperors, but he regards the Chinese government's one-child rule as bureaucratic abuse. He doesn't want a law, he wants people to change their minds and their practices voluntarily.
He has an annoying way of coming down firmly on both sides of a question, thereby strangling any possibility of thought. Consider this sentence: "I'm in favour--reluctantly, painfully--of moderate reductions in the number of immigrants coming into this country." This is a guy who can't even be moderate without displaying his pain. Is "posturing" the word here? Does the name Clinton come to mind?
McKibben uses the one-child idea as the organizing principle of an old-fashioned, discursive 254-page essay on the dangers to the environment, the sin of selfishness, and about a dozen other subjects, ranging from the delights of single-child fatherhood to pervasive consumerism encouraged by TV. Sometimes he meanders so far from the path that a reader feels abandoned. There's a lovely little piece about a ghost town near his home in the Adirondacks, but I can't figure out what the hell it has to do with anything else in the book. He approaches research with a blithe inconsistency: one minute he comes on like a stern social scientist, rapping the knuckles of some newspaper reporter for a story based on anecdotal evidence; the next, he's making his own points with references to his daughter, his brother--or his told-in-great-detail vasectomy, a personal surgical commitment to the one-child policy.
McKibben's vas deferens was snipped in Ottawa by Dr. Phil McGuire, whom he chose because McGuire's fee of $200 (U.S) is less than American doctors charge, because Ottawa isn't far from McKibben's home, and because McKibben liked both the seriousness of McGuire's Web page (www.ottawa-vas.com) and the humour revealed by the toll-free number at which Americans reach him, 1-800-LAST-KID.