In response to:

Conceiving the Future from the September 23, 2021 issue

To the Editors:

As an author and longtime devotee of The New York Review of Books, I’d aspired to be mentioned in its pages, but not as a naïf relic, which was the case in “Conceiving the Future,” Anna Louie Sussman’s review of three books touching on childbearing in our moment of extreme ecological disruption [NYR, September 23].

The 1969 Mills College valedictory address mentioned at the review’s beginning initiated my more than half-century of grappling with the complexity of problems like overpopulation, wildlands conservation, and women’s reproductive rights. In countless talks, editorials, and essays; as a bioregional organizer and participant in numerous national and international conferences; and in my seven books, I also addressed such topics as ecological restoration, community economics, and technological excess, always hoping to contribute to our thinking through of our species’ daunting and hellishly complex predicament in the biosphere and to help kindle, as David Brower put it, “a renewed stirring of love for the Earth.”

Acknowledging this work wouldn’t have served Sussman’s purposes. The sentimental conclusion of the review suggests, per a quote from a 1985 interview, that, lovestruck, I’d come to my senses and abandoned the idea that refraining from childbearing, on ecological principle, had any real value. Sussman herself, however, commenting on a book about chemical contamination, “was left feeling that it’s nearly impossible to bridge the gap between the scale of the problem and our ability to address it.” To build the bridges, we have to find points of beginning in our own lives, where we are. Movements comprise individuals and individual outliers, for better and worse, spark action. Behold Greta Thunberg, a young woman launching climate strikes, sailing across the Atlantic, adamantly holding her elders to account.

Along with global temperatures, consciousness of climate change is rising. A sense of the practical and moral calamity of the extinction crisis, however, lags far behind. The holocaust of biodiversity is largely caused by habitat destruction and environmental contamination and these are driven by both overconsumption and by desperate land hunger.

Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Stanford biologists also referenced by Sussman, have continued their research, writing, and crusading for decades now, with rigor and commitment. As early as 1971 Paul Ehrlich, with John Holdren, offered the I = P x A x T equation, which stressed that population (P) was but one variable interacting with affluence (A) and technology (T), these distributed in vastly unequal proportions across the world to cause impacts (I) eroding the planet’s ability to sustain life.

Humanity in aggregate is overshooting biospheric boundaries. This was foreseen by an MIT team’s world model and published in their 1972 book Limits to Growth. Given the long-standing general alarm among scientists worldwide at the exponential increase in our numbers, to treat concern with the problem of overpopulation as being “theoretical” or an “ism,” as one author under review does, is itself ideological, if not outright denial. Efforts to ease human population growth to a stop remain essential—necessary but far from sufficient—to afford future generations of children the possibility of inhabiting diverse and thriving terrains.

As a college senior I decried the “cruel hoax” that globalized industrial civilization could eat the cake and have it, too; that its physical and ethical consequences were fixable externalities. The reality is that learning to live within the planet’s means will entail the contraction of overgrown human economies toward stable, equitable, steady-state subsistence. If we are to hope for the flourishing of all beings, every level of society, from the person to the family, from the neighborhood and municipality on up to the community of nations, must change.

Stephanie Mills
Maple City, Michigan

To the Editors:

For an advocate who has spent most of my career working on population, climate change, and sustainability issues, Anna Louie Sussman’s review of three books on reproductive dilemmas in the age of climate change hits close to home.

As Jade Sasser defined the term in her book On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Womens Rights in the Era of Climate Change, I recognize myself as a “populationist.” I believe that population dynamics—growth, age structure, urbanization, and migration patterns—have important, overlooked implications for society. I work to raise awareness of demographic trends and the unrealized reproductive rights of women and girls. I also recognize I am guilty of advancing alarmist narratives about rapid population growth that may unwittingly provide fodder for draconian population control measures that trample on human rights.

This is a hard pill to swallow. I strongly believe people in the population movement are well intentioned, and that understanding and explicating the implications of population dynamics is one way of working for a more sustainable, just, and equitable society. But we in the movement must look beyond our good intentions and acknowledge the painful truth that a preoccupation with abstract numbers of people, as opposed to the lived experience of real people, has too often resulted in harm, particularly for people of color and marginalized communities.

We need to more fully embrace the fact that the numbers we talk about are actually people—people with hopes, joys, challenges, and rights. We must recognize and bring to light the inequities in wealth, power, and access to resources that have brought us to this place on the population growth curve. Population-related advocacy work can promote better outcomes for people and the planet, but only if it ceaselessly recommits to centering people’s reproductive rights and choices.

Kathleen Mogelgaard
President and CEO
Population Institute
Washington, D.C.

To the Editors:

In her review of Jade Sasser’s book On Infertile Ground, Anna Louie Sussman writes that “Sasser casts doubt on new scientific models…that link population numbers and climate change.” That is correct in the sense that 70 percent of global energy is consumed by 17 percent of the world’s population—roughly 1.3 billion people. But it is far from the full story. The other 6.7 billion people have legitimate aspirations to enlarge their energy budget, if only to run a refrigerator or a washing machine let alone to have a light bulb for their kids to be able to do homework after dark. The problem here is one of numbers. Even if we (the energy-rich 17 percent) share all of the energy we consume with them (the energy-poor 83 percent), there are too many of them for that equal share to provide even a modest energy budget for all on our current energy portfolio, 80 percent of which is generated by fossil fuels. But wait! It gets worse. Energy demand is projected to increase by about 40 percent in the next thirty years, 70 percent of which will be generated by the energy poor, and that is before we account for how much their numbers will grow in this century.

Martin Bunzl
Professor Emeritus
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey

Anna Louie Sussman replies:

My intention was never to depict Stephanie Mills as a “naïf relic,” or to suggest that, “lovestruck,” she had abandoned her principles and come to embrace childbearing, or to criticize the choices she has made in her own personal life that give meaning and substance to her values. I am aware of her prolific contributions to environmental thinking and activism. I cited her story for two reasons: first, to remind readers that thoughtful people have been grappling with the relationship between their individual reproductive choices and the environment for a long time, and second, just as significantly, to highlight the emotional stakes involved in these choices. When Mills told a reporter that she would “rejoice” if she had children, I was struck by her word choice. What joy are we asking people to forgo by not having children in order to reduce carbon emissions?

Perhaps more importantly, who are we not asking to make sacrifices as we puzzle our way through our “daunting and hellishly complex predicament in the biosphere,” to use Mills’s language? The executives at chemical manufacturers who, instead of spending more on research and development to identify safer products, lobby in Washington for deregulation? Oil companies? Shipping firms? The US military, whose greenhouse gas emissions are greater than the total emissions of roughly three fourths of the world’s nations? When we focus on curbing women’s fertility in the Global South to fight climate change, we are losing sight of who and what is most responsible for it. This, I believe, is the central point of Sasser’s book, and one that I find persuasive.

Then there is the question of who is being asked to make sacrifices, specifically to have fewer children. Martin Bunzl divides the world into the energy rich and the energy poor in order to highlight the disparities in resource consumption, as well as the legitimate claims that the energy poor have on their share of the pie, which, he concludes correctly, is not large enough to accommodate the economic growth they demand. But if, as he writes, “the problem here is one of numbers” and “how much their numbers will grow in this century,” what is the solution? To reduce “their numbers”? Or to collectively work for systemic change, such as pushing to make inexpensive clean energy available to people and companies at a vast scale? And to collectively identify ways of living, making, and being in the world that are not based on extraction, overconsumption, and greed?

As Kathleen Mogelgaard notes, “the numbers we talk about are actually people—people with hopes, joys, challenges, and rights.” To be clear, I applaud the work of the organizations around the world that seek to guarantee the exercise of people’s sexual and reproductive rights. Whether to do this because of concerns about “population” is another question. Full-spectrum sexual and reproductive health care includes, for example, infertility care, which as far as I know is rarely offered by international NGOs in the Global South. Someone who has worked for years to increase access to fertility treatments in low-resource settings told me that he’s had little interest from global NGOs, which are more concerned with “overpopulation” than with helping childless people in poor countries become parents.

I firmly believe we all have to make individual sacrifices for a more sustainable world. I don’t believe there is a perfect solution. The tools of a green economy, such as solar panels and new forms of battery storage, still require mining, manufacturing, shipping, and supply chains, which come with their own problems: solar panels made by Uighurs reportedly forced into labor, rare minerals sourced from conflict zones or countries whose antidemocratic rulers remain in power thanks in part to Western industries’ reliance on their exports, e-waste disposal chains that expose the most marginalized garbage pickers to toxic chemicals. As Mills writes, most individuals do not feel equipped to take on oil companies, so they start where they can. One question, which I can’t answer on behalf of anyone but myself, is, Where should we draw the line? Is forgoing parenthood on par with giving up meat or flying less? How many of us must give up children to make a difference in time for it to matter? And what are all of these sacrifices for if there is no one to leave this world to?