Ask Umbra’s Book Club: Why don’t people talk about population?
Overpopulation is a big theme in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom. Walter Berglund, the book’s environmentalist character, starts a campaign to get college students riled up about the issue. He explains his thinking in a chapter entitled “Enough Already”:
The problem is that nobody dares to make overpopulation part of the national conversation. And why not? Because the subject is a downer. Because it seems like old news. Because, like with global warming, we haven’t quite reached the point where the consequences become undeniable. And because we sound like elitists if we try to tell poor people and uneducated people not to have so many babies
Why did Franzen choose to write about population instead of an issue like climate change, which is more a part of the zeitgeist? We asked during our exclusive Grist interview with Franzen. Here’s what he had to say:
I had already touched on climate change in my two previous novels. And as a novelist you don’t want to be chasing after the culture — you want to be listening to stuff that’s not being talked about but that might become important. A novelist tries to go to places that people don’t normally want to go. And it was interesting to me how totally unmentionable overpopulation has become in mainstream conversation. If you imagine the entire culture as some kind of psyche, you wonder: “Why is this rather important knowledge being repressed? Why are we willfully blinding ourselves to this?” Repressions like this are a provocation for the fiction writer.
Here’s more from Franzen on overpopulation, from his interview with Grist:
(Still haven’t had enough of Franzen talking about population? Here’s more!)
Readers, is Franzen right? Will overpopulation solve itself? I asked Grist’s population expert, Lisa Hymas, to weigh in. Here’s what she had to say:
Franzen is certainly right that population growth is slowing around the world — this Economist video is a great visual explanation of the trends. But while we’re growing more slowly, we’re still growing. We’re still adding about 220,000 people a day. We’ll likely hit 7 billion people sometime in late 2011. The notion that we might have “only” 9 billion people by 2050 doesn’t ease my mind. Franzen gets to the heart of the issue when he says, “The question is whether there will be anything left in the world to save” by the time the world population finally stops growing.
Still, we don’t need “population control” of the kind Walter is pushing. Most people don’t want large families, and many are opting to have children later in life, and a few are even choosing to go childfree — no coercion required. Instead of launching a campaign to make everyone worried about overpopulation, we need to pour our efforts into making sure every woman everywhere can get family-planning services and information. Some 215 million women in developing countries want contraception but don’t have good access to it; give them what they want and you could eliminate 53 million unintended pregnancies a year [PDF]. Then mix in some cultural shifts that would make it more socially acceptable to have one child or no kids at all. And there you go — you’ve brought down population numbers and improved millions of lives in the process.
Readers, what do you think about population growth? Are there ways we could address the issue within popular culture? Has concern about overpopulation affected your own decisions about how many kids to have, or whether to have any at all? Are you like Lalitha, Walter’s impassioned young colleague, who says, “I know I don’t want children”?
I’ll end on a humorous note with a Shel Silverstein poem:
There’s too many kids in this tub
There’s too many elbows to scrub
I just washed a behind that I’m sure wasn’t mine
There’s too many kids in this tub.
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