Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: Another one of these helter-skelter three-person introductions here. How are we going to manage this?
Micah Saul: We could take turns, or uh…ooh ooh ooh ooh! I know. Alright. So I’m going to mail a conch to you, Aengus. While you’re holding it, you can talk. And then mail it to Neil, and we’ll record his part. And then he can mail it back to me, and and we’ll get it out that way.
Anderson: Well, that’s way better than the peace pipe thing we had figured out last time, because that was really tedious.
Neil Prendergast: So I should just kill my passenger pigeons, then. Great.
Anderson: And what— I didn’t know. I was going to say passenger pigeons, can I think of some clever segue into this episode, and the answer is—
Anderson: No. So we’re just going to stop right there and we’re going to start again right here. This is John Seager.
Saul: Head of Population Connection, formerly known as ZPG, or Zero Population Growth.
Anderson: They have a long pedigree going back to the late 60s, and they continue to be the nation’s largest population organization. John has worked with the EPA as well under the Clinton administration, and he’s been active in a lot of different political campaigns. But he’s been with Population Connection for many years at this point. And we’ve talked about population a bit in this series. Never as much as I think any of us have wanted to.
Saul: Yeah. Many people have brought it up as a potential crisis, but it was just one among many. And this is the first time that it’s really taking center stage and getting its time in the limelight.
Prendergast: And it’s really cool that even with it in the limelight, it’s connected up too a bunch of other stuff still.
Anderson: I think that’s kind of what surprised me about this upcoming conversation, you know. We thought well, we’ll just be talking about population. But no, we have gender, we have environmentalism, and all as related components that really tie into this.
Aengus Anderson: Where’s population gone as an issue? You know, I think a lot of people are aware of ZPG in the 60s and 70s. Where are we today?
John Seager: Well of course we are ZPG. We were founded as Zero Population Growth back in 1968 by two scientists and a lawyer; you always need a lawyer for these things. One of whom, Paul Erlich, was then a young scientist at Stanford and is now not a quite so young scientist at Stanford. And he wrote a book called The Population Bomb back then. And the United States was going through a tremendous transition in the late 60s and early 70s. And it’s a transition that can be measured.
In 1961 when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated President, the average woman in the United States had 3.4 children. By the time Jimmy Carter was sworn into office just sixteen years later—that’s less than a human generation—the average family size in the United States had dropped by 50% to 1.7 children. That’s an extraordinary transformation for a society, especially because it did not happen because either of some top-down edict, nor was it the result of some catastrophe like a famine or some other crisis. It was the aggregate of tens of millions of independent, free decisions by individuals who decided to have smaller families and to postpone having children.
And I think the things that contributed to that also contributed to the focus on the issue at that time. Because young Americans in particular were rethinking the kinds and sizes of families they wanted to have. And when you can link the personal with the global it makes it a lot easier to talk about both.
Anderson: Was— I mean, that’s a huge cultural shift. What was sort of triggering that shift?
Seager: Well, if you look at the things that drove that change, there are three factors that stand out. First was education. In the 50s and the decades before that, it wasn’t rare but it was still the exception for women to go to college. And so women began going to college in great numbers in the 60s and 70s.
And a couple things happen when that happens. First, you have the decision to postpone having children. The more education a woman has, the later she decides to begin her family. And actually in terms of population numbers, later can matter more than how many you have. A simple example is this: if Sarah has twins at seventeen and Beth has twins at thirty-four, that’s literally an entire generation that’s been skipped. And that has an enormous impact.
The second thing that happens is, since women in our culture are still the primary caregivers in more cases than not, it can be very difficult to juggle the demands of a professional career with the demands of being the primary caregiver. And so, young people started to make a judgment that maybe instead of having four children they’d have three, or two instead of three, and so forth. So they started having smaller families. So women’s education was the first factor.
The second factor was technology. In 1962, the Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill. I would submit that that’s one of the four or five most transformative technological changes of the last millennium. Not just the last century. Because for the first time in the history of the world, half the people on Earth no longer have to depend on the other half for the arc of their lives.
The third great change was around law. There were a whole series of Supreme Court decisions involving contraception and abortion. Now, if we were talking a year ago, I would refer to the abortion decision as controversial, and I would’ve said, “Yeah, but birth control isn’t controversial anymore. You never read about that.” But it turned out I was wrong. It’s become a point of great contention again in this most recent campaign, it seems.
And so these three incredibly important and huge factors all led to these free decisions by individuals to have smaller families. And to return to your initial point, what that meant was now that Americans have smaller families, it’s very difficult to link the personal with the global.
Anderson: And is it as relevant here as it used to be, or is this more of a global conversation? And does America play a different role in it than previously?
Seager: If there’s one thing I think we’ve learned, sometimes to our sorrow, it’s that there is no “away.” There is really no there anymore. There’s just here. So one of the things that I think we’ve begun to see is a greater understanding, sometimes a reluctant understanding, that we’re all kind of in this together even if we don’t particularly want to be. So I think we need to redefine what the meaning of “here” is.
Anderson: That actually taps into a very big theme in this project. When you first said that, I was thinking of a philosopher I had talked to named Timothy Morton. And he said, verbatim, “There is no ‘away.’” He was talking about it in an ecological sense, which in a way is actually the conversation it seems like we’re having, too, right. There’s a big question of what is our place in this larger system and survival. And so if there is no away, where do we stand now with population? And when I say “we” I now mean us, globally.
Seager: Well to quote Dickens, these are the best of times and the worst of times. They’re the worst of times in the sense— And I don’t want to overuse that phrase because I’m… Not only am I not a Malthusian— Neither was Malthus if you read more than just the one essay. He was a much more cheerful fellow than that one essay that always gets quoted. So, I don’t want to come across as a gloom and doomer, because I’m not. But the fact remains that it took all of human history up until 1800 to get to one billion people. Today we add a billion people every dozen years.
The example I like to cite is that of our tenth precedent, John Tyler, whom if he is remembered at all it is for a campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” The reason I bring John Tyler up was that he was born in 1790, which was the first full year George Washington was in office; became President when his running mate died in 1841. At the time John Tyler was born, there were a billion people on Earth, Today there are more than seven billion. John Tyler’s grandson Harrison Tyler is still alive and well in Virginia.
Within the space of three human lifetimes, we’ve gone from a billion to more than seven billion people. We add eighty million people a year to the world’s population, virtually all of it in the poorest places on Earth. And so regardless of what point you would think the Earth was full, it’s certainly getting fuller every day. So in that way the challenge is greater than ever, and now we’ve come to realize that there are other challenges like climate change that really wasn’t on the screen for the most part thirty or forty years ago. Those [were] beginning to be talked about by a few people.
We’re at the best of times because human population growth is the only global challenge I know of where the following three things are all true:
One, we know how to fix it. We know where babies come from. There’s been research done on this, some of it unsupervised. And we have this pretty well figured out. Contraceptives work remarkably well when used as directed. They’re not perfect, nothing in life is, but they’re pretty effective. So we know how to meet this challenge.
Second, it’s relatively inexpensive. There’s more to it than just supplying contraception, but it costs about twenty-eight dollars a year to provide a woman in the developing world with a year’s supply of contraception.
And third, women everywhere want to be able to be the ones who determine the trajectory of their own lives. When women’s income goes up, when they have access to contraception, when they’re empowered, they choose smaller families. That’s a fact.
We know how to fix this. We know how to meet this challenge through voluntary access to affordable contraception. And so this is not like climate change in the sense that there are thousands of great ideas being worked on to try to address climate change, but I don’t think anybody would claim that they’ve come up with the “one way to do it.” Modern contraception is that one way, and it’s welcomed all over the world. It’s just not available all over the world.
Now, to show you how much of a difference small changes can make, if every woman on Earth had one half a child less, on average, instead of the population growing by three billion between now and the end of the century, it would actually go down by one billion. I know people who are worried about this. Who think that we would have this people shortage. Now, I can remember twelve years ago and I don’t recall there being a huge people shortage, which was the last time we had six billion people. But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that at some distant future date humans suddenly wake up and decide, “Oh my goodness, we’re running out of people.” And I can imagine people saying, “Now, where could we get more people? There must be a way…” So, I’m not too worried about that.
You know, a very good person who has chaired our board on several occasions said something recently that I thought was a great way to think about the issue. She said, “Population can be a real challenge because it’s really hard to wrap your mind around numbers but it’s easy to wrap your arms around a baby.” And so we need to keep in mind that this isn’t about vast numbers. This is about individual people, and the other critters who live on this planet, and what we want for ourselves and what we want for others.
Anderson: What’s interesting about that is there’s sort of a… Depending on how you frame it, you can make it a qualitative issue, right, not just a quantitative issue. The quantitative seems to be look at this incredible population growth. The qualitative seems to be that well, actually all of this population growth impacts all the people who are growing. It’s easy to wrap your arms around that baby. You also want to give them the best world possible. And the more babies you wrap your arms around, the worse the world you give to them.
Seager: Yeah. Joel Cohen, a professor of population at Rockefeller University said it better than I can, so I’ll quote or at least roughly paraphrase him. This [is] really not about numbers. It’s about individual lives and it’s about what it means to live and work and die with the sense that your life has some meaning and some purpose.
And Joel Cohen wrote a book called How Many People Can the Earth Support?, and at the end of it he said there’s no answer to the question. In fact, the answer requires asking two other questions: How do you want to live? And how do you want everybody else to live? Not just the people you know, but everybody. And not just the people who are here now, but the people in the future. And not just people, but other critters as well. And until you answer those two questions, you can’t come up with some spreadsheet answer on how many people the Earth can support.
The Earth, in the strictest geologic sense, is not imperiled. It’s that tiny realm on it where living things can thrive. And the question is, how do we want to address that? And how can we think about it in a way that doesn’t seem overwhelming to the individual? Because I don’t think any of us can walk around all day carrying every problem that ever was and ever will be on our shoulders.
Anderson: I mean, we’ve talked about sort of the best of times being that we have the tools. We know what’s wrong. We could address it. But it seems like while we may intellectually know these things, there is sort of the cultural conversation that needs to happen. And there’s this interesting question of pluralism, where you’re dealing with different places where they may hold very different beliefs about contraception or things like that. And so, as I think about this I think it’s so painful almost because the solutions are so readily at hand and we are ourselves the impediment to use. How do you have that conversation in a pluralistic world?
Seager: Well, I mean the first thing we have to do is figure out where we’re standing. For example, should a society that routinely objectifies and prevents women from having any power at all, does that society deserve our respect? I don’t think they do. You know, as G.K. Chesterton said, “Art consists of knowing where to draw the line.” There are lines, and I think you have to look at your fundamental values. I’m not a relativist on this point. Oppressing women is just wrong. I don’t care why you do it. I don’t care what your culture says. I don’t care what that book you’ve been carrying around for the last eight thousand years says. I’m not interested. It’s wrong, you’re an idiot.
Now, maybe it’s not wise to tell somebody who’s holding a Kalashnikov rifle that they’re an idiot at that exact moment. Maybe one needs to be somewhat more subtle about it, at least until you’re out of range. But you’ve got to decide what your values are. You can respect pluralism and diversity, and you should. But if half of the people in the world in any given culture are not being given any agency or any respect, that’s just wrong, and we ought to be prepared to say so. It’s wrong to have slaves. It’s wrong to objectify women. There are just some things that are just wrong.
And yet there’s a line here, and I think the line is when it comes to individuals making that most personal of decisions, the decision of when and whether to have a child, that needs to be a voluntary decision. Either way. We happen to be in a rather happy point, believe it or not, because the very things that will reduce population pressures also are the things that empower women and couples and enable them to have better lives.
Now, there are over two hundred countries on Earth and every single one is different from the next. So this isn’t a question of us flying low over some far away nation and dropping contraceptives out of the air that sort of hit people on the head and they pick them up and look at them. It’s a question of getting inside that culture and understanding how to make progress. And there are incredible examples of how that has worked so effectively. Religion is by no means necessarily an impediment.
For example Iran, in 1985 the average woman had 6.5 children. Today she has two. And it’s because the Muslim clerics decided to go down a path of purely voluntary approaches. One of the messages that the clerics put out in Iran was the tranquility is an Islamic virtue and that small families are more tranquil. So they sent out these important social signals. Look at Mexico, which is a very Catholic country. Mexico, through purely voluntary means with our help, in the last forty years has gone from having 6.8 children to 2.3.
And so you can see these dramatic transformations. It doesn’t just happen here in the United States where we have affluence and it was the 60s and all of that stuff. It can happen anywhere if you have the right ingredients in place, or almost anywhere.
Anderson: We’ve gotten to this point where we’re talking about population and also its connections with economics. And this is interesting because obviously these are places where— I mean, Mexico and Iran are both fairly affluent on the scale of other countries. There are lots of cultural things which can be accessed in different ways. But there’s also a level of education and affluence as well that plays into it. And that’s something that ties us into another big economic question. And with sort of the current economic system we have, it seems like it’s structured where there are always going to be losers. And is it going to be that the population growth is always moving around from poor country to poor country?
Seager: In 1970 there were a handful, maybe a half a dozen countries that were at or below replacement rate. Today there are nearly eighty. So we’ve made tremendous progress. I would also note that indeed Mexico and Iran are not among the least-developed countries by any means. But, one of the more interesting examples is some of the Asian countries, where you can actually see that contraceptive use doesn’t really vary all that much according to education or income levels. The thing about contraception is that it’s a way to short-circuit a process that otherwise can either take a very long time in terms of economic development, or sometimes just never really gets started in the first place. If you’re living in a very poor country where your population is growing by 2% and your GDP is growing by 1%, you’re never going to get there.
Anderson: One of the interviewees who I spoke to earlier, his name’s Alexander Rose and he’s from the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, when we were talking about population, he was more concerned about the point at which it started dropping because of the larger economic system which is sort of built on perpetual growth. For him it seemed like if the population growth slowed down, you’d end up with sort of an economic crisis, something that’s essentially unprecedented in the history of capitalism over five hundred years.
Seager: Well, a lot of things have been unprecedented in the history of capitalism. The Industrial Revolution, the information age, penicillin. I think—
Anderson: But those are different than a labor force change, right?
Seager: Everything’s different. You know, if you go back a century and a half, most Americans were employed on the farm. And today something like two or three percent of Americans are. Make no mistake, that transformation was very disruptive. But we made it. And that was a pretty extraordinary transformation of a workforce.
If you look for example at Europe, I think almost everybody agrees from an economic standpoint the powerhouse of Europe is Germany. Germany has very small families. Germany is looking at population decline. Germany seems to be doing very very well. The key to having a productive economy, however one chooses to define that, and issues of consumption loom large, but nonetheless we all want a healthy economy (that might be a best turn of phrase) is to have people who are more productive. Not necessarily just more people.
When you look at the barriers that are in the way of greater productivity in this country, you look at barriers in terms of education. You look at barriers in terms of healthcare. You look at barriers in terms of workplace mobility. We’re so far from realizing the full productivity of the people who are here now, the last thing we need to worry about is a people shortage. And as I said, there is a mechanism by which humans can solve that problem if they really decide there aren’t quite enough people.
Anderson: We’ve just been talking about potential. And a lot of people on this project have talked about different ideas of progress. How much of that conversation about the quality of life can be changed to effect issues of population? In our big public conversation are we thinking about it the wrong way?
Seager: Well, some forty years ago Paul Ehrlich collaborated with a man named John Holdren, who is now Obama’s science advisor, on a very simple but very cogent formula. It’s called the I=PAT Formula. Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology. And certainly there are very sophisticated systems now for measuring climate impact, but the I=PAT formula’s still a pretty good one. As population grows, there’s more people means more impact. As people become more affluent, they have always ended up with more stuff. And the stuff has to come from somewhere.
Technology can work either way. You can have technology that makes consumption more problematic or less so. The one that I think is interesting, and the one that I think really needs to be looked at more is the affluence one. Historically, the more affluent people get the more stuff they have and want. But does that curve ever bend? Is there a point at which people would prefer to have experiences as opposed to things?
You know, we always talk about consumption and then we rapidly say “consumption of goods and services” as if goods (material goods) and services have an equal impact on the Earth. And that’s just not true. There are ways to reduce consumption that I think are kind of right in front of us and sometimes maybe we’re overthinking some of it.
Anderson: Yeah, that makes me think of a conversation—actually, the one I posted yesterday with Douglas Rushkoff who’s a media theorist. And a lot of what he talks about when we were talking about the good and a better future, he was saying basically recenter your value outside of the produceable realm. Go have dinner with your neighbors. The sense of security you have from having a richer social network is a much greater type of affluence. I mean, that wasn’t the word he used, but that was essentially what he was talking about.
Seager: I’m going to get some people whom I like and agree with on most things very annoyed if they hear this line. And it is not original to me but it’s out there. I think we have to guard against ecopuritanism. H.L. Mencken defined a Calvinist as someone who wakes up in the middle of the night terrified that somebody somewhere might be having a good time. There are things, bright shiny new things, that can give us pleasure. And I don’t think that an attitude of cultural anorexia is going to get us out of where we need to go. I think we need to strike a bit of a balance.
Probably my favorite quote of all time comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who in his 1937 essay “The Crack-Up” wrote, the true test of intelligence is to keep two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time and still function effectively. I think we need to be mindful of the future and try to adjust what we’re doing to reflect those challenges. But unless you believe in reincarnation, you only have one bite at the apple. And so you know, if you want to take your kids to Disney World, take ‘em to Disney World. And don’t spend all your time agonizing over it.
I think that what we need to do is to be reasonable, and practical, and forward-thinking, and look at some of the big picture items that we can do. And that’s why I work on population, because as I said, this is a challenge we know how to meet. If we do the right things—and by right things I mean universal access to affordable voluntary contraception—we could reach population stabilization within several generations. And rest assured if we do, there will be no lack of other challenges for us to deal with. The fact is that when it comes to climate change, for the first time in our history as a species we’re facing a challenge that’s going to take not generations, not centuries, but millennia to fix. And for us to start thinking in terms of not the next generation but the next hundred generations is a hard thing for us to do. And I think one way to avoid going completely crazy is to realize that you can’t fix it all in this generation even if you try so hard. So do what you can.
Anderson: So in a way, much of our… I mean, we can’t break our conversation about population away from a conversation about the environment.
Seager: No, you know, population and the environment are very closely tied together. But I think we have to be careful not to get into sort of paralysis analysis. It’s often hard, and sometimes perhaps even impossible, to construct a sort of unified theory or cosmology for the world. We need to give the broad and complex questions their due and ask them. But we need to be careful not to use that in the wrong way, you know. It’s like the drunk uses the lamppost for support rather than illumination. Let’s use those questions to illuminate what we’re doing, not to sort of give us kind of support for our overly constructed worldview that a> we’re doomed and we can’t do anything; or b> everything will be fine. I suspect neither is the case.
And I also suspect that if we’re going to see a catastrophe, it’s not going to be a Hollywood-style one. You know, that catastrophe, that collapse is happening right this second. Yeah, but it’s not happening to me. But for those eleven thousand children and their parents who are going to die needlessly today, that collapse is happening today. For the Yangtze River dolphin, who survived over twenty million years in that delta but who now seem to be extinct, that crisis has…already come. So you know, we have to realize that just because it isn’t happening to us doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Anderson: Some of the people who’ve listened to this project have talked about how so American-centered it is. That’s a difficulty I have in this project. I would love to take this project overseas and expand the focus and expand the conversation. But it’s also been intriguing to see that within America we are talking about a lot of issues that are global and that we also play a huge role in. And yet, I think a lot of the catastrophes or the crises that have been brought up in this series are typically down the road, and they’re ones that are scary because they hit the First World.
And that makes me think about another type of conversation which is, every now and then you will turn on the TV and you know there’s a crisis somewhere else. But it’s difficult to empathize with because it’s far away. And it feels like I mean, as we were talking about earlier, you can’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. So how do we encourage momentum?
Seager: Once in awhile, and for the most part it’s good that this doesn’t happen often because it’s almost always a terribly traumatic event, something happens where we’re all of one mind in this country. And the last time that happened was during the terrible tragedy of 9⁄11. Neurologists tell us that traumatic events, be they personal, internal or external, literally change your brain chemistry. There’s a biochemical change that happens. Or so I’ve read. I’m not a neurologist, but that’s what I’ve read. I assume it’s true. And at that moment, we’re prepared to rethink things.
Now, the last time we had a terrible crisis, the President of the United States told us to go out and shop. Americans would have done anything at that moment. Now, the question becomes what do you do in between those moments? The door only opens maybe once in a generation. And when it does it’s usually to reveal some horror on the other side. And I think in between, you have to find a way to reach people— I don’t think prying people’s minds open is a very rewarding actual size for either party.
So I think you have to look for the opportunities. And I think where the greatest opportunity is, and it’s where we focus most of our attention, is on young people. We do a great deal of work from kindergarten level all the way up through college. Because students have their minds open to possibilities and ideas, and often they’re hearing something for the first time. And of course when you’re talking to college students, even though Americans have small families, you can link the personal with the global because when people go off to college, they’re often in a sense independent actors for the first time without their parents being downstairs, and they have to sort out questions of sexuality and reproduction. And so there is a way to link the personal with the global. So I think you work where the opportunities are, in between those sad and awful moments which also present incredible opportunities.
If you look at one of the transformative moments of the civil rights movement, when Rosa Parks decided to sit down on that bus, she didn’t just get up that morning and decide to sit down on the bus. That was a product of decades of organizing. Of careful thought. Another woman was selected but then they decided she wasn’t the best example.
And so I think we need to focus more on what we can do where we are to help create those circumstances and worry less about the cathartic moment. Because it’s going to come, and when it does we’re not going to like it one bit. Conversations do matter. People have to be prepared. Most people are decent, generous, kind people. Not everybody. I’ve known some SOBs in my day. But most people are pretty decent folks. And you just have to find ways to tap into that. If the opportunity isn’t there, don’t do it. So we focus as an organization on the opportunities. And you try to figure out each culture where the opportunities are and how you can address that.
I’ll give you an example, and I forget where it was in Africa, but they have a program where one of the ways to encourage girls to go to school is if a young girl goes to school and she has perfect attendance all week, she takes a market basket of food home instead of a little gold star. She comes from a place where people have very little food. All of a sudden, her father is saying, “You get out of bed. You get to school on time. That’s your job. You’re expected to do that.”
In an ideal world, he would value his daughter for intrinsic reasons but you know, you work with what you’ve got. And this is a way to use something to get where you want to go. You don’t want to be an absolutist or a purist about these things. You want to be an opportunist. I think opportunism has gotten a bad name. Try to look for places where people are willing to have a conversation. And look for where the doors are open and go through and see what happens. And once in a while it’s not going to be a happy moment. But you just shrug it off and keep going.
Anderson: Are you an optimist, or—
Seager: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m a total optimist. I didn’t start out as one, I just ended up there because all the other options seem unrewarding. You know, they’ve done research on luck. And they’ve done experiments, for example, I’ll give you an example of one. They take two people with similar life experiences, but one happens to think she’s very lucky and the other one thinks she isn’t. But they both had their ups and downs in life. And they would give them those little metal thingamajigs, the puzzles that you try to untangle. And say, “See how long it takes you to untangle it,” except you can’t. They give you one that literally won’t come apart.
The unlucky one gives up after about thirty seconds. The lucky one just keeps trying. Because the lucky one just figures, “I know I can do this.” And so, having an optimistic cast of mind and thinking that way opens up doors that the other way doesn’t. And you know, if I’m wrong I’m wrong. So what?
Anderson: Right. Then you just keep playing with the puzzle.
Seager: I learned a long time ago that nobody else seems to really care all that much what I think. So I might as well think what gets me going in the morning, and that’s optimism.
Aengus Anderson: Well, we’ve talked about optimism and pessimism a lot. I don’t think anyone’s quite stated such an eloquent reason for being an optimist. It’s just sort of what you’re left with.
Micah Saul: Yeah. I love just the idea of, you know I didn’t go into it as an optimist but I just kind of ended up having to be an optimist because everything else was worse.
Anderson: I mean just thinking about how much I like that line really gets to something that I wanted to kind of start us out with. But like, John is a really good speaker.
Saul: He really is.
Neil Prendergast: He’s obviously been thinking about this stuff for very long time, so that I’m sure helps.
Anderson: And he knows how to turn a phrase, you know. He speaks to tons and tons of college students. Lots of different organizations. And he has an example for every occasion and some sort of good memorable anecdote. When I was talking to him I had this feeling I won’t even know where these anecdotes will be coming from, but I will be dropping John references in later conversations when I say, “Boy, Zach Taylor’s grandson is still alive!”
Anderson: Which I looked up this afternoon, and it’s…you’ve got to read the article.
Saul: That was kind of amazing, actually.
Anderson: Yeah, and I mean we’ll set aside the fact that Zach Taylor had kids at sixty-five, and his son had kids at seventy-five.
Prendergast: Yeah, I thought it had to have been something like that rather than his grandson being 150.
Anderson: This was like a virile line of Presidential stock. With that let’s talk about population.
Saul: Yeah. So one thing that really struck me is population control as an idea has sort of really gotten a bad rap over the years. You know, it’s been framed as being potentially anti-freedom. You know, you look at some of the largest population control programs out there and you’ve got things like totalitarian control in China. And I think that sort of carries over to most discourse about it among the general public. And so it was really cool to have John come in and be not remotely interested in limiting freedoms. And in fact he frames this as a rights battle, as a women’s rights battle specifically. And that was really really cool.
Prendergast: I particularly thought that was interesting because my understanding of population questions have always been framed as environmental questions. And when environmentalists start talking about individual rights, you know the conversation has changed in some way because typically people don’t think of environmentalists as sort of protecting rights. They very often see environmentalists as you know, regulating or limiting. But somehow he’s gone from environmentalism to individual rights, and I think that’s really fascinating.
Anderson: Do you think that’s compatible? There’s an assumption in there that whether or not people are educated, as long as women are free and have access to contraception they will ultimately make the choice for smaller families and later families. I mean, it seems to be statistically borne out. But is it true, and is it always true?
Prendergast: Yeah, I thought that was interesting too, because you know, if you’re concerned about population as he is, I don’t think you have to really care if it’s true in every case. You just have to be concerned that it’s mostly true.
Prendergast: Or true often.
Anderson: It’s just really interesting to be thinking well, he talks about connecting the local with the global at the beginning, and thinking about we are counting on all these local choices for a massive global change. And they’re choices that we’re hoping people will just make without any sort of centralized direction. I’m always interested, though, in anyone who’s banking on choice being sort of a fixed thing.
Saul: Right. Have you heard the phrase “three is the new two?”
Anderson: I have heard that, yeah.
Saul: I don’t know that it’s necessarily widespread, but that idea is back. So I don’t know how far-fetched it is to say that maybe there’s a pendulum that swings one way toward smaller families and then swings back the other way once you reach a certain level of affluence.
Anderson: And we’ve talked about things that are sort of cyclical before. You know, when I think about cyclical change I think of Joseph Tainter’s conversation, the sort of ebb and flow of civilization. But this is another way to think of that, which maybe should be a parameter that we use to analyze issues more often.
Prendergast: One thing that I kind of want to get back to that you just brought up a moment ago, Aengus, was that the way he framed these changes as the sum of a lot of individual choices. Certainly all these individuals are making those choices, but obviously there’s a lot of policy involved as well, and he knows that because that’s what he’s involved with, right, is policy. And that he seemed like he in that statement wanted to say, “No, it’s about choice.” And I think that was a really politically savvy thing for him to.
Anderson: You mentioned savvy, and that’s exactly the word I really think of with this conversation, because he seems to know the political lay of the land really well. He talks a lot about moments of opportunity. And for him, he works a lot with kids. Young kids, college kids. And that’s where the opportunity is. And I think for us as we were considering bringing a population speaker into the project, the big question was “Where the hell has the population discussion gone? It’s invisible.” And yet here’s John. He’s working with all these people and we don’t even see the conversations he’s having, because he’s chosen a different target audience. He’s savvy.
Prendergast: Population questions, I don’t really see them everyday. The only time it’s come up recently for me is in Johnson Franzen’s novel Freedom. One of the characters, Walter, is an enthusiastic supporter of Zero Population Ggrowth in the 1970s but then moves beyond that issue as he gets older. So there’s a way which it seems like it’s sort of gone, but clearly it’s very much going on still.
Saul: And if anything it’s even more pressing now than it was in the 70s. We’ve now had forty years since then to see that growth rate predicted back then play out.
Anderson: Right. And so when we talk about John being savvy and sort of pursuing this with certain groups but it not being in the big public conversation as much, I think there’s a really interesting connection here to Francione and the conversation we were having about the purity and pragmatism thing. And this is something that stirred up a lot of discussion. I think it’s a fascinating… I don’t even know if it’s a contrast, but maybe I shouldn’t set up as a binary, but it seems to be a binary to me. To what extent are you willing to sort of compromise on your beliefs to make them more widespread? Or do you need to adhere to them very strictly and assume that in doing that maybe you set an example and keep them intact? And I think you can apply that to veganism, and I think you can apply that to this population conversation, too.
Saul: And I think going back we can look at John Zerzan as well. So, I wasn’t involved in your conversation, the two of you after Francione, but I’ve listened to the episode and I’ve paid attention to the stuff going on Francione’s Facebook page, and obviously on our site. And so I wanted to throw my cards into this whole purity versus pragmatism conversation. And I think this is a perfect opportunity to do it. Because in many ways you can see Seager and Francione as approaching things very differently. Seager focusing more on the iterative, change where Francione wants the big changes and is calling for the big change.
But I think the purity of ideals that we see in what Francione says doesn’t preclude acceptance of iterative change. Just as what we see as the pragmatism of Seager doesn’t preclude the idea that inside he is absolutely holding to the purity of his ideals.
Anderson: Right. And I think you see that when Seager says that there are certain issues on which he’s not a moral relativist. I think if you talk to him about equality, he’d say he’s a moral realist. That equality has a truth value. And yet at the same time he knows that you’re not going to… When you’re talking to the guy with the Kalashnikov, you don’t say that to his face.
Anderson: But, and here’s what I want to ask because this is something that I think all of us have probably been wondering about as we think about these ideas— If you start trying to work with the guy with a Kalashnikov and you say, “Okay well, here are these other ways that we’re going to encourage women’s rights within the framework of your culture,” are you tacitly condoning his practices?
Prendergast: Well, I think that could be condoning. But of course there’s also the question of when do you address each problem? Not every problem in the world can be addressed all at once. And I think that that’s what’s going on there, right, is just addressing things in some type of order, perhaps?
Anderson: And I guess I’m just wondering if you move in that way, do you guarantee that you’ll kind of never reach your goal?
Prendergast: Yeah, that’s really interesting.
Anderson: And if I was going to toss out something else about that that just came to mind, I think it would be, how severe is the crisis? What is the point at which moving iteratively is not enough because the stakes are really high?
Prendergast: Yeah, and Seager does frame it as a sort of very long-term problem to solve, much in the same way that—and he actually I think mentioned that climate change is sort of a long-term problem to solve.
Saul: Jumping off from that climate change example, we have other people in the project who say, “What are you talking about? Climate change is not a long term problem to solve. Climate change is something that we need to fix right now.”
Anderson: Or because we were too busy dithering and compromising, we’ve already missed the chance to fix it.
Prendergast: Yeah. It kinda seems to me as if what Seager is saying about kind of meeting people where he can and making progress there makes sense because the problem that he’s working on seems to be making some pretty good gains, at least according to the way he framed it. It’s easy then to say, “Oh well, that approach is a great approach,” but maybe it doesn’t apply to problems that aren’t having great gains made upon them. And I think a lot of people would argue that climate change is one of those problems that does not have a lot of great gains happening right now.
Anderson: And you know, as we talk about gains and pragmatism and all of these things, we’ve talked to a lot of people in this project who talk about dire futures and talk about we really need to sacrifice to get to them. I mean, there’ve been on a lot of people who have mentioned that. We start with John Fife saying like, the catalyst will be the environment and you are going into hard times. Just recently with Fullerton we get that theme coming back again like, all of these things involve sacrifice.
John doesn’t ask us to sacrifice, does he?
Prendergast: No, he tells us to go to Disneyland.
Saul: Yeah, that was something that absolutely jumped out at me. You brought up Alexander Rose’s concerns from way back towards the beginning of the project. And I think Alexander was the first one to bring up population in the project. But he was not concerned about growth. He was concerned about constriction and what that does to the economy. It seemed like John Seager wasn’t really interested in even addressing that.
Anderson: Which is interesting given that John Fullerton’s entire conversation was about how tricky constriction is and how there’s no clear way to decelerate a growth-based economic system without a collapse. I was surprised that John didn’t get into that a little more.
Again, maybe it maybe it’s getting back to the savvy, you know. Maybe John is working towards his goals with reducing population and you can’t get an audience, perhaps, if you tell people that there’s a lot of stuff that they’re going to have to deal with if they do reduce it?
Saul: Right. I mean, Fullerton’s fork in the road is a really bitter pill to swallow. You know, it’s really hard, especially if you’re trying to get a broad group of people— I mean, we’re talking global here. If you’re trying to get them on the same page with something, it’s really hard to say, “You have to do this and also it’s still going to suck if you do this.”
Anderson: And do it voluntarily.
Anderson: Which is such an integral part of what John is pushing for.
Saul: I think it’s that savviness. I think it’s him seeing the opportunities and taking them where he can. It’s being political.
Anderson: And wouldn’t you love to know what he really thinks about that one?
Prendergast: Well, with that should we just move into the next episode, then?
Saul: Next up is James Bamford, who’s an author, journalist. We found him because of an amazing article he wrote for Wired magazine about the massive data center that the NSA has built to spy on all of us.
Anderson: And when we read about that, not only did we get very concerned, not only did we send his article to everybody we knew because it’s amazing. But we also started reading about him and we began thinking it’s time to talk about privacy, surveillance, technology, big government. And James is a good guy to talk about these things. He’s written three books, two of which have been New York Times bestsellers. And he’s going to take us into the world of the NSA.
That was John Seager recorded in Washington, D.C. on November 20th, 2012.
Saul: And you are of course listening to The Conversation. Find us on the web at findtheconversation.com.
Prendergast: You can follow us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.
Saul: I’m Micah Saul.
Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.
Anderson: And I’m Aengus Anderson. Thanks for listening.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.