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—

Saul: No.

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.

Saul: Right.

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 911. 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!” 

Prendergast: Right.

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.

Saul: Right.

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.

Saul: Right.

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.

Saul: Right.

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. 

Saul: True.

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.

Saul: Right.

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?

Saul: Yep.

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 20th2012.

Saul: And you are of course lis­ten­ing to The Conversation. Find us on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.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 for lis­ten­ing.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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