Freedom's Flaw

By Mike Dorf

Today is the first Monday in October, and thus the start of a new Supreme Court Term.  I'd blog about one of the cases scheduled for oral argument today but frankly, I have nothing especially valuable to say about how to calculate projected disposable income for bankruptcy purposes or sentencing under 18 U.S.S. sec. 924(c)--the issues on tap. No doubt I'll opine about protests at or near funerals in connection with Wednesday's oral argument in Snyder v. Phelps.  But now for something completely different.  Having just read Jonathan Franzen's latest book, Freedom, I thought I'd record a thought on an issue the book raises: population growth.

First, however, I'll add my voice to the chorus of those who have praised Freedom as a spectacular novel.  Like The Corrections, Freedom accomplishes something that, in my view, is unsurpassed in the fiction of anyone writing in the last thirty years--excepting only Tom Wolfe: Franzen catches the spirit of the age that he writes about.  Freedom is in this sense deeper than The Corrections, for while The Corrections was a dead-on portrayal of the 90s, Freedom spans just about all of the last thirty years.  Franzen isn't quite as funny as Wolfe, but his characters are generally more real, and thus so are his books.  That is not to say the books are perfect.  In Freedom, for example, the behavior of three of the young female characters seems unmotivated, and one suspects that the critics who have complained that Franzen earns acclaim where women writers have been overlooked have a point, at least on this score.  Granting the validity of the criticism, the book is nonetheless a major achievement.

Now onto my substantive point.  [I'll discuss some plot elements but nothing here is a spoiler.]  One of the main characters--Walter Berglund--is an environmentalist whose pet causes are songbird habitat and (human) population growth.  Some reviewers seem to think that Franzen is speaking through Walter, but that's not at all clear to me.  Given various plot developments, Franzen could as easily be poking fun at Walter and other earnest do-gooders.  Still, given the words Franzen puts in the mouth of Walter and his fellow travelers, it's easy to see how one could think that Franzen or any other right-thinking person could sympathize with Walter.

Walter's core concern is this: The only way to slow, much less reverse, the ecological devastation wrought by our species is to slow and then ultimately reverse human population growth; with effort, we can reduce the environmental footprint of each human, but: a) we aren't really doing much of that; and b) even if the effort succeeds, it will be overwhelmed by all those additional human feet making footprints.

I think that phrased as Walter phrases the concern, it ignores the long-term demographic trends.  The world population growth rate peaked in the 1960s, and not surprisingly, the zero-population-growth (zpg) movement came about shortly thereafter. What we have seen in recent years are below-replacement birth rates in most of the industrialized world (the U.S. is just about replacement but has net population growth because of immigration) coupled with very high population growth rates in much of the Arab world (especially in countries dependent on oil exports) and some of the poorest countries in Africa.  If the problem is population growth, then telling Westerners not to reproduce--as Walter's organization attempts to do--makes little sense.

In the long run, the problem of human population growth should be self-correcting.  With industrialization and modernization, birth rates fall and populations stabilize or even decline.  But each person in the developed world has a large footprint, and so by the time all of this happens, it's too late: the Earth's resources will have been exhausted and our descendants condemned to a Mad Max lifestyle.  Seen in this perspective, the conventional approach of trying to get people in the developed world each to consume less, and trying to get people in the developing world to develop using cleaner technologies, make a lot more sense than trying to persuade American twenty-somethings not to reproduce.  In other words, the problem with the conventional approach is not that it's conventional; it's that there isn't sufficient political will behind it.  If we could devise a rational global strategy it would be one that aimed to buy our species and planet another fifty years or so, and thus to give demography a chance to work its magic.