Robert Engelman


On his book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want

Cover Interview of March 26, 2009

The wide angle

People have wrestled with population and the control of reproduction for thousands of years.  Yet both of these topics are always sensitive and hence mostly marginalized in literature and public discourse.  The reasons are many.  Sex is at the root of both.  And despite the ubiquity of sex to sell products in modern societies, very few people are really comfortable with sexuality.  The word “population” also brings to mind race, ethnicity, immigration, abortion, even the question of whether humanity is a positive or negative force on the earth.  Then, of course, there’s religion.

Despite, or perhaps perversely because of their taboo nature, I have been drawn to both the subjects of population and reproduction since launching a career in journalism in the late 1970s.  During those years I traveled widely in Latin America, reporting on environmental devastation, poverty, gender discrimination, and civil conflict.  For a time in the late 1980s, I reported out of Washington, D.C. on health, science and the environment for a chain of U.S. newspapers, deepening my interest in demography and gender issues.  Early in the 1990s I left reporting altogether to study population’s influence on the environment for a non-profit organization that advocated improved access to family planning services worldwide. It was the 15 years I spent with this organization, Population Action International, that introduced me to women striving to manage their own pregnancies and childbearing on every continent.  The stories they told me, along with those of many men, provide the “human face” for a book that ranges over large swaths of human history and geography.

Working in this field I had long felt frustrated both by the public reticence about population and reproduction and by the related misconception that there’s nothing anyone can do about population growth.  “You can’t stop people from having children,” I kept hearing—as though stopping birth was the only way to end population growth.  My research and my conversations with women convinced me that if humanity could achieve the famous Planned Parenthood goal of “every child a wanted child,” population growth would soon end—with a wide diversity of chosen family sizes that would average, in most societies, two or fewer children per woman.

Given the frightening environmental realities we face in the early twenty-first century, and the huge environmental benefits that would accrue from an early end to population growth, the prospect that such an end could occur through women’s intentions and choices seemed a hypothesis worth exploring—not only in the context of the present, but through its roots in the distant past.