Robert Engelman

 

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

Cover Interview of March 27, 2009

A close-up

I like a book that tells you what it’s about on the very first page.  Mine does—in fact on a page numbered with a roman numeral.  Open it up to the first page of the preface, ix, and if that interests you, turn the page.  What these two pages express is that, despite my own lack of direct insight, my interest in women’s reproductive intentions—“what women want”—was launched by meeting two women, one American, the other Zambian.  The American proposed that population problems would fade away if all women could decide for themselves whether and when to become pregnant and give birth.  The Zambian offered the luminous thought that “the environment begins in the womb of a woman and ripples out all over the world.”  These two ideas formed a guiding vision for my subsequent work on population, the environment and women’s lives, which ultimately led to the writing of More.  If those thoughts intrigue a reader—particularly if the reader enjoys stories of real people and educated speculations on why prehistory and history unfolded as they did—I think I can promise a satisfying read.  If not, there are lots of other books in the store.

More uses stories and wide-ranging research to move briskly from the origins of humanity to speculation about the human future.  Readers short on time or less interested in the past may want to focus on the introduction, the first chapter and the last two.  For scholars and researchers, the book contains 23 pages of notes and a 29-page bibliography of written sources.  For a random couple of pages in the middle of the book, open on page 176.  There I tell the story of Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneering feminist who died after giving birth to Mary Shelley.  (Shelley went on to author Frankenstein.)  Wollstonecraft understood, much more than did her better-known contemporary Thomas Robert Malthus, how to successfully slow the unsustainable growth of population.  The secret: something women must have whispered among themselves for tens of thousands of years but which Wollstonecraft was among the very first to write down.