More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want

by Robert Engelman
303 pages, Island Press, 2008

In Review

book cover thumbnail, word: More, depiction of a small pillMany people associate the advent of birth control with the introduction of the Pill. Since it was approved for use in 1960, the Pill has caught on quickly – 100 million women worldwide use this form of contraception. Many more than that, however, are sexually active, don’t want to become pregnant, but are not using any form of contraception.

Finding ways to regulate fertility has been on women’s minds long before the introduction of the Pill. Some have used the wildflower Queen Anne’s lace, common milkweed, or even mistletoe, a plant that can ensure that all the kissing it inspires doesn’t result in an unwanted pregnancy. Of course, these traditional forms of contraception aren’t as effective as the Pill, and, as author Robert Engelman points out in More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, they aren’t always as safe, either. Engelman cautions that “[t]wo women died in the United States in recent decades after taking large amounts of pennyroyal oil in efforts to self-induce abortion.”

More gives us a well-researched overview of fertility and women’s desire to control it, delivering an entertaining array of theories and scientific findings from historical, sociological, anthropological, and cultural perspectives. As Engelman notes, “the population growth that accompanies most successful cultures eventually undermines the environmental base on which such a culture thrives. Through environmental degradation and the multiplication of arguments and conflicts, population growth beyond certain points also complicates and stresses governance and the other social bonds by which cultures function.” In other words, only so many clowns can fit into a Volkswagen before it stops being funny.

Engelman demonstrates that there has long been a pattern of population growth leading to scarcity, which prompts innovation that ultimately leads to still more growth. He strikes a great balance of academia, wit, and humor as he takes us back through time from our early origins to modern day. Engelman proposes various theories, all reasonable and feasible, that examine how we evolved from a species that shared the planet with other species of equal populations to one that has not only driven many of our planetary roommates to extinction, but now also threatens to render the same fate to ourselves.

More than just report on what we already know – that the massive and continuously growing number of humans is capable of excessive harm to the environment – Engelman provides his own prescription to prevent future harm. “[F]or the sake of women and their families, and with one eye toward humanity’s survival on a finite planet, societies should work to make unintended pregnancy as rare as possible. Contraception doesn’t need the ‘help’ of coercion or incentives or propaganda. It just needs to be well advertised, inexpensive, safe, and there. That and the real recognition of women’s equality are all we need to put human population on a sustainable path.”

In writing his book, Engelman may have unwittingly provided a low-cost and safe method to help us limit our population growth. More is so fascinating and engrossing that it could be the most effective birth control method yet. “Not tonight, honey. I’m reading this really good book!”

—Audrey Webb

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