A man walks out to the ocean early one morning after a huge storm has passed. He looks out
over the beach, and for as far as he can see, the beach is littered with thousands, perhaps
millions of starfish washed up by the high tide and recent storm surge. What a disaster he
thinks, as knows that the starfish can't move on the sand and will soon die if not returned to
About two hundred yards down the beach he spots a solitary woman reaching down, picking
up a starfish and throwing it back into the ocean. Curious, he approaches and says to her:
"This is futile, pointless. You can't possible make a difference throwing them back one at a
time. Look at all these starfish - there must be millions!"
She looks over at him, throws another into the ocean, and replies, "Really?" She looks out to
the splash, and then looks back to the man and smiles. "It's not pointless to that starfish now,
Those of us who are trying to raise awareness about the role that overpopulation plays in the
daunting (and growing) list of calamities mankind faces over the next few decades often claim that
the discussion of overpopulation is a "taboo" topic - ignored by the press, seldom even discussed.
And while to a large extent that is true, lately the conversation about overpopulation seems to be
getting some traction. Through the efforts of a few dedicated activists, articles are being written,
events are being staged.
Several population-specific NGO's (an NGO is a Non-Government Organization such as the Red
Cross or Sierra Club) are now operating effectively to both create awareness and create programs to
address the problem (William Ryerson of the Population Media Center, and Robert walker of the
Population Institute, foremost among them). Things are happening. Certainly there is a long way to
go yet, though it seems that now the topic is finally emerging from the shadows.
But unfortunately, there is still a very real taboo topic, even within the population activist community - a
topic that almost no one will raise. No articles are written about it, no strategy sessions will discuss
it, and there are absolutely no NGO's focused on it. The topic, of course, is the option of imposing
mandated one-child policies worldwide.
Draconian and abhorrent, you say? Of course it is. But if it's the only choice, then we must do it. I
assert that the question of it being the "only choice" comes down to what you personally believe is
the carrying capacity for humans on our planet. If you believe that that it is somewhere under 2
billion, as most who have studied this question do (see: This for a summary of those studies) then,
you tell me how else we can get there without a one-child policy? Sorry - but it can't be done.
I've asked that question to many thoughtful people (even those who are population activists) and I'm
repeatedly shocked by their answers. To a person they say, well if the carrying capacity is truly no
more than 2 billion, then the answer is simple - there will be a massive die-off.
My response is: "Well, since the carrying capacity is indeed 2 billion or less (I'm certain of that),
then your solution is to let billions die a horrible death in chaos and starvation?" They almost all
reply, "What choice do we have?" I'm always astonished by this answer.
Right now we have thousands of talented people spending millions, if not billions, of dollars trying to
cure cancer, or malaria, or whatever. If they can cure these diseases, then perhaps millions will be
saved. We exert maximum effort and maximum money to save these millions and yet we are not
willing to try to solve our sustainability crisis by even considering a one-child mandate? We are
willing to let 5 or 6 billion people die without even trying?
At this point, most of the population activist community would object. They would argue that they
are trying, and trying hard. And I agree with them, they are trying hard. This gets me back to the
starfish story above.
Like the woman throwing back the starfish one at a time, the population activist community is also
doing what they can. And like the lucky starfish that have been thrown back into the sea, there are
many, many people being helped by these efforts. What is being done by the NGO community is a
great thing - and good for them for trying so hard to help.
But also like the story above, where in fact, 99.999% of the starfish died, we seem willing to accept
the big die-off as the inevitable conclusion - all because we are afraid to promote a one-child policy.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Here is another story - a thought experiment:
Do this. By saying the magic word - "starfish" - you will now be transported to the year 2035 - but for
only 30 seconds. Say it now - "starfish".
Okay, good - now you're back. Here's what happened during your visit: you learned just one important thing in
your thirty seconds there. You learned that the world had indeed adopted mandatory worldwide one-child
policies five years earlier (in 2030), and that after continuous improvements and modifications, the
policies were working well. But that's it - that's all you know. You have no idea how this came about.
So…what do you do now, in the year 2010, with that one piece of knowledge? It just seems so
impossible, doesn't it? How did all those dots get connected? How did mankind get from A to Z in
just 20 years? Well…I don't know, and I'm sure you don't know either. But I think I know one thing: I
know how to at least get to step A - the first step.
If you think backward from 2030, you will come to a starting point and realize what has to come first:
the one-child conversation needs to start somewhere. But where? Current NGO's won't touch it at
all, as it will confuse and likely anger their supporters. The big voices, the Al Gore's and Lester
Brown's won't touch it - they will be attacked and fear they will lose their stature.
So here's what has to happen now - step A in this long process: someone must form a new NGO
specifically focused on one-child policies - call it "One Child Worldwide". It will be the focus for
creating articles, providing speakers, and formulating strategy to get from A to B to C and eventually
Right now we don't have a clue as to how to get to step Z, but I do know that we can't get there
without step A - a new NGO. No unorganized grassroots effort could ever succeed. There has to be
a focal point.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but by having a specific one-child focus only, I believe that finding
supporters and raising funds will not be difficult at all. I think that there are many people out there
who "get it" - people who know that this is perhaps the only solution that will avoid the die-off. They
just need a place to gather - a place where it is safe to express their belief, a place where they can
start to do something about it. So - I give you this:
The Starfish Challenge:
I issue this challenge - the starfish challenge (save them all, not just a few) - to all of you out
there reading this article. Someone needs to get this started - someone needs to start the "one
child worldwide" NGO. It has to happen. Begin it now.
As Goethe said - "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius,
power and magic in it."
And at this point, we could use a little magic.
The Starfish Challenge
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The Starfish Challenge