Population and the Bathroom Metaphor

You can’t hang around and listen to the arguments about world population for long without hearing the bathroom metaphor. As far as we know, it originated with Dr. Albert Bartlett. Here’s the way he describes it, as transcribed on Global Public Media:

I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then they both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want, stay as long as you want, for whatever you need. And everyone believes in freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the constitution. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, then no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there’s no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, ‘Aren’t you through yet?’ and so on.” And Asimov concluded with one of the most profound observations I’ve seen in years. He said, “In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation. Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one individual matters.”

And so, central to the things that we must do, is to recognize that population growth is the immediate cause of all our resource and environmental crises.

In one sense, the bathroom metaphor is clearly apt. It casts in simple and inescapable terms the logical result of our continued decision to overpopulate the world. So what’s the complaint about it? That it is hopelessly mired in American individualism. That by casting the choice as between “I can use the bathroom anytime I want” and “I am inconvenienced because there are other people I have to work around,” Bartlett is perhaps unconsciously equating dignity with not having to share.

This complaint would be fair if Bartlett had addressed the bathroom metaphor to people in Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, or Solomon Islands or Malawi, tied for the the poorest nation in the world. There the first response to his story might be “Cool – I get to use a bathroom instead of a hole in the ground!” He didn’t though. He has addressed the bathroom metaphor to audiences in the industrialized world in general and the U.S. in particular, where his listeners can identify easily with the loss of freedom that comes automatically with overcrowding.

So recognize its limits. The bathroom metaphor may not be the best way to teach the poorest humans about overpopulation. It’s pretty good for Yanks and other rich westerners, though.