Enough with the freakin’ bathroom metaphor already!

February 16, 2007

About 1 time per week, someone sends me Albert Bartlett’s lectures on population and exponential growth. If you haven’t seen or heard them, you can do it [at Global Public Media], or read it at various sites online (if you really can’t find it I’ll forward you one of my many copies).

They are very smart, and, of course, sending them off is intended as a pointed jab at overpopulators like me. And while I could argue with some of Bartlett’s contentions, for the most part I don’t want to, because I agree with much of what he says. But let us stop at “much.” Because the one thing that most drives me up the wall about this lecture is that it uses the famous bathroom metaphor. Bartlett attributes it to Ivan Kasanov, but I’ve seen it attributed to Isaac Asimov as well. Regardless of who said it, I think it is one of the stupider quotes of all time.

Here’s the quote as it is offered up by Dr. Bartlett:

I’d like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and they had 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 the 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 the freedom of the bathroom, there is 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.

Kasanov concluded with one of the most profound observations I’ve seen in years, he says, in the same way, “…democracy can not survive overpopulation. Human dignity can not survive over population. Convenience and decency cannot survive over population. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only decline it disappears. It doesn’t matter if some one 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 crisis”.

One of the reasons I hate this quote, is that I’ve actually pretty much lived in the circumstances above. That is, I’ve lived in houses with regular membership of ten or just below it, sharing a single bathroom. And despite the claim that doing so is inevitably destructive – it isn’t.

My memories of those households are very fond, and the bathroom simply wasn’t that big a deal. I grew up in a house that, with foster children, regularly had 9 claimants for the single bathroom. I lived in a house in college that averaged 7 or 8 such claimants, and in graduate school, there were six of us crammed into a tiny apartment with a single bathroom – plus periodic guests bringing our numbers up higher. And all of the people in those houses were able to comfortably accomodate one another with little or no difficulty. It did require that we acknowledge and respond to one another, that we place less priority on our own modesty or recognize that the 1/2 hour shower was not just, but it did none of us any harm. And billions of people in the world know how to share – not just me.

Now it is true that eventually, the bathroom will get awfully crowded. Two bathrooms for 20 is one thing, two bathrooms for 1000 is another. I am not arguing that population is irrelevant here. What troubles me about this, however, is something more subtle – because I don’t think its an accident that the comparison created is between “I can always use the bathroom as much as I want” and “I would be slightly inconvenienced by having to share the bathroom.” I think embedded in this argument is “dignity is equivalent to my not having to share.” And I think not only can human dignity survive sharing your bathroom with a lot more people than us Western folk are accustomed to, but I actually believe the contrary – that real dignity begins at the point that we recognize that other people have rights to the bathroom too, and find a means of accomodating them.

What the bathroom metaphor actually does is equate “freedom” with “no limits” – it says that freedom and dignity are constructs of privilege and lack of constraint. That is, you have the perfect freedom of the bathroom when you never have to wait, or accomodate anyone else, adapt to or respect anyone else’s needs. But that is *not* what freedom is – and I think this is an important point, because our consumer culture tells us over and over again that freedom is the ability to have whatever you want, whenever you want it. Freedom is “freedom of choice” and that is the equivalent of 63 choices of soda on the grocery store aisle, rather than the freedom from want, or freedom from repression – freedoms that only work when other people are aware of and attentive to others. Freedom, according to Dick Cheney, is the American way of life being “non-negotiable” rather than an egalitarian, shared and just life that extends beyond the borders of America. The bathroom example perpetuates the “freedom is choice” notion – that being free means never having to say, “excuse me.”

I think that’s truly and deeply wrong, and if we think this way about the population issue, we are perpetuating our most foolish habits of thought. Freedom is the right to assert your wants and needs in a world where others exist, and the right to have them respected, but it is not the right to never have to accomodate anyone else or share, and I think that’s a really important point.

If we believe that freedom is the right to always have what you want, when you want it, we will persist in equating freedom with wealth and privilege. And some versions of the overpopulation argument seem to basically go like this “there are too many people – they are impinging on my right to have the stuff I want – if there were less of them, I’d have to make fewer accomodations to other people, and that would be better.” That’s not freedom, but greed. We all have it, we’re all greedy folk, but we need not give our our own selfishness and greed a pretty cloak to wear and call it science.

Again, I am not defending having four kids, or advocating no limits on population. I know my heinie is about to get fried by every person outraged that I have children and thus would dare point out that this is a weak argument. I am not saying population is not an issue. But if population is an issue, it deserves to be discussed in useful and productive terms, not false ones. And this one is false.

Jim Merkel, author of Radical Simplicity uses the ecological footprint to analyse what kind of population the world can support. He argues

When people would say, ‘Population is the problem, there are just too many of us,’ it raised my hackles. I’d respond, ‘Yes, but if we became as skilled at extracting life quality from less land as the people of Kerala, 60 percent of the global bioproductivity could be left wild (and still maintain the present population). Then population wouldn’t be such a big deal. The high income countries need to consume less.’
(Merkel, 183)

Merkel goes on to say that we need to do both – reduce population and consumption, and I agree entirely with him. But Merkel’s point is important – we are not yet in the position of having to share our bathroom with so many people that it is impossible to accomodate one another – it is merely challenging to learn to do so. We can be (with careful and wise management) at the 20 person for two bathroom stage that Bartlett quotes. And that is not a tragedy or a serious constriction of human freedom, dignity and access to justice – it is merely a situation where we have to share.

Moreover, using biology and silly metaphors to imply that accomodation is impossible naturalizes our resistance to giving up our own privileges – it makes our unwillingness to reallocate some of our wealth to others seem natural, because, after all, we are unfree and burdened, unable to provide others with dignity because of the tragic experience of overpopulation. But that’s garbage. Human beings can choose the society they want to live in. We have the capacity to alter our way of being, and extend our hands and open our bathroom doors to others. There is nothing inevitable or biological about our refusal to share, nor anything tragic about our having to shit *and* get off the pot so someone else can use it.

We need to recognize that our own assumptions about population sometimes contain some not-very-productive underlying thoughts. And one of them is the notion that human dignity is not a product of never having to give way to another, never having to do and use less – in fact, I would argue that human dignity begins at the very moment that you recognize that other people are fully real in the philosophical sense, and you begin taking your identity and sense of freedom not from the time you get in the bathroom, but the society that you create. And the culture of that society is created by how you use limited resources like bathrooms.

Culture is cool – a thousand societies can come up with a thousand different rules. Maybe everyone has some time per day, plus license for emergencies. Maybe we give up our sense of physical modesty and pee while someone is in the shower. Maybe we get accustomed to shorter baths, or regular habits. There are any number of ways that people can accomodate one another – and those accomodations are the basis of human culture.

It turns out that many people like and value their cultures, even the parts of their culture that represent limitations. We like the rules on our sports that say that you can’t kick the basketball, we derive comfort for the repetition of funeral and wedding and birth rites that say, “we do this when we come together, but not this,” we create manners to limit the way we behave “no one over the age of 8 months gets to take fistfuls of mashed potatoes.” And we derive pleasure from living within our ways of accomodating one another.

What does impinge upon human dignity is the scale of management – global structures are less humane and wise than local structures. While population has a relationship to what is available and the degree of accomodation required by individuals, the relation is not the one that Asimov/Kasanov makes and Bartlett so strongly approves of – that every single body on the earth makes us less able to live with dignity. What it does is demand more of us in terms of accomodation and respect for one another. It demands stronger cultures and more local management, rather than destructive homogenization and global authority. It demands that we think of ourselves differently than rich, western people have been accustomed to. We must derive our sense of pleasure not from what we are able to do without constraint, but from creating beautiful accomodations and social structures for one another.

Again, I do not disagree wholly with Bartlett’s arguments, but I think the “Tragedy of the Bathroom” both fails to enhance his case and reveals a false and ugly streak at the root of our thinking about population.

Sharon Astyk

Sharon Astyk is a Science Writer, Farmer, Parent of Many, writing about our weird life right now. She is the author of four books: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, which explores the impact that energy depletion, climate change and our financial instability are likely to have on our future, and what we can do about it. Depletion and Abundance won a Bronze Medal at the Independent Publishers Awards. A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil co-authored with Aaron Newton, which considers what will be necessary for viable food system on a national and world scale in the coming decades, and argues that at its root, any such system needs a greater degree of participation from all of us; Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage which makes the case for food storage and preservation as integral parts of an ethical, local, healthy food system and tells readers how to begin putting food by, and the newly published Making Home: Adapting our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, which "shows readers how to turn the challenge of living with less into settling for more".

Tags: Consumption & Demand, Overshoot