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Take, for example, Social Security. If we lower the birth rate significantly \(McKibben recommends a lowering from just under 2 prospect of a smaller population of workers paying taxes to fund the retirement of a huge population of retirees. McKibben “solves” this potential problem by suggesting raising the retirement age, increasing the savings habits of Americans, and implementing a “means test” so that only those retirees who need Social Security benefits receive them. Each of these ideas may have its own merits \(and McKibben has a statistic to demonstrate the wisdom they do not comprise a pragmatic solution to the problem of maintaining Social Security given slowed population growth. There are matters of health, history, ideology and politics to contend with: for instance, it’s difficult to imagine Congress approving a means test. Only One proceeds this way from issue to issue. McKibben’s very brief discussion of immigration at least recognizes the many complicating factors surrounding policy decisions, yet his conclusion \(cut immigration levels into the U.S. to 400,000 annually just dodges those complications. After mentioning the complications of immigration policy, McKibben justifies his solution historically: 400,000 is slightly less than the annual flow into the U.S. from 1880-1924, the number recommended by Nelson Rockefeller’s 1972 commission on immigration, and a number corresponding to a indicated Americans felt immigration levels were high enough. McKibben also reminds the reader that Emma Lazarus’ words on the base of the Statue of Liberty were placed there after the statue’s dedication, that they are not part of the statue, that they are neither “a motto, nor a guarantee.” But then McKibben backs off, aware of his arbitrary judgment from a place of privilege within the U.S.: “I make no claim that it’s fair immigrant 400,001 will be just as desperate, just as deserving, as immigrant 399,999. In fact, it’s unforgivably harsh. In a world where 2.9 billion people have no toilet, who are any of us to say ‘go away’ simply because we had the luck to be born in an easy place?” Ultimately, though, McKibben sways back to the arbitrary: “This is a moral question, but it’s also a math problem.” Faced with a profoundly complex and unpleasant issue, McKibben opts out with a soundbite salvo. The repetition of such situations makes Only One read less like a coherent discussion, or even a call for the beginning of a discussion, and more like a college bull session. All topics are fair game, but once a truly difficult question comes up, the best way to deal with it is to skip to another topic. McKibben writes fluidly enough that he can almost pull it off, but the book is just too awkwardly framed. The narrative legerdemain of The Age of Missing Information which begins with the preposterous premise that one can qualitatively compare a day spent alone in nature with each of one hundred and seven days worth of cable TV programming, and then actually develops into an entertaining and rewarding book is absent in Only One. Disappointingly, McKibben has not replaced it with any stronger reasoning. Instead, he has forced research done for another reason into a book format with mercilessly recycled material from his ear lier books, making Only One a dry read with a recurrent tinge of deja vu for those who have read McKibben’s earlier work. In population, McKibben has found yet another topic through which to promote his idea of the exceptionalism of the present, and he has found a popular subject \(popular enough for a cover story in The Atlantic and a feature in The New York Times MagSomehow, though, McKibben has written an entire book on population without a single mention of economic class, perhaps the largest determining factor in family size. And when he does address religion, McKibben, a Methodist Sunday School teacher, considers only Judeo-Christian belief: he reflects on what the Bible commands us to do \(something he was apparently mulling over while awaiting bling defense of the Pope. Only One is a muddle. In his introduction, McKibben frames his book not in terms of what he set out to do \(that gets only a brief paragraph’ at the close of the secnot trying to do. The laundry list of qualifiers, of statements intended to ensure that McKibben does not offend or insult, ultimately renders the book moot. McKibben’s admitted fear of his topic paralyzes his writing. Only One is neither a personal nor an environmental case for single-child families. It is merely a defense of parents of only children, with a whole bunch of other stuff thrown in. Austin writer Jeff Mandell has written for the Observer on the Edison Project, the state history museum, and other subjects. IN ti , ON 1 la Labor Intensive Radio Radio of the union, by the union and for the union. \(News tips: call Paul Sherr at Tuesdays 6:30-7:00 p.m. KO.OP 91.7 FM 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 31, 1998