An Open Letter to Samantha Power
The real behavioral obstacle to worldwide social justice is overpopulation.
Posted Sep 02, 2020
Over the last three days, I spent most of my waking hours obsessively listening to Samantha Power’s reading of her memoir The Education of an Idealist.
It’s a beautifully told story of her experiences as a little girl reading books in the back room of a Dublin pub while her charming, eloquent, and well-educated father held forth about politics to his drinking buddies up at the bar. With her mother and stepfather, she migrated to the United States, and there’s a lot of lamentation about whether her leaving was responsible for her Da’s descent into severe alcoholism and early death.
Samantha fit well into American society, probably unaware of just what a social advantage it is to speak with an Irish brogue. Indeed, she worked hard to fit in, purposefully replacing her brogue with the somewhat less lilting Pittsburgh dialect (where people say “y’uns gahn dahntahn?” instead of: “And might all of you good people be going downtown, then?” as my own Irish grandmother might have asked it). The young Samantha even learned to play baseball, before heading off to study at Yale, with the goal of becoming a sports journalist. After graduating, though, she made a radical and very risky change of plans, heading off to become a war correspondent in Bosnia. She was lucky, in both managing to publish her stories in major news outlets and in avoiding being killed (a fate that befell several friends she made). When she later returned to study law at Harvard, she wrote a paper on genocide, which led to a book on U.S. government involvement in, and more frequent avoidance of, becoming involved in places like Uganda. That book, A problem from Hell, won her a Pulitzer Prize – at age 33.
If you’ve read Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, you know that Barack Obama was an avid reader whose apartment was piled high with books when he met Michelle. Obama had read Power’s book when he was a freshman senator, and he invited her to meet and educate him about the problem of genocide. When he was elected President, Obama invited her to become a foreign policy advisor, in which role she frequently advocated for U.S. intervention to stop human rights violations and genocidal campaigns in places like Darfur. Although Obama didn’t always agree with her recommendations, he appears to have respected her opinions, and he later named her U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
As U.N. ambassador, Power made it her goal (sometimes Quixotic) to try to help people whose family members were being systematically tortured, raped, and murdered every day in places like Nigeria and Sudan. On December 13, 2016, after a long period of indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and schools in the Syrian city of Aleppo, Power let down the guard of polite diplomacy and bluntly asked the U.N. representatives of Syria, Russian, and Iran (the perpetrators): “Are you truly incapable of shame? … Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin...? Is there nothing you will not lie about, or justify?” (You can hear her speech here.)
For those interested in psychology, there were some pleasant surprises in the book. After hearing her description of several years not finding Mr. Right, I was shocked to learn that Samantha married Cass Sunstein, coauthor of the book Nudge with Nobel Prize-winner Richard Thaler. I had just finished Thaler’s later book, Misbehaving, in which he goes on about how brilliant his buddy Sunstein is. Sunstein and Thaler have been champions of importing insights from psychology into the fields of economics and law, and in both books, Thaler also heaps praise on my personal friend and coauthor Bob Cialdini. Power’s autobiography contains numerous references to psychological principles, such as confirmation bias (in which people with opposing opinions look at mixed evidence, and both sides come away more convinced they are right) and the spotlight effect (in which we overestimate the extent to which other people are paying attention to our personal blunders).
By the book’s end, I felt a bit hopeless about world affairs, but would nevertheless recommend it highly. In fact, I bought a hard copy when I finished the audio version. It is storytelling in the most hallowed Irish tradition, and it literally made me laugh out loud, as well as bringing tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. Power is impressive in her even-handedness in dealing with issues on which she clearly has strong opinions. Like the president she worked for, she is a deep thinker who considers all sides of an issue, and doesn’t delude herself into thinking she knows all the answers. She probably wouldn’t make it in New York real estate or on reality TV, but not everyone is perfect.
But I didn’t only come to praise Ambassador Power. I also came to argue that she and her influential friends shift focus to a different behavioral problem.
Dear Ambassador Power,
Given that you: a) seem to have gotten along with Joe Biden, who might call upon you for counsel if he is the next president, b) are still young and idealistic and will likely write another book or two in future, and c) are clearly concerned about the horrors of intertribal conflict, I’d implore you to spend more effort addressing the real root of, and the biggest obstacle to solving, the problems you have fought so valiantly to solve.
The root problem I am talking about is overpopulation.
In the early 1990s, political scientists Thomas Homer-Dixon, Jeffrey Boutwell, and George Rathjens brought together a team of 30 researchers to examine the evidence linking environmental destruction to civil and international strife. The team opens their 1993 Scientific American article by noting that increasing population, in combination with economic development, was leading to a depletion of natural resources (e.g., forests being cut down, fish populations decreasing, degradation of agricultural lands). These developments were already, three decades ago, leading to massive population migrations and violent conflict.
Back in 1993, the planet's human population was 5.5 billion. Homer-Dixon and his team predicted that, unless the world’s rich and poor nations joined together to restrain population growth and provide for sustainable development, we would see more conflicts, particularly in poor countries. The world population has grown to 7.8 billion in the time since their article.
In your book, you describe the horrible sequelae of continuing to ignore these root problems, including the mass exodus of populations with nowhere better to go. Your suggested solutions include opening the doors of the United States to more refugees, and (sometimes) increased military interventions to help the victims of these conflicts. But if we do not act to stem the tide of overpopulation — to address the root problem — the inter-tribal conflicts and homeless masses Homer-Dixon and colleagues predicted 30 years ago will only worsen, leading to more wars and more desperate and homeless refugees.
What we should be shipping to conflict-ridden countries is not more military aid, but free and abundant birth control devices. There are vested interests that will work against such interventions, but there are vested interests that work against human rights and international peace, and you demonstrated there are ways to surmount those obstacles. I’d argue that you and your powerful associates should begin working overtime with behavioral experts like Sunstein, Thaler, and Cialdini to develop the tools of psychology and behavioral economics to address broad-scale solutions to those obstacles. A few pennies for behavioral research might accomplish more than the millions we've invested in tribute to Third World military regimes. If we don't solve the overpopulation problem, we can at best continue to mop up after the inevitable horrifying consequences you so vividly depict.
Homer-Dixon, T. F., Boutwell, J. H., & Rathjens, G. W. (1993). Environmental change and violent conflict. Scientific American, 268(2), 38-45