The Vasectarmy: Securing Our Future Against Marauding Sperm

[Note: at the bottom of the post I discuss objections to my argument, so check there before writing to list all the places I can shove it.]

In following health care trends (which is what I do to relax – I also eat corn husks for dessert), I’ve been tracking a phenomenon: as medicine grows more specialized, jobs once done only by MDs are going to non-physicians, like nurses and physicians assistants – folks with limited training which is enough for what they do.

It’s like the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, if you wanted a job as a car-builder you had to know how to build a car, which requires heavy education (like an MD). After the industrial revolution, you could get a job in the auto industry pounding rivets on an assembly line (more nurse-like).

I think there’s an opportunity for the environment in this trend. The idea:

Make vasectomies more attractive, available, and cheap by training specialists who do nothing but perform vasectomies.

Why Vasectomies?

At root, all our environmental problems are the result of this:

This is Earth’s human population through time. It’s exponential, which means sooner or later the curve will level off (and probably come down), and there are only two ways it can happen: either we do it voluntarily or nature does it for us.

Note that more than 90% of all species that have ever existed on Earth are extinct, including most of the “dominant” ones. We can argue that we’re special because we can build jets and catheters, and there’s a chance we’re right, but do we want to bet the human race on that hunch, in light of strong evidence for species fragility? Aren’t some precautions in order? Michael Jordan is an exceptional specimen but I bet he has health insurance.

Our global environment is now changing fast because we’re forcing it to, and we’re entering a period of instability the likes of which have killed countless species before us. The damage done will depend on how much more change we force, and that depends on what we do with our population before nature starts doing it for us. The more we reduce our numbers, the less dramatic the eventual culling is likely to be.

If your Implausibility Alarm is going off it’s because you’ve lived in an atypical time, like an investor whose investing philosophy was shaped inside a stock bubble. If you‘ve never seen things go kablooey you’ll doubt that they can. A look back on Earth’s history shows a lot of kablooeys. Our one hope is that we have the capacity to anticipate the next one and act preemptively. Or so I believe despite our present behavior, which shows all the foresight of a nematode.

Back to Vasectomies

We need birthrates to plummet. How? A full answer is best left to loftier minds, but one thing that will help is to create a group of professionals whose only job is to perform vasectomies. This would have two effects:

  1. Reduce the price. Vasectomy technicians would have less training and lower pay than physicians, and this would reduce the price. Vasectomies typically cost between $500 and $1000. I’d like to see them below $100. I know this alone would make at least some difference because I don’t have a vasectomy and if it cost $100 I’d be inclined to walk out the door and get one. In the meantime I could go on an impregnation-rampage at any moment.
  2. By creating professionals whose livelihoods depend on convincing us that vasectomies are worth considering, we’ll create a new cultural messaging force. The messages that dominate in our culture do so because someone has a vested interest in them. We drink Pepsi because Pepsi spends millions telling us to. Our Vasectarmy would be in the same position. It’ll learn how to market and to tell stories convincing us that vasectomies are good, which will help change how we think about the choice to have children.

Note that we wouldn’t have to train huge numbers of people. One person can perform a lot of vasectomies, because they’re fast outpatient procedures.

Some physicians will object, but they probably don’t merit much credence, what with their vested interest.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. (Upton Sinclair)

I believe strongly in this idea. If this were a career option, I’d do it, no hesitation. Scrotums are gross but I’d do it anyway. I want to see a vasectomy booth at Wal-Mart squeezed between the liquor store and the barber. I’ll man that sucker for the rest of my days.

Possible Objections

  1. Population growth is already slowing on its own. True, but we won’t peak till we reach 9 or 10 billion, and we may already be too high at 7 billion. Fertility rates may have to fall more quickly than they are to avert cataclysm. We don’t know for sure, but that’s no reason not to act. I don’t know for sure if Russian roulette will kill me (in fact there’s only a 17% chance that it will), but I’ll never play Russian roulette. We’re playing global Russian roulette by our inaction.
  2. The only people who will take advantage of the proposed service are those who wouldn’t have had kids anyway. This is wrong for two reasons: a) See the point about cultural messaging above; and more importantly, b) 40%-50% of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. We could fix that.
  3. Bigger populations create stronger economies. This was once true but it’s less so now, due to automation. In 1900, if you wanted to make 10,000 cars in a day, you’d need like 100,000 people to do it. How many would you need now? Orders of magnitude fewer, because our tireless robot friends do most of the work. It’s true that bigger populations create higher GDP, but that doesn’t matter. What matters for human security is GDP-per-person, and a larger population doesn’t ensure that. In fact, in times of resource scarcity, higher populations can mean reduced GDP-per-person. We’re entering such a time (see peak oil or peak phosphorus, for example).
  4. The real problem is the developing world, which is making all the babies. We can keep making them at about replacement rates. It’s true that developing nations are where all the excess baby-making is, but the objection overlooks something: Americans have mammoth carbon footprints. The carbon footprint of an average American is about 100 times bigger than that of a Bangladeshi for example. Ergo, $1 worth of American vasectomies buys as much environmental protection as $100 of Bangladeshi vasectomies. Similar math holds for a comparison between the U.S. and nearly all other developing nations. The best return on investment is in the U.S., by far. That won’t change until Americans start living much more frugally. Also there’s no reason that developing countries shouldn’t do the same thing, and in fact the cost reduction might have a bigger impact where people are poor.
  5. What if something goes wrong during the procedure? An M.D. will know what to do, but a vasectomy technician might not. True but easily fixable. Vasectomy technicians can work in or near hospitals, just like nurses and physician’s assistants and midwives. If something goes wrong, the big guns can come out.
  6. Vasectomies aren’t God’s will. No reply because faith makes discussion impossible. Agree to disagree. I’m looking at you, Quiverfull.

-From the Sea

Posted September 07, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | 14 Comments

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Post a Comment

  1. Ian W. says:

    Sweet post, Nick.

    Bear in mind I’m completely 100% on your side on all climate change related things. I think family planning and population control are the best solutions to what’s going on.

    I’m just curious to hear what you think about this cause I’m sort of stumped by it:

    If population control in the US and other resource-hungry nations is key to reducing environmental destruction, then what’s wrong with a member of said nations committing suicide?

    I’m not contemplating doing it myself at all, but just a thought experiment I think is interesting. What do you think?

  2. Robert says:

    When I had this procedure performed, it was under topical anesthetic, and I believe I could have done it myself..
    The tubes aren’t hard to find, the incision is short, the suture to tie the folded-back ends of the tubes is probably easily available…
    Sanitation is a concern; I had to prepare by shaving down there…
    Should be a do-it-yourself tutorial online somewhere…

  3. Nick Bentley says:

    Ian,

    My only reason for caring about climate change is a desire to secure life and happiness for people. So while I (mostly) support the right to commit suicide, as it relates to the environment, it’s a solution worse than the disease.

  4. Nick Bentley says:

    Robert,

    BOLD idea. The tutorial should maybe emphasize the value of practice on a squirrel or something first.

  5. Joe says:

    Didn’t some health apparatus of the federal government (for which I may be applying for a job so I hope they don’t google this and see how uninformed I am) just come up with a study that basically: Walking down the street and handing out birth control would be extremely cost-effective in reducing health care spending (do they make short-term sterility pills for men?)? I’m for it, and all the whacky Club of Rome stuff that Climate Pirate advocates for.

  6. Chris F says:

    I think objection number 2 is being understated here; if 40-50% of pregnancies are unintended – why? Failure of birth control? Or lack of birth control? In the latter case – if you’re not responsible enough to “suit up”, you’re not likely going to be responsible enough to get snipped. Per the cultural messaging – that’s not going to work well against religious orthodoxy.

    I think it WOULD work well against certain demographics if you can emphasize the “benefits” of keeping your family small. NY Times says that from 0 to 18, you’re going to spend close to $250k (http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/the-cost-of-raising-a-child/) .

    Since US seems to be all about the “things” – pretty easy to visualize $250k: nice car, new house, boats, RVs, jetsetting, etc.). Throw a couple ads like that and you might get some serious stiction on your message.

  7. Nick Bentley says:

    Chris,

    Yes, this is a point I should have spent more time on. You may be right that the objection is understated, but I’m not sure. My ambivalence hinges on your claim that, “if you’re not responsible enough to ‘suit up’, you’re not likely going to be responsible enough to get snipped.”

    I’m not sure if it’s true. Many of us become different and less responsible people when the prospect of sex is at hand. That is to say, I’m the kind of person who’s interested in a vasectomy, but I’m also the kind of person who, as a younger man, occasionally had unprotected sex for want of a nearby condom. I don’t know how many of our country’s unintended pregnancies are the result of such janus-like behavior, but if there are many, then I’d be inclined to stand behind my argument. I don’t know how to get the data to explore this question though.

  8. Chris F says:

    @Nick – thinking about this more… I certainly don’t have any empirical data to suggest one way or another that the 40-50% number is related to poor use of birth control. As I thought about this more, I realized that one of the problems with vasectomies is that many eventually want children – but not now. Are better techniques needed to create reversible vasectomies (“glue” stoppers?), and would it cause more of an uptake in vasectomies, and a decrease in unwanted pregnancies? I don’t know the answers, but the questions are interesting.

  9. Nick Bentley says:

    Yeap, my idea wouldn’t have much influence on those hell bent on having children, and there may be many.

    Here’s a related development – a promising new form of male birth control called the RISUG

    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/04/ff_vasectomy/

    key quote:
    “The procedure is known by the clunky acronym RISUG (for reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance), but it is in fact quite elegant: The substance that Das injected was a nontoxic polymer that forms a coating on the inside of the vas. As sperm flow past, they are chemically incapacitated, rendering them unable to fertilize an egg.”

    and

    “…in study after study, RISUG has been proven to work 100 percent of the time. Among the hundreds of men who have been successfully injected with the compound so far in clinical trials, there has not been a single failure or serious adverse reaction. The procedure is now in late Phase III clinical trials in India, which means approval in that country could come in as little as two years.”

  10. Matt H says:

    Ok, a collection of semi-random thoughts this spurred:
    - Your population growth curve is purpose-built to elicit alarm. Stretch any exponential curve long enough and it will look like that. Take it from, say the start of the Industrial Revolution and I think it looks a little less severe. Scale is important.

    - I don’t know that I buy your ‘instability caused extinctions’ theory. There have been five mass extinctions, and I guess you can argue that volcanoes and sea levels falling are indications of instability, but drawing parallels between those and what we’re doing might be a little bit of a stretch. IMO.

    - Re point #4, for the argument to be valid, I believe you’re on;y thinking a generation ahead. as the developing world is catching up to the US in terms of energy consumption while growing its population faster, I would be interested in how those numbers look over, say, four generations in terms of total carbon footprint.

    - Given human nature, is it more realistic to argue that we should shift education of our burgeoning population toward STEM and work toward living somewhere else over the long term instead of cutting back on procreation? I get what you’re working toward, but let’s be honest; the idiots who watch Jersey Shore are going to make babies, and you’re not. Regression to the mean helps a little there, but not enough.

    - Why a voluntary cutback vs. involuntary? If the results are the same in 500 or 1000 years, does it matter if we do it to ourselves or it’s done to us? I would argue that an involuntary culling is actually more efficient over the long term, exclusive of extraterrestrial colonization.

  11. Nick Bentley says:

    @Matt H

    Interesting points all. I’ll comment on them in order:

    -About whether the graph is built to elicit alarm: I intentionally used the longest time scale I could find, for two reasons: 1) the graph emphasizes that demographically, we’re in uncharted territory. A shorter time-scale would not have shown that, and; 2) a principle I live by is: always show as much data as possible. Climate skeptics take climate activists to task for example, for not showing global temperature records as far back as they go, because they show that the Earth has been as warm as it is now in the not-distant past. I agree with the skeptics. Climate activists engage in this little fib because the complete argument for the problem is complicated and thermodynamic in nature and they think they’ll lose their audience if they try to convey it, so they try to use this “temperature” shortcut.

    - Two points about the “instabilities-cause-extinctions” theory: 1) Two of Earth’s five major extinction events may have been caused by Global Warming events like the one we’re now entering into (the issue is under debate – see the book Storms of my Grandchildren, by Hansen for an overview); and 2) I’m not referring only to the major extinction events. Smaller environmental shifts are responsible for plenty of species extinctions as well. We’re in the habit of thinking we’re immune to habitat disruption, and we probably are to an extent – I’m just not what extent that is or whether the coming changes will exceed it. The question is worth considering.

    -It’s true that I’m only thinking only a generation ahead, because 1) Climate Change threatens to cause extensive suffering in the coming generation; and 2) the coming generation is the one I care about, simply because I know and love some of its members.

    - Involuntary culling would cause a lot more suffering and death than voluntary, and the only reason I care about Climate Change at all is because I don’t want my loved ones to suffer. I’d call it utilitarianism except that it’s not a philosophical position; it’s an compulsion to make sure my loved ones live the happy pain-free lives I think they deserve.

  12. Matt H says:

    Storms of my Grandchildren added to the (admittedly lengthy) Amazon list. Which I usually use as a shopping list at Half Price Books.

    WRT the generational view…I’d rather have that conversation over a beer.

  13. McKenzie says:

    Nick-

    This is pure gold. I started in on this topic when when we met up on campus for moving planet. I could go on for hours… anyway long story short reading this somehow makes the idea of sharp instruments near my junk almost…appealing. By the way I love the blog!

  14. Nick Bentley says:

    McKenzie,

    Thanks and thanks. I’ve no idea what the first steps would be in making this idea happen. Research needed.

This site is about one total amateur’s half-cocked attempts to do something about Climate Change.
Why is it here?

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