Thursday, January 06, 2011

Population Apocalypse?

The January issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC begins a series of articles about global population issues with a recap of historical warnings about overpopulation, beginning with Malthus, and an assessment of where we are now. The number of people on Earth will soon reach seven billion. Even with the current falling birth rates, population will continue to increase for some time because of falling death rates. The article predicts a world inhabited by nine billion people in the year 2045. This writer points out, however, that the immediate problem isn't raw population in itself, but the use of resources. How can the worldwide standard of living be raised? Pick up this magazine and read the article; it contains some fascinating and provocative thoughts.

Around forty years ago, Isaac Asimov wrote several essays on the approaching population crisis, illustrating the maxim that prediction is hard, especially about the future. In "Freedom at Last" (1970), he mused on the probable future of a girl who would turn twenty-one in 1990. He correctly foresaw that marriage and motherhood would no longer be considered women's only essential role and that women would hold economic and political positions formerly restricted to men. However, he thought by 1990 the threat of overpopulation would become so obvious that all objections (including religious) to birth control would have evaporated.

In "The End" (1971), he ran the numbers and estimated that at the then-current rate of our numerical growth, the mass of humanity would equal the total quantity of mass in the known universe by the year 6826. For a more "realistic" projection, he calculated the date when the mass of human flesh would equal that of all animal life on Earth (as a corollary, all other animals would have become extinct, replaced by us): 2346!

At that point, the entire world would be inhabited at twice the present density of Manhattan at noon. That situation would theoretically be sustainable, if human beings were spread evenly over the globe in a planet-wide city of high-rise buildings with algae farms on the roofs. Who would want to live that way? And Asimov, of course, acknowledges that this scenario will never happen. Long before then, either a more humane solution will be found or a catastrophic collapse will occur.

Turning to more immediate concerns, he discusses energy needs (he estimates that if no new energy sources were found, we would run out by 2070) and finally the social and political effects of overcrowding. On the basis of the latter consideration, here's what he concludes: "It seems to me, then, that by A.D. 2000 or possibly earlier, man's social structure will have utterly collapsed, and that in the chaos that will result as many as three billion people will die." (Since he lived into the 1990s, he must have been pleasantly surprised.)

Soon afterward, Asimov wrote an essay titled "The End, Unless..." (1971), offering potential solutions. The cure involves birth control, of course, and a society restructured in terms of "ecology management" and "education for leisure," with the implication of worldwide government. Particularly bittersweet in terms of our present plight is Asimov's assumption that a heavily populated (if well-managed) future will entail unprecedented amounts of leisure with the prosperity to work at one's own passions rather than toil for survival.

On the other hand, in 1974 he delivered a more optimistic lecture on the future of our species:

Future of Humanity

Some of the predictions turned out to be accurate; however, the declaration that war was becoming obsolete makes one almost glad Asimov didn't live to see 2001.

Among the many SF works that have imagined the future consequences of Earth's overcrowding, BRAVE NEW WORLD strikes me as actually one of the most benign. For the vast majority who don't mind being infantilized by genetic engineering and lifelong conditioning, it's a pleasant world to live in. Population, of course, is completely controlled (aside from a few pockets of "savages" such as the tribe from which the outsider John comes) by having all babies grown in vitro. Then there are less pleasant scenarios, such as Charles Beaumont's "The Crooked Man" (1955), a short story of a future in which homosexuality is the norm and heterosexual relationships illegal. I suspect that long before the world or a large portion of it reaches the point of accepting such draconian measures, the Four Horsemen would intervene. Any nonviolent solution, if there is one, will likely be more gradual and piecemeal.

Anyway, Happy New Year!

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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