At the end of 1999 I went to Australia and thence to New Zealand, because I'd
always wanted to see that part of the world and also because I wanted to play
it safe just in case the Y2K bug led to a thermonuclear exchange. In New Zealand
I met up with a couple of acquaintances from ifMUD, and we rented a camper van.
After a few days it became clear that this wasn't an ideal arrangement, because
all three of us wanted to do different things. One of the other two wanted to
go paragliding and helicopting and so forth; the other expressed interest in
checking out the nightlife; but me, I just wanted to drive around and look at the
high schools. When I go to a new place I am mainly interested in tooling around
different neighborhoods, seeing what the houses and schools and restaurants look
like, and getting a sense of what it would be like to live there.
Collapse by Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, is
devoted in part to reconstructing what daily life was like in vanished societies at
the margins of the world: Easter Island, Chaco Canyon, Norse Greenland. That would
be extremely interesting even if the author didn't proceed to chart the downfall of
each society, dissect the reasons for it, and apply those lessons to contemporary
societies of varying fragility, ranging from Rwanda and Haiti to China and Australia.
I enjoyed this book enough that when its library due date drew near, instead of
renewing it I just went ahead and bought a copy. Since I left grad school the
population of my bookshelves has been collapsing itself — every time I move
I pare my collection further down — so this should provide some
measure of the extent to which this stuff fascinates me.
It did mess with my head, however. One of the main points the book makes is that
a society can remain prosperous for quite a while after its fundamentals have been
thoroughly fucked up, and that because people often deny problems rather than taking
measures to resolve them, this is in fact what usually happens. That's why the book
is called Collapse rather than Gentle Decline. Societies tend to be
like people who get fired and lose their incomes, but use their savings and credit
cards to continue to treat themselves to fancy meals and make the payments on sports
cars. It looks like they're doing better than ever!...until the money completely
runs out and they're out on the street begging for change. Reading Collapse
along with some rather
predictions for 2006 put me in a weird mental space as I went down to the Whole
Foods to stock my refrigerator. I felt like I'd beamed in Twelve Monkeys-style
from a dystopian future and was appalled at the decadent excess I saw before me. I watched
people poking through a tastefully presented basket of satsuma oranges and wondered, how
will you look back on this evening a few years from now when, like the Anasazi, you are
scrabbling in the dirt for mice to pop the heads off of and eat whole?
The image at the top of this article is from the legendary computer game Civilization,
which was legally obliged to carry an ad for the Avalon-Hill board game of the same name.
I liked both the computer game and the board game quite a lot. One of the rules of the
board game was that each area of the game map had a maximum number of units it could support,
printed right there on the board. This number could be increased a bit by technology cards,
but a hard cap remained in place. If you had four units in a four-unit square, the population
might double to eight units during the expansion round, but you had to move those extra
four units elsewhere, or they would die off at the end of the turn. What we find over and
over in Collapse is that the real world works in much the same way, with one key
difference: societies can survive, temporarily, in areas that cannot sustainably support
them, at the cost of lowering the region's cap number. Say you've got a forested island,
canyon, peninsula or what have you, whose soils can normally produce enough bounty to
support 10,000 people. Maybe for a few decades the rains are heavier, the crop yields are more
generous, and the population doubles to 20,000, only for normal weather patterns to reassert
themselves. Or maybe it's just a matter of someone thinking, "Hey, if the land can support
10,000 people, then surely it can support 10,001!", and everyone else having the same thought.
You now have many more people who need food and shelter, so naturally they start cutting down
trees for timber and fuel and to clear space for cropland. Except with fewer trees to fix
nutrients in the soil and prevent erosion, the land gets poorer and poorer and can support
fewer and fewer people without recourse to further deforestation, kicking off a vicious cycle.
To return to the financial analogies, it's as if you had a bank account that paid you a certain
amount of interest every month — enough to live in a small apartment and eat out twice a
week. Interest rates go up for a while and you realize, hey, I could move into a nice house
and eat out every night! So you do. Then interest rates go back down, and you can no longer
meet your new expenses purely on your monthly interest. So you start dipping into the principal,
which works for a while, but the interest payments grow smaller as the principal shrinks, forcing
you to spend more and more of the principal, and then you have nothing. You should see some of
the photos of these islands and canyons. They used to be lush. Now they're moonscapes.
In the past this sort of thing could happen in isolation. Now the population of the world is
interconnected. The entire globe is the island.
The first chapter of Collapse is about Montana, so when I was a few pages into the
book I mentioned it to someone I know who lives there. A few weeks later, as I was nearing
the end, she mentioned that she'd seen a scornful reference to the book in an article she'd
been reading, so I checked out the URL and we ended up arguing about it. Now, I hate arguing,
but this was the good kind of argument. It's very rare that people in an argument end up
changing each other's minds, but at least sometimes you can manage to figure out what lies at
the root of your disagreement — at what point do you find that the other person's
viewpoint is simply fundamentally alien to you?
At the time this argument happened I hadn't yet reached page 498 of Collapse, which
presents the key question posed by the book: "[...] because we are rapidly advancing along
this non-sustainable course, the world's environmental problems will get resolved,
one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today.
The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice,
or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease
epidemics, and collapses of societies." Had I reached page 498 before having this conversation,
it would never have occurred to me that anyone could disagree about which path was preferable.
But now I know better.
"What's wrong with overpopulation?" she asked. That's a good question, of course —
all too often we lose sight of the big picture. Overpopulation isn't just a matter of having
to sit in traffic longer. It isn't even simply a matter of Malthusian famine, horrible as famine
is. Not everyone who can't get enough to eat shrugs and becomes reconciled to the idea of quietly
starving to death. Hungry people become desperate. There's a reason Collapse has a
chapter on Rwanda. The Rwandan genocide that more than decimated the population was rooted
in more than random ethnic hatred. The Rwandan economy is based on subsistence farming, and
as the population became denser and denser, farmland was subdivided into tinier and tinier
parcels until in 1993 the median farm size was 0.07 acres. That's smaller than a basketball
court. (In Montana, the book notes, a 40-acre farm isn't considered sufficient to supply the
needs of a single family.) Another alarming statistic is that in 1988 the number of 20- to
25-year-old men living independently of their parents was only 29% — and by 1993, it
had dropped to less than one percent. With its population starving, its courts choked
with intrafamily disputes about how property would be distributed from parents to their children,
its massive younger generation finding no prospects for the future, Rwanda in 1994 dissolved
into mass murder. It wasn't just Hutu vs. Tutsi. There was a lot of intra-Hutu violence.
Young men killed older landowners to take their property; young men killed each other fighting
over that property; young men killed the poor so that when the dust settled there would be fewer
mouths dividing up what remained of Rwanda's agricultural product. Not much remained, and
many starved. And that's why it's important to do something to prevent overpopulation, I said.
She protested the idea of forced contraception. No, I said, I don't mean we should go around
sterilizing people. What we really need is to aim for a world economy in which wealth isn't
concentrated among a tiny elite. The most effective way to reduce the birth rate in a country
is to dig its people out of poverty, educate its children — especially its girls —
and grant its women respect and equal rights. That's a lofty goal with no easy-to-see path,
but hey, two hundred years ago, so was ending slavery. What it comes down to in the end,
I said, is preventing famine and atrocities. Instead of 850,000 people being chopped up by
machetes, wouldn't it have been nicer had they never been born in the first place?
She said no.
After all, she argued, this is the way nature works. It's been going on since life arose.
Say some seals paddle into a fjord and find it's full of fish. They eat some of the fish,
thrive, stick around, have lots of babies, and soon there are thousands and thousands of seals.
And people like you say oh no, overpopulation, we have to do something to manage the seal
population — but we don't! Because eventually there are so many seals that they eat the
fish faster than the fish can reproduce; the fish population crashes; 98% of the seals therefore
starve to death; and there you go, no more overpopulation! Problem solved!
The real atrocity, she continued, was to try to keep people from reproducing as much as they
are capable of, because that's what our genes drive us to do, that's why we're here. Wars
have been started for lots of reasons other than population pressure, so what's the point of
mitigating only one of many causes? Furthermore, humans are too stupid to manage anything,
so trying to aim for a better future will just make things worse. Just have as many babies
as you can and let nature run its course.
This elicited many wtfs from those participating in the conversation, but it was very helpful
for me to see this alien viewpoint expressed so nakedly. It's so alien to me that in Evil
Creatures I have a character dismiss the idea as a transparent absurdity: "Why do people
have children?" "To pass on their genes?" "Nonsense! No one says, 'Someday I shall die, yet my
glorious nose must live on!'" (I say "a character" as if it weren't obvious which one's talking.)
It's the sort of viewpoint I have always associated with those Third and Fourth World
societies whose populations are increasing exponentially, where people have eight and
ten children because they figure they need to have that many in order to have one or two survive
long enough to support them in their dotage; because while a First World family may worry about
dividing up the household budget ten ways, when your budget is zero you can just as easily divide
it up ten ways as three; and because in a desperately poor country there aren't many pleasures to
be had apart from sex. But the same set of concerns was operational in the United States in
the nineteenth century, especially on the frontier, and ideology has a way of sticking around.
As Diamond points out, the 450-year presence of the Norse in Greenland didn't end because
Greenland became uninhabitable; the Inuit thrived even as the last Norse were starving. But
the Norse refused to adopt Inuit ways: "We're European Christians, not Arctic skraelings!"
I've mentioned many times that "go forth and multiply" is an especially tenacious ideology,
just because of the way the math works out. But I'd always thought it was shortsighted. Only
now have I realized that many of those who hold to it understand the implications perfectly
well, and find them acceptable.
A few days ago I was reading yet another article about Terri Freaking Schiavo, whose sister was
lamenting that "our society has shifted to a quality of life mentality" from a quantity of life
mentality. To my mind, of course, this shift in priorities is one of the great achievements of
our time. One of the premises from which everything I believe about overpopulation derives is that
it is better to have 500 million people living comfortably than to have 15 billion people living in
misery. Another is that it is better to have 500 million people living comfortably than to have two
billion survivors living relatively comfortably among 13 billion corpses, the victims of famine,
epidemics and resource wars. To deny this is unfathomable to me. It makes me look at you sideways
like Crango. But it occurs to me that even this isn't the fundamental disagreement. The fundamental
disagreement is that I think suffering is bad. To me this is a tautology. I might as well
say that water is wet. And yet I live in a culture dominated by an ideology based on the notion
that suffering is noble and redemptive. My second scenario from a few sentences ago looks
much less horrific if you can content yourself with the notion that those thirteen billion have
earned their way into heaven or "progressed" or what have you. And, again, the math works out
in favor of this ideology — you're more likely to bring children into an unraveling world
if you think the hardship will do them good. The "culture of life" people insist that all life
is valuable and sacred and miraculous. I agree that life is a miracle — I am endlessly
astonished by the fact that there is something rather than nothing, that after fourteen billion
years of oblivion and, prior to that, the non-existence of time (incomprehensible as that is),
here I am, a conscious entity, having experiences... miracle is the word for it, all right.
But for a lot of people, billions, life means that the eternity of oblivion is broken by a few
years on earth of being systematically raped and beaten, or sitting on a street corner in
Pakistan pounding big rocks into smaller rocks for a dollar a day. For them, life is still
a miracle — a bad miracle. I don't believe in the traditional heaven and hell,
but I cannot dismiss the possibility that oblivion is followed by torment — because that
is precisely the experience of billions.
"But they don't kill themselves, so they must be grateful to be alive!" Yeah, maybe. But
the survival instinct's pretty strong. There's a sequence in The Day
After that has stuck with me: one of the archetypal images of any sort of war is that
of a bomb about to land on you, but possibly the most chilling part of The Day After is
the part in which people stare at the exhaust trails of our own missiles which have just been
launched. That's when they know it's too late. In half an hour the world as we know it
will end. What do you do? I have often wondered what I would do. Rationally, the answer is
to try to get yourself vaporized, rather than hide in a shelter or flee into the countryside:
the latter courses just mean a slow lingering death rather than a quick one. But I don't know
whether I could overcome instinct. Even the prospect of a collapse like those documented by
Diamond, people reduced to eating vermin and each other... I'd like to think that I would off
myself long before engaging in that kind of behavior, but I just can't say. Even if that is
a nightmare scenario not worth worrying about, a relatively small downturn could still mean
curtains for me. I'm pretty economically marginal. My ability to support myself is contingent
on a functioning system of higher education so competitive that people will pay handsomely for a
small boost in their chances of making it into the schools of their choice. If gas jumps even
to six or seven dollars a gallon and the economy plunges into a depression, I find it unlikely
that I will attract many clients. What will I do instead? Join the military? I suspect that
when I'm in my forties, there's a strong likelihood that a lot of Americans will be living in
garages and tents, the electricity will only be on for a few hours a day, and most people will
have to find employment and conduct their affairs within a significantly smaller radius than they
do today. This too might seem like a sci-fi dystopia, but in the Los Angeles area at least, many
families already live in garages, or share their houses with other families — up
here in the Bay Area, I myself live in the spare room of the house of a fellow who advertised
the space on Craigslist. California has already suffered from summers of rolling
blackouts. Gas prices already have prompted me to plan out and consolidate my car
trips. If our standard of living steadily deteriorates to the point that I'm 45 years old,
living in a tent without electricity or hot water, and it's cold and dangerous, and I'm feeding
myself through soul-destroying menial labor, it'd seem like it'd be easy to dispense with an
extra 25 years of that. But that's easy to say in the abstract. My guess would be that my
survival instinct might well keep me trudging onward even as I cursed myself for doing so.
That's natural selection for you. Nature, like Terri Schiavo's sister, is all about quantity,
not quality. Nature sucks.
Of course, the right-wing commentary on Collapse that my Montanan correspondent passed
along blithely dismissed the book with a handwavey insistence that, and I quote, "Oil, carbon
dioxide emissions, deforestation: none of these things is worth worrying about." Well, that's
a relief! Stupid liberals, always wringing their hands about the rainforest and the greenhouse
effect and the fossil fuel supply and the Louisiana wetlands and the New Orleans levees and—
oh yeah. See, the right-wing worship of risk is another thing I can't get my head around, whether
it be sink-or-swim capitalism or rolling the dice on the future of the planet. It seems to me
that if you adopt austerity measures to make civilization more likely to be sustainable, either
you're right and you avert societal collapse, or you're wrong and you live slightly less well than
you potentially could have:
no huge SUV to ferry your five children around in, no McMansion
fifty miles outside of town, but still a comfortable, First World lifestyle. Whereas if you
dismiss ecological concerns like CEO Nwabudike Morgan, either you're
right and your life is slightly more comfortable than otherwise, or you're wrong and bring about
a catastrophe. Why take chances? (Though I guess the percentages work out differently if, like
former Interior Secretary James Watt, your choice of time frames to consider is colored by the
fact that you "do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.")
I also don't like the way that people use all-or-nothing thinking as a way to rationalize doing
nothing. For instance, I'm a vegetarian. I will listen to a vegan who says I shouldn't eat
cheese or eggs, and someday perhaps I will eliminate these from my diet. But I have no time for
carnivores who say, "See, you eat cheese and eggs, so you're still exploiting cows and chickens,
so you don't really care about their welfare, so you might as well just go ahead and eat them."
Similarly, I drive a small car with good mileage. I will listen to a Green activist who says
I should ditch the car and ride a bike everywhere. But I have no time for SUV drivers who say,
"See, you do burn gasoline, so you don't really care about air pollution or the oil supply, so
you might as well get a Hummer." Doing a little is better than nothing. So the argument that
we shouldn't do anything to prevent wars caused by population pressure because there will still be
other reasons for wars is pretty irritating. Decreasing the horrors of war by 1% is still a win.
Anyway, I guess I'll post this now. It occurs to me that I started my web site in 1996. It's
now 2006. Will it still be up and running in 2016, or will there be a final article posted in the
interim which reads, "Sorry, still can't find work so the ISP fees will have to go"?
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