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 dire 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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