Thursday, December 29, 2011

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Jared Diamond.  "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race."  Discover Magazine, May 1997, 64-66.

I discovered Diamond's essay for the first time several years ago, while I was reading up on human health (in an ongoing quest to improve my own).  I was intrigued, and eventually convinced, although I know that there are important points to be made against Diamond's pessimistic take on agricultural civilization (e.g. the arguments raised by Steven Pinker).  That said, this post is going to be my version of Diamond (dumber, shorter, and with less references).  I wrote the original version of the post in response to a friend, who forwarded an article lamenting recent decline in the birth rate among nations of the First World.  I have seen several such articles, all of them implying that social upheaval (broken economies, crime, etc.) is owing to a lack of babies, a lack that these writers (if I understand them correctly) seem to ascribe to widespread laziness.  My fellow First Worlders are not "putting out" as industriously as they should, and will be rewarded with the implosion of their padded social safety nets (as fewer kids exist to care for more and more parents, aged and helpless).  I doubt this.  Following the train of thought developed by Daniel Quinn, I further doubt that a reduction in human population worldwide would be a bad thing (necessarily: I am not saying that it would be great, either; it might, however, be natural -- as good or bad as rocks, waterfalls, and bacon).  Here is what I wrote, with a little minimal editing.

I think population reduction is a healthy response to imbalance in resources.  We simply don't have the goods to fuel endless growth (in people or the things they require to exist, things like food, water, shelter, clothes, entertainment -- unless we are willing to drastically reduce our expectations in these areas).  We are adjusting to several environmental factors, e.g. globalization (and concomitant competition for increasingly scarce resources), climate change (which may or may not have anything significant to do with us), and technological revolution (which has addicted increasing numbers of us to luxuries like running water, food that someone else prepared, housing that someone else built, gadgets that someone else invented and mass-produced, and lifetimes spent working narrow careers with companies that don't go belly up). 

Historically, the agricultural model for human survival has been to reproduce like insects: we made lots of people -- lots of sick, blind, stunted, relatively weak people -- and took over from the hunter-gatherers (who were healthier, sharper-sighted, taller, stronger, and even more mentally capable than we) by sheer force of numbers.  One familiar episode in this ongoing saga is the displacement of the American Indians by boatloads of European riff-raff (whose guns, germs, and steel paved the way for them to become a dominant force worldwide).  Indians were healthier (as individuals), more sustainable (as communities), and less numerous than the immigrants who replaced them.  We were the mites and moths and hornets who overran their beehive.  Now, it's our turn to be overrun.  Maybe the result will be just another opportunistic parasitism, but I don't know.  I get the feeling that other societies are collapsing too: people are living shorter and sicker lives all over the world; standard methods of producing the energy modern civilization requires to exist are failing; economies are imploding (not just in Europe and North America: India, China, and their neighbors are also looking less than robust these days).  I think we may just have to learn to live with less; and that may mean that there will be less of us.  Our old methods for solving these dilemmas are (1) plague and (2) wars: the last century saw us pushing (1) away while embracing (2) with all our might.  I think we might be due for a switch, with (1) returning (in the form of rampant diseases of civilization: diabetes, syndrome X, autoimmune disorders, obesity, failure to thrive, infertility, heart disease, stroke, cancer, etc.) and (2) fading (as we stagger away from a century of vicious fighting).  I could be wrong, of course.

A central concern here is quality of life.  If we are all willing to live in really primitive conditions (such as many of our forefathers endured), then the agricultural model offers a kind of haven, but it comes with a price, deliberately breaking the individual to save the community: better 1000 people barely alive than 100 thriving.  The price for the civilization that is India is the dung-heap that is Mother Teresa's Calcutta.  The price for the relatively few rich and prosperous people worldwide is a much larger group of starving and miserable people (who make clothes for the rich, grow their food, clean their houses, etc.).  This is the way agriculture is and ever has been (even in Mormon Utah: Brigham Young and his close friends were millionaires while others eked out a hardscrabble existence in a howling wilderness that has yet to blossom as Temple Square).  Do we want to perpetuate that?  I am not sure.  I don't have final answers.  But I think a lot of people with elective power are using it (in their own lives) to build a kind of middle-class freedom that is ultimately anathema to the agricultural model (which requires them to be serfs).  Women don't want to be baby-making machines.  Men don't want to spend their lives slaving away for the Man so that their fourteen sons can fight for the privilege of taking their spot on the line when they are too wasted and decrepit to hack it any more.  Nobody wants to bet on the longevity of social contracts that are collapsing all over (as education becomes increasingly overpriced and meaningless, at least in terms of securing long-term gainful employment that serves the employee rather than his feudal masters).  There is your threat to the family: good, old-fashioned supply and demand.  If there is no food for my family, no place for them to live, no job that will allow me to provide them with these things, then how am I supposed to have one (a family, that is)?  Many people just cannot afford it (unless they are willing to bring their kids up as serfs, which those of us in the First and Second Worlds are loathe to do: we were raised as gentry or honorable artisans, not slaves).  So population declines, with acts of God (plague, environmental conditions) and human anxiety (increasing uncertainty about the future) as proximate causes.

Since this is a topic of recurring interest to me, there will be more about it on the blog.  I am not done with it yet by any means.

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