(Missing Part One of this exploration of global population, eugenics and the future of civilization? Catch up here)
Part of our confusion trying to map whether we have too many or too few people on this earth stems from lazy use of the term "demographics." Which basically means “statistically tracking all humans everywhere from cradle to grave.”
It's a bit vague.
To recap from where we left off in Part One: Seems like we've got nowhere near enough of some kinds of people (smart babies and diligent workers) and we've got way too many of some other kinds of people (old folks and the dispossessed).
And if we keep bringing more folks into the world without political, food and job security, (to say nothing of stable and loving homes) we'll only be adding to the throngs of the dispossessed. Wrong bucket for us to be filling.
Given the utterly baffling fact that even in the developed world only half of pregnancies are on purpose, (#sprayandpray) you could say we're increasingly obliged to take a look at human reproduction and see if we can reduce harm for current and future humanity.
If anyone's itching to invoke Godwin's Law right about now, and sling the N-word this way, three quick thought experiments to cool your jets:
If mention of population control seems instantly sinister, consider this. We’re extremely late to that particular party.
From eons of indigenous folks selecting and cultivating everything from strawberries to ponies, to Leibniz and his bean counting––we have always shaped and influenced reproduction of those things living around us to make our own lives better. Why wouldn't we turn that same intentionality and ingenuity upon ourselves?
It’s not just humans asking that question.
Birds do it. Bees do it. Lionfish and coyotes do it. They predate prudently. Rather than overproducing and then gobbling their habitat to exhaustion, animals at the top of the food chain self-govern their own populations.
In times of plenty, coyotes will populate wildly, but in times of scarcity, the females change their mating calls and signals, and they have fewer pups. Same even with "invasive" species like lionfish. On some intuitive level, they curtail the individual drive to procreate at all costs, with a population-level instinct to slow their roll.
"Prudent predation," Axel Rossburg of Queen Mary University in UK writes, "means that a predator species has evolved to avoid consuming as much and as aggressively as its own physical limits permit. Effectively – though not knowingly – prudent predators are restraining themselves for the benefit of other members of their species, as well as for future generations."
“In the past,” Rossburg continues, “when societies weren't globally connected, similar principles applied to human choices. Societies that overexploited their resources would eventually collapse, making room for more prudent societies to expand.”
So we should take a page out of Coyote's playbook, and take one for the team. All the Apex Predators are doing it.
"Restraining themselves for the benefit of other members of their species, as well as for future generations."
That doesn't sound so sinister, does it?
I was sitting in a green room with anthropologist Wade Davis before a talk in Vancouver and he (as he does) launched into an amazing adventure tale. For some time during the missionary years, the Yanomamo tribe he'd been visiting had been reviled as violent bloodthirsty baby killers. But when Wade was interviewing a young mother, she explained to him what was actually going on.
"When I have two children, I can carry one on each hip with me. When our enemies attack us, I can scoop them up and we can run to safety. But if I have a third child, then I can't carry them all. If I try, I will likely be too slow and then we will all die. So if we have to, we let our additional children die so that their older brothers and sisters might live."
It's the Trolley Problem, taken out of the class room and put into the Jungle.
You can hardly question the Yanomamo logic.
But that’s not how all tribes do it.
It's understandable why so many religions, from Judaism to Mormonism to Catholicism encourage procreation, willy nilly. It's the simplest way to grow the home team, and way less risky than door-to-door sales.
In an ancient world of high mortality and uncertainty, you either grew bigger than the neighboring tribe or risked getting crushed by the horde next door. You can understand why elders, bishops and rabbis all backed the "be fruitful and multiply" angle.
(For a cautionary tale of the opposite approach, just look at the Shakers. They had the chillest vibes, catchiest tunes, and were all about "let's make super cool furniture and ingenious labor-saving tools so we can all spend more time contemplating God" but...
they were fucking celibates.
Or rather, not-fucking celibates.
Tough growth strategy. So, despite an otherwise killer value prop, they eventually snuffed it.)
Enter Evangelical Pro-Life Christians today.
While their espoused values are staunchly in defense of all unborn life, what they're really saying at the anthropological level is "I refuse to kill one of my own children via contraception, and prefer to kill one of yours later via war if we need the extra elbow-room."
That Yanomamo mother took the Sophie's Choice/Trolley Problem right on the chin––whether to kill a child to save her family.
Any unchecked "be fruitful and multiply" stance kicks that ethical can all the way down the road and into the neighbor's yard. If we refuse the mantle of “prudent predators” controlling our own population, we assume the mantle of impudent settlers colonizing others.
Infanticide or Genocide.
I can't decide which is worse.
(That was a Tom Petty nod BTW)
This whole essay is actually about deciding which is worse.
On we go…
If we’re moved by the Yanomamo’s example, and conclude that if it has to be done, it’s more ethical to manage your own population than it is to impose on someone else’s (including future generations) then we’re now at the doorstep of “ethical eugenics.”
That bizarre phrase should trigger all the cognitive dissonance we have to muster.
But before we get our undies bunched, we should survey the state of eugenics post-Nazis.
It’s been happening all around us. We’re just not paying attention.
We’ve already mentioned China’s disastrous One Child Policy, which inadvertently led to extreme gender-selection for boys. As unpalatable as that might sound to Western ears, we can write it off as some combo of CCP state-coercion and Asian patriarchal values, and conclude that is something “they” might do “over there.”
But in the West, pretty much everyone knows someone who’s engaged in IVF to overcome challenges conceiving. (quite often they end up with mid-life twins or triplets for their efforts.)
What’s less discussed, is all of the vetting and screening of what constitutes “viable” embryos. This has progressed from “viable = capable of independent life” to “which flavor does your little heart desire?”
The customer is always right. Especially at IVF rates. #conciergeconception
And the impacts of all those intimate decisions are showing up in profound ways. Check this Atlantic piece on “The Last Children of Down Syndrome” that details how in Sweden they may have genetically engineered their way out of having any more Downs kids.
To any nervous first time parents, or to someone with a family history of worrisome genetic mutations, that may seem like progress. But to actual living, breathing people with Downs Syndrome, or their parents? Imagine having to wrap your head around the fact that you and your experience are being edited out of existence? That’s heavy.
“Down syndrome is frequently called the “canary in the coal mine” for selective reproduction,” the Atlantic author writes. “It was one of the first genetic conditions to be routinely screened for in utero, and it remains the most morally troubling because it is among the least severe. It is very much compatible with life—even a long, happy life.”
But 95% of mothers who test positive in the screening opt to abort.
It’s in no way the only tweak we’re making to our offspring–from scouring sperm donors’ resumes for high IQ Ivy League grads and their (hopefully) superior baby batter, to gender preferences, to the brave new world of CRISPR gene editing, selecting for eye and hair color, and height, we’re all playing Leibniz now.
So why aren’t we more up in arms about these clear examples of eugenic engineering?
In some part, simple awareness. Maybe not everyone’s tracking all of these developments.
But an even bigger part is our laissez-faire attitude towards voluntary market-driven decisions.
“If I’m of sound mind, body and wallet,” the thinking goes, “who’s to stop me in a market of free and voluntary exchange of goods and services, from picking my poison?”
That logic explains away concerns for even some of the most intensive (and risky) cosmetic procedures like Brazilian Butt Lifts.
“It’s my body and I’m paying for it!” tends to be a conversation ender.
Incidentally, it’s also the thinking that absolves Big Tech companies for any responsibility for the mayhem that unfolds on their platforms. “If you don’t like it, just unsubscribe!!!”
If we’ve freely chosen the product and picked up the tab, our Free Market fundamentalism finds it hard to find fault with our options or decisions, no matter how problematic. It’s such an article of faith we rarely reason or see past it.
But what about when it’s not a free choice? Then we feel quite different.
Consider this: the crazy fact that forced sterilizations were occuring in California, as recently as 2014!!! Not free, not market driven. Coerced.
Different kettle of fish entirely.
“A brutal chapter in American history began in 1909 with the stroke of a doctor’s pen,” the Washington Post reported last year. “California’s eugenics law, enacted that year, allowed medical officials to order the forced sterilization of people they deemed “feebleminded” or otherwise unfit to have children. Over the next seven decades, they carried out the surgeries at an industrial scale. More than 20,000 people, many of them with disabilities or psychiatric disorders, went under the knife in a campaign so efficient Germany’s Nazis took notice.”
Within the California prison system, female inmates were getting forced hysterectomies or tubal ligations, often without consent or knowledge and while under anesthesia for other procedures. And, in keeping with over a century of similarly grim sterilizations, a disproportionate number of those patients were women of color or indigenous.
Now it took way longer than it should have to push the California state legislature to award $7.5 million in reparations to the victims of this program. But no one in 2021 was arguing to preserve the policy, either. Non-consensual, forced sterilization, even for inmates in the prison system, feels verboten in America. At last.
No new Down Syndrome babies (with a co-pay for the genetic screening). We’re apparently OK with that.
No new Down Syndrome mothers (with a rap sheet and forced sterilization)? That for now is where we seem to draw the line.
But one last thing before we jump to our final and most provocative scenario. Those early Twentieth Century eugenicists, however misguided, were trying to solve a real and pressing social problem. And it’s one that we, and every other demographically challenged country, is facing in spades in the coming decades.
Namely, if every child conceived is a “child of God” and every baby delivered becomes a “ward of the state” then we’re ethically and legally obliged to care for all of our offspring once they’re here. Early childhood education. Lunch vouchers for grade school. Student loans for college. Medicaid and Social Security on the backend. Cradle to grave. We’re on the hook for it all.
And as Japan is reckoning with right now, that kind of system of social services and entitlements only works as long as those coming up are just as hard-working and capable as those punching out. Otherwise the whole thing gets too top-heavy, there’s more hands out than handouts, and the government collapses (or maybe just prints a bunch of imaginary money to cover the shortfall #quantitativedreaming).
So here’s a thought.
How could we start reducing the number of dispossessed and dependent citizens while boosting the number of healthy, productive people?
We know that state-mandated interventions controlling conception range from creepy to criminal. (#Godwinagain)
But what about the other way round? What if we made it an Opt-In system of deliberate procreation, vs. an Opt-Out system of forced sterilization? Free will vs. Coercion?
Every newborn boy, as part of his well baby checkup, could get a cute little clamp installed on his pipes and plumbing. Happily shooting harmless blanks until…
His paternal feelings kicked in, and he ambled over to the DMV and applied for a baby-daddy license. Demonstrating positive job history, ability to provide for child and mother (in whatever capacities they both decide), a parenting and childhood development class, and Bingo! He gets his nice shiny new License to Ride.
A quick outpatient procedure flips his switch back on, and we’re one step closer to #everychildawantedchild and a thriving body politic. If the State is on the hook for all the outputs of procreation (i.e. caring for its citizens), shouldn’t we also manage the inputs (making babies)?
Still preserves individual autonomy, but gives us all the “nudge” to shoot first, conceptions later.
Shouldn’t it be at least as rigorous to qualify to make a life as it is to take a life? (AKA a gun license)
Or parallel park a car? (AKA driver’s license)
And if not, why on earth not?
Coyotes and lionfish have figured it out.
It is, after all, only prudent.
Holy Smokes! The longer I put off writing this, the more things seemed essential to include. Consider this a rambling treatise in two parts On All Things Population, circa 2022. Truly hope it informs, perturbs and inspires in equal measures. We’ve come this far, so might as well screw our courage to the sticking point and bring it all home…
We've covered the Carbon Boom of the past couple hundred years, and how improbably and unsustainably it jacked our population to unprecedented heights.
We've explored and refined our understanding of "the demographic crisis" to realize that a bunch of competing and conflicting trends are happening all at once––the way the tide can be going out, while the waves are coming in, and the winds are blowing sideways. But you still gotta surf that day.
If you run the HR Story, we need more people to make up for all the ones fixing to die in the coming decades or the aging population will cripple our economies.
If you run the Carbon Boom Story, we likely have way too many folks for a sustainable future and a forced population crash could be catastrophic.
Tricky balance, that.
We’ve also established that apex predators of all stripes limit their growth so they don’t crash their own numbers. (and we’re in no way exempt from that calculus).
We even explored how eugenic engineering is already happening all around us, from gender selection, to screening for genetic mutations, to gene editing. (To college educated Gen Z opting out of parenthood altogether cuz they’re too bummed about the future #emoeugenics).
And we’ve underscored how utterly essential it is to ensure the full consent of anyone’s reproductive autonomy, as the recent California prison reparations acknowledge. #suckitscotus
What to do about all these people, if in fact, we have too many (or at least not the right ones in the right places at the right times)?
Especially in a time of massive degradation in the carrying capacity of our planet.
Because here’s the thing––Thanos wasn’t wrong.
If you’re not a Marvel nerd, the Titan Thanos (Greek for “death”) is the ultimate Bad Boy, and after several sequels that begat other sequels, he finally acquires all the magic to do The Thing.
Wearing a jewel encrusted glove that would make Elton John proud, he snaps his fingers and…
Snuffs out half of all life in the entire Universe.
Including a number of key MCU franchise players who have to be ingeniously revived in other timelines and multiverses to keep the gravy train rolling.
But in a flashback, we understand a bit of what drove him.
One fanzine put it this way:
“The journey…began on the planet Titan, when Thanos was a young man. Thanos described his homeworld as a paradise when he lived there, but he watched it face a growing problem as he aged: Depleting resources and overpopulation. As the leaders of Titan sought solutions, Thanos came forward with a radical idea: Randomly kill half of the population regardless of wealth or status so that the other half might prosper.
For this suggestion, Thanos was exiled from his home planet, but on Titan his prediction actually came true. He watched as his world collapsed and deteriorated until its civilization went extinct and the planet itself was rendered uninhabitable. His idea was radical, but to Thanos' unstable mind, the fall of Titan made it obvious that he was right, even if no one else agreed with him.”
Thanos wasn’t wrong. He was running the same traps as that Yanomamo mother smothering her newborn to save her family. Just zooming out from the Amazon to consider the entire galaxy. (Titans tend to think big).
It’s Effective Altruism 101. If there’s a 100% certainty of 100% mortality then Thanos snapping his fingers to give half of the universe a shot at thriving is downright philanthropic. Especially when you consider his efforts to make sure the rich and well-connected enjoyed no advantage.
In fact, if he knew about that 100% death sentence and neglected to move mountains to change it, that would’ve been the unforgivably psychotic choice.
Don’t expect a meat head like Captain America to grok that logic, but you’re kind of pulling for Tony Stark or at least, Dr. Strange to figure it out.
So where does this leave us?
Let’s say for the sake of one final outrageous thought experiment, we conclude that we haven’t been particularly prudent predators at all. Juiced along with the 500 billion petro-slaves that are shortly running out, we’ve massively overproduced and done so at the expense of the carrying capacity of our little blue home.
AKA, we’re totally fucked.
Over the next century or two, this thought experiment continues, we are looking at the near certain decimation of humanity.
Reduced from ten billion souls down to roughly one billion. (remember, that only takes us to circa 1800 levels which in themselves were quite a remarkable achievement, supported by robustly healthy forests, oceans, rivers, prairies, aquifers, air, and climate).
So we are faced with the near certain cataclysm of famine, war, migrant crises and mass casualty events. They will cripple our countries, break our spirits, and perpetuate all of the heinous inequalities of wealth and power, while falling hardest on the least to blame.
Sounds super shitty.
Possibly bad enough to rupture civilization, shred our collective commitments towards universal human rights, and send us back to a brutal dark ages of raw survival that may take centuries to recover from (if ever).
We could harness that demographic cliff we’ve been talking about and put all of these ideas and thought experiments together into one bold, utterly transformative solution.
After all, if we’re so freaked about overpopulation, remember that in less than ten decades, all ten billion of us will be dead of natural causes! (if we’re lucky).
All we have to do to avoid a Mad Max hellscape of infinite competition over dwindling resources is to go quietly into that good night.
And not leave so many damn babies behind.
It’s simple and elegant.
It honors every human life as sacrosanct (if you’re already here, you get to live out your days without interference), and does more to avoid suffering and conflict in the future than if we did nothing (i.e. choosing a conscious step down of our population vs. defaulting into centuries of resource wars).
But how could we actually do that without some dark Stalin/Mao/Thanos level evil?
(not really, but this is a thought experiment)
All world leaders and governments agree to coordinate efforts, whereby all citizens pledge to not reproduce (we’d likely need some medical assistance to that effect).
The world then commits to building an Ark for the Future to navigate the rapidly approaching crisis. (not an actual Boaty McBoat Ark, but a metaphorical one).
Let’s say we have ten billion folks by then, and all the best researchers conclude that one billion really is the number we have to hit to make it through the next century with enough resources for all, while allowing for ecological recovery that might support even more folks later.
That means that every country, in their very own edition of Who’s Got Talent, gets to nominate their best, most strategic, diverse 20% to represent their nation. We do it for the Olympics and World Cups. We’ve even figured out what to put in Time Capsules to send into space.
Now we’d be doing it with culture, and genes.
And every country gets to decide, via direct digital democracy what it values most, and who most embodies those values to carry on. That could all get recorded on the blockchain for posterity and trustability. One person one vote. Every nation gets proportional representation.
Then what about the 80% of us that don’t get picked? (if the math is giving you pause, remember it takes two to tango, and make babies, so we need 2 billion parents to create 1 billion FutureBabies™).
We become the People of the Passage. It’s our sacred duty to spend the rest of our lives stewarding the planet, preparing the Ark, figuring out systems, selecting heirloom wisdom and preparing for the transition.
It would be weird at first, no doubt.
A whole bunch of old people needing care and then dying. Not nearly enough working folks to do day jobs and also look after everyone else. A handful of babies with a whole lot riding on them.
Maybe that’s where robots and AI could actually be useful instead of dystopian nightmares.
But slowly, and more so overtime, a transition. An exhalation. A navigating of the narrows of that pending keyhole event. (a term from evolutionary biology that refers to a choke-point or constraint where not all individuals in a population make it through).
Everyone alive’s dignity and autonomy is protected.
Every nation’s voice and choices are honored.
Each parent chosen to bear our children, has not only a village to help, but a nation, and the entire world rooting for them.
Everyone remaining to support this massive collective project in humanity, has passion, purpose and meaning enough to get them through the possible hard times ahead.
By choosing prudence, we would minimize violence.
By stewarding the dying, we’d get to midwife the living.
By accepting what is, we would earn the chance to shape what might be.
We the People of the Passage, building the Ark of the New Covenant.
(Sounds a lot better than doom scrolling and succumbing to “diseases of despair”)
And what would that new covenant say?
Free will. Responsibility. Dignity. Life. For All.
We, the People of the Passage, could commit to navigate the stormy seas ahead, together and on behalf of our children’s children.
If we played our cards right, maybe one day we’d even make it to the Promised Land.
And if that seems far-fetched, we could use our imaginations and shoot for Neverland instead.
We all remember the directions to get there, right?
Second star to the right, straight on ‘til Sunrise.
If we can’t dream it, we’ll never be able to find it.
Always and already, may it be so.
May it be so!!
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