This is a super thorny one. May take a minute or two to unravel. But as far as "third rail" topics––the ones that no one will touch with a ninety-nine and a half foot pole––Eugenics (AKA population control) ranks right up there with trans rights, slavery reparations and whether or not it's still OK to watch Annie Hall.
But touch it we must, as it has everything to do with our future odds of thriving and surviving.
(after writing this, reckon it’s too long for all but the diehards amongst you, so this is Part One to be followed shortly by Part Deux)
So here's the quick gloss:
For most of our existence, the world population guttered along under a few hundred million people. Then, thanks to the agrarian and early industrial revolutions, around 1800, we hit a whopping one billion souls living on earth at the same time.
After the few hundred thousand years it took to get to that highwater mark, it took just over another hundred years to double it, notching two billion folks by 1920.
Then doubling to four billion by 1970.
Then doubling again by 2020 to eight billion humans. (all in our single lifetimes––just think about that!!!)
If you've ever revisited a favorite spot from your youth only to #OKBoomer it with some version of "this lake/campsite/surf break/diner/makeout spot was nowhere near this crowded Back In The Day" you weren't wrong.
There's twice as many people on the planet jockeying for that sweet spot than when you were young.
This did not happen by accident or some favorable shift in the trade winds. This wasn't destiny.
Compared to the prior millions of years of primate habitation on this earth (and hundreds of thousands of years of human history), it was in no way normal, expected or inevitable.
It happened almost exclusively because we harnessed the one-time bonanza of fossil fuels (penicillin also didn't hurt). This massively jacked up energy production, petroleum-based fertilizers, and pesticides (thanks to those cunning German rocket scientists and the Haber-Bosch process). It gave us oil-powered combine harvesters, planes, trains and container ships.
One-Click Shipping ™ here we come!!!
But here's a Mind Bender: As far as calorie burn goes, we enjoy the manual labor equivalent of 500 billion workers to support our current lifestyle (if you convert a petro-calorie of effort into human caloric output. For perspective, one $150 barrel of oil provides the equivalent of 4.5 years of manual labor. Hence, why we gladly trade fat stacks of Benjamins for the stuff). h/t Nate Hagens.
Eight billion of us being waited on hand and foot (and app), by 500 billion virtual slaves!
No wonder life feels so plush, and no wonder we got so soft!
We're not (just) enslaving domestic animals for horsepower to prop up this lifestyle anymore. We're not even (still) enslaving or massively disenfranchising other humans to sweatshop our fast fashion.
We're bending time to enslave 500 billion future humans––our own great grandchildren, and then leaving them in the indentured servitude of carbon debt.
Take away all of those windfalls, all of those millions of years of buried starlight set on fire in one century long crack binge, and we fall, all the way back to the bottom of the DIY slide.
We'd be reliant then on much more modest crop yields, with much more back-breaking efforts. No 500 billion petro-slaves to ease our burdens. Just us, some donkeys and oxen.
And probably not 8 billion of us living anywhere near the standards to which we've become deeply entitled and accustomed.
If you're following the shit-show in Sri Lanka lately, you'll notice that in addition to political and economic collapse, there's a massive food emergency. While the likes of Tucker Carlson and Bari Weiss are glibly chalking up the crisis to "woke" ESG goals run amok, claiming efforts to "go green" have precipitated this crisis, it's actually a bit more complex.
See this recent op-ed in NYT for a decent intro to some of the factors: Sri Lanka Collapsed First, but It Won’t Be the Last
After WWII, Sri Lanka, like many former colonies, got increasingly pulled into the World Bank/IMF global trade network. For a time, it worked swimmingly for most involved. "Stop farming for foods you need to eat, and start farming more high value exports like tea!" the World Bank encouraged. "We'll cover the transition with predatory debt service, and you can pay us back on the flipside once you make it big!"
"What about food to eat?" the Sri Lankan farmers reasonably asked.
"Ahh, yes, well, with all that money you're earning from tea exports, you can buy that food from other farmers in other countries even cheaper than you can grow it yourself!" #globalismFTW
And the population shot up accordingly. Tripling from 8 million folks in 1950 to almost 22 million today.
It's not talked about much in polite circles, but being a junkie is underrated.
If you can cop a lifetime stash of medical morphine and clean needles, you can be a high functioning poppy head for the rest of your days.
(Think “Comfortably Numb”, not Trainspotting)
Quitting's a bitch tho.
Same with weaning off petro-agriculture.
In 1950, the lands of Sri Lanka and the traditional techniques of subsistence farming supported about 8 million citizens.
In the 2020s when the country briefly tried to wean itself off chemical intensive farming, it did not go well. Many energy analysts reckon that eight million is probably closer to a sustainable steady-state for that landmass and climate than twenty two (given current farming methods, water, labor, etc).
Which means that in order to do the "right thing" for their people, their ecosystem and their future and wean off extractive, polluting industrial agriculture and exploitive markets, Sri Lankans are going to be faced with the profoundly "wrong thing" of prompting the possible starvation of millions of their own people.
You can see where this goes. And it's not just Sri Lanka. It's everywhere throughout the Global South, and coming soon to a land mass near you.
To recap our story so far:
Which brings us to the Third Rail of Population Control––what do we do if we have too many people?
Enter Mssrs. Malthus and Godwin.
Thomas Malthus was an eighteenth century Cambridge economist who did some back of the envelope calcs and concluded that infinite population growth on a finite planet might not pencil out forever (remember, he was figuring this out right as humanity was about to notch its first billion folks).
Since then, especially during the go-go years of the post WWII era, he was much maligned for being a Chicken-Little forecasting a disaster that never came, and "neo-Malthusianism" became a dismissal of anyone currently concerned with similar trends.
But he might not have been wrong, so much as he was just early. Way early. We're well on our way to 10Xing his initial population estimates, after all. But just because overshoot hasn't happened yet, doesn't mean it's not gonna eventually. Or even soon-ish.
The other is Mike Godwin. An otherwise unremarkable 1990's lawyer who coined the internet meme that "the longer a conversation goes on, the sooner it will arrive at a comparison with Hitler or the Nazis." #GodwinsLaw
And whoo boy!
Talk of efforts to limit or manage populations slip slide to Godwinaland in a heartbeat.
Aldous's brother Julian "noted eugenicist" Huxley, never really recovered from flirting in these domains, even though he was adamantly opposed to all things National Socialist (and mustachioed).
Raise any hint of global population control efforts at a progressive conference these days and you will be instantly shouted down as a neo-colonialist/crypto-racist (from folks rightly pointing out that it's the height of arrogance for high consumption First Worlders to presume to limit the relatively small impacts of people who benefitted little and consume even less in the carbon economy).
So, we need to tiptoe through these landmines without blowing ourselves or anyone else up.
How 'bout we explore the implications and consequences of this past century's unprecedented population explosion, and pinkie swear up front not to become Nazis?
In fact, since the topic is so fraught, let's go one step further and shake on it:
There. We've thrown Godwin's switch ourselves and rebuffed the jackbooted stormtroopers.
We've also acknowledged that concerns about the planet's carrying capacity and overpopulation (a la Malthus) may be relevant once more, even as we appeared to dodge them for the past century of boomtown growth.
So far, so good.
But if you scroll your newsfeed on global population trends these days, you might be confused. Do we have way too many people due to the fluke of the Carbon Boom, or not nearly enough due to an aging population?
Elon Musk is saying "we need to have as many babies as we possibly can!" (and then dutifully enrolling multiple partners and even his dear old dad into the project).
After reading his comments to a German magazine, I think his tweet would've more accurately read "we need to have as many super-genius Montessori kids as we possibly can" rather than "let's double the size of refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa and India."
To paraphrase William Gibson, "babies are here, they're just not evenly distributed."
Peter Zeihan's recent book The End of the World is Just the Beginning verges on demographic determinism, mapping all of our futures as if they're written in the stone of the last census.
He points out how utterly f*cked China is going to be in twenty years, with not enough women under 40 to repopulate the nation, and a likely crash from one billion citizens to less than six hundred million.
He questions whether the Chinese Communist Party will even survive. That One Child policy (and its wild skewing for only sons) really bit them in the ass, on top of all the usual modernizing stuff.
China's rivals aren't much better off. You can hardly throw a newspaper lately without hitting some article on "aging Japan faces demographic crisis as more workers age into retirement."
So Elon's not wrong to say we need more, rather than less baby making.
Neither's Peter Zeihan to argue that demography is destiny.
For anyone stocking a social security account and still on the happy side of the nursing home, that demographic math looks pretty grim.
Industrialization + urbanization = fewer babies
Lots of reasons, ranging from a bottomless need for manual labor in rural communities (#growyourown) to much higher infant mortality rates encouraging more bet-hedging to see enough of your offspring through to maturity.
And as England, Germany, the US and the rest of Europe and then the world all modernized, the same thing happened. Like clockwork, even (and most recently) in China.
Aging workforce. Way less babies to take their places, or return the favor one day wiping the chins and changing the diapers of their elders.
But here's an interesting wrinkle:
The faster your country modernized and swapped baby making for bright lights and big cities, the steeper the population cliff you're facing now.
England took about four generations to industrialize.
Germany and the United States streamlined that to three.
Japan took two.
China catapulted there in just over a single generation.
The faster they come, the harder they'll fall.
So we can call that version of our demographic story, the "HR Narrative." As in Human Resources. Upholders of the Status Quo. Responsible for filling up the future org chart with shiny happy people.
For those HR types, one look at these demographic trends, a few forecasts about tax revenue, social security coffers, mortgages, markets, and GDP and they go pale with fright.
Get going! Make more babies or our way of life is simply done for in a few decades!
(It's not just China and Japan freaking out. Scandinavia's getting in on the Getting It On. See: Sweden's experiments with PTO for getting busy and their neighbor's "Do It For Denmark" promise to reimburse "dirty weekends" if you manage to get knocked up)
But this is where it gets even more confusing––long-term demographers forecast that we're not done overproducing just yet. We're likely to reach peak global population of around 10 Billion by the end of this century! Whatever stresses and strains we have providing for everyone right now, we're heading for 2 billion more, soon.
So, wait? Even more people coming down the pike at the same time there's not enough people coming down that very same pike?
And we're not even sure if the pikes are gonna hold up much longer anyways, so maybe we should start turning those Future people back before they even get here???
No wonder we're so confused.
Click here to read Part Two where we will dive into three corker thought experiments, learn more about the current state of eugenics worldwide (and why we're surprisingly OK with some of it, and not at all with the rest of it) and ultimately, will ask, "what if the Marvel supervillain Thanos was right?"
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