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September 21, 2023

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People will fight world-ending issues when necessary

As long as I can remember, the world was just about to end.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was going to die by nuclear war. Then came a long series of nuclear weapons treaties and the end of the Cold War, and nowadays the prospect that the human race will commit suicide by nuclear warhead seems less likely than it ever has.

Which is not to say the geopolitical situation is a bed of roses today, but the threat of world incineration has definitely receded.

Then there was pollution, another menace not nearly as menacing as it once was. At one time the air was full of lead from gasoline, for instance, and there’s significant evidence that it made people more violent.

But we established government controls on lead in gasoline and took other steps to secure the safety of our water and air.

The job is not done — can never be done because a technological civilization will always have an environmental impact. But we’ve been saved (for the time being) from a future that once seemed inevitable, where everyone would have to wear a gas-mask when they stepped outdoors.

For a long time, the thinking person’s dfavorite world-menace was overpopulation.

Ever since human beings managed the trick of not dying like flies from disease and starvation, very wise people have been running around wailing that we have (or will soon have) an unsupportable number of people on the planet.

The Reverend Thomas Malthus was an early voice in this choir of doomsayers, but it’s been a common theme in science fiction. (How else are we supposed to get news of the future?) In Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! I read about the nightmarishly crowded far-future year of 1999, in a world groaning under the intolerable weight of seven billion people.

Well, here’s the thing. We now have seven billion people on the planet, but it doesn’t seem to be intolerably crowded.

True, there are many hungry people in the world and that’s a tragedy that needs to be addressed, but it seems to be a matter of distribution of resources, not lack of resources. Nations in the developed world aren’t going to war because of food or water.

Maybe that’s in our future; maybe not. But it’s not in our present.

Plus, the population increase which has been a feature of human civilization since the Middle Ages (at least) is doing something interesting. It’s slowing down.

All through the developed world (known in the near future simply as “the world”), population growth is slowing or even turning negative. This well-attested phenomenon is known as “demographic transition,” and it suggests that the world population will peak fairly soon and start falling — all without the massive wars and famines that speckle the bloodthirsty daydreams of Reverend Malthus and his ilk.

There are a million ways the world could die or civilization might collapse, I suppose: asteroid impact, mutant viruses, killer tomatoes, etc.

Once I was young enough and naive enough to believe in them all. Now I’m so old and cynical that I believe human beings will work together to solve problems when it’s in their interest to do so.

I feel that way — but then I see some of the latest news from the US Congress and it renews my childlike faith in human stupidity.

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