Science Fiction, by its nature, tends to travel some dark roads. None darker, I fear, than a single, disturbing question: Why Do We Matter?
Asimov put the issue in pretty stark terms during an interview with Bill Moyers on A World of Ideas in 1988. The exchange went like this:
Bill Moyers: “What do you see happening to the idea of dignity to human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?”
Isaac Asimov: “It’s going to destroy it all. I use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then both have what I call freedom of the bathroom, go to the bathroom any time you want, and stay as long as you want to for whatever you need. And this to my way is ideal. And everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren’t you through yet, and so on. And in the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies.”
As should be growing more and more evident the more you pay attention to the world, we have less and less ‘freedom of bathroom’ as time goes on. If you aren’t disturbed by this, you should be. If you hope there’s a way out of this without something terrible happening, you should be a fan of science fiction.
Let us be bluntly, terribly frank: if you or I or any other person on this planet were to die *right now* or, indeed, if any ten or twenty thousand of us were to die this very moment, the world would continue to roll along. In some cases there may be political implications, sure, or this or that company on the NYSE may trade up or down as a result. But, in the end, it won’t matter one bit. There are billions of us; a couple thousand barely makes a dent. Hell, a million won’t stop much. Ten million. Demographics may alter, but will the world be changed? Probably not. At least not in any substantive sense. If you think McDonalds will vanish because the population of Mississippi croaks overnight, think again. If you think Assad will cease to be ruler of Syria just because he kills 10,000 of his own people, you’re probably wrong (if he leaves/is deposed, it will be different reasons altogether).
Population pressure is a supremely terrifying reality, and it is growing. This isn’t the first time it’s done this, and thus far humanity has been ingenious enough to figure out a way out of it. When cities overgrew their capacity to provide food and water to their inhabitants, humanity developed aqueducts and sewer systems. When the prospect of employment or decent lives grew ever more improbable or impossible in this or that locale, humanity found other places to colonize. When food became scarce, humanity found ways to utilize food more wisely. But how much further can we push this?
The only sustainable way to escape this pressure cooker we call Earth without the deaths of untold hundreds of millions is to find somewhere else to go. Otherwise, the more of us there are, the less we matter. This isn’t a moral judgement , this isn’t apocalyptic doomsaying, this is math.
So, for God’s sake, fund NASA. Replace the Space Shuttle with something new and better. Get our butts to Mars. Build a colony on the Moon. Think it’s a waste of money? Well, I’m going to give you two choices: spend money to build new frontiers for humanity, or spend money to destroy our fellow humans when they come after our bathrooms. Your choice. I know what I’d prefer; I only wish more people preferred that.
The Earth is in trouble. We all sort of know this, and everybody has their pet theories, from fears of global pandemic to ‘genetic pollution’ to nuclear war to the coming of the Rapture. The exact why of it all, however, I think can be boiled down to one essential problem: There are too many people.
Population growth on Earth has been exponential for quite some time. Arguably it has been thus for all of recorded history and, like all exponential curves, it just keeps getting faster. Pretty much every problem known to the world today would be more-or-less fixable but for the presence of so many human beings. Environmental destruction? Well, the only reason that’s happening is because there are a lot of people who want more stuff to be more comfortable. As that number of people grows every year (every day, even every moment), the amount of stuff humanity wants goes up, and the more the environment suffers. Worried about a global pandemic? Well, the more people there are on the planet, the easier it becomes for a disease to spread, mutate, etc. and the harder it gets to combat it. Worried about world war three? Well, it’s on it’s way, because eventually the Great Powers of the Earth are going to be fighting over ever diminishing resources, and when that happens you get wars. Big wars.
So, what to do? As I see it, there are only two practical solutions, and both involve reducing the population of the Earth. Environmentalism, green energy, human rights sanctions, international diplomacy, etc. are all just stop-gap measures that are only slowing down the approach of the inevitable. The increase of the human populations is a mathematical certainty, unless you can somehow manage to brainwash the human race into not wanting or liking children. Good luck with that.
Solution #1: The Bad Way
The first solution is immoral, terrible, and wrong. It involves lots and lots and lots of people dying. No matter how it happens, be it disease, war, famine, nautral disaster, or man-made atrocity, the death of many billions of people would, ultimately, solve a lot of the Earth’s problems. It would destroy society as we know it in the process, though, and would be the Worst Thing To Happen Ever. I’m pretty sure nobody wants this, not even the really, really crazy people of the Earth.
Well, let’s cut that back to the vast majority of really, really crazy people don’t want this. Some dudes are pretty freaking nutballs.
Solution #2: The Good Way
This should really be intuitive. How do you solve a population problem without killing huge quantities of people? You find somewhere else for them to go, naturally. Of course, given how we can only currently go different places on the Earth, that isn’t really going to help. So, where do we go next?
Can you guess?
Yes, space, obviously. New planets, new colonies, new self-sustaining space stations, etc., etc.. We have got to find a way off this rock in the next century or two, or we’re screwed, folks. Well, maybe not all of us, but probably most of us. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my grandchildren to go through that, and no amount of recycling or signing petitions or defending our borders or changing our eating habits or distributng contraception is going to stop it from happening.
When people look at the manned spaceflight programs of both the US, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, of Europe and roll their eyes and say ‘what a waste of time’ or ‘why don’t they spend that money at home’, I say ‘I’m glad they’re spending money on something that will one day save the human race.’ I only wish they spent more, honestly, because, at the pace we’re going, I’m not sure we’re going to make it out before this whole place goes straight to hell.
I keep hoping, though. I hope you do, too.