This past week I’ve been reading, for the third time, Isaac Asimov’s 1983 novel, The Robots of Dawn.
The story takes place maybe in the twenty-fifth century (Asimov doesn’t tell you) when the human race has colonized many planets, one of them being Aurora (‘Dawn’) where humaniform robots (indistinguishable from humans) have recently been invented – only two of them exist, except that someone has just destroyed one of them. Unable to resolve the mystery of who did this roboticide, the inventor of these new machines requests that Earth send their famous police detective, Elijah Baley to find out.
Meanwhile, Baley and all the other people on Earth live in underground cities, because the the planet can no longer support 8 billion people.
That stopped me in my tracks. Asimov, well acquainted with all the sciences, writing in 1983, thought 8 billion people was an almost unthinkable load for planet Earth.
Meanwhile we passed 8 billion last year. How could Asimov have got this so wrong?
Well, I’ll tell you how – the experts in 1983 weren’t predicting 8 billion for 2021. Although the numbers were climbing steadily, and so this should have been easily predictable, they either made mistakes, or, as I suspect, they deliberately lowered their predictions to make us all feel better.
No, Asimov wasn’t just confused. I’ll give you another example. In his 2008 book The Value of Nothing, economist Raj Patel said this:
“Last year, a report by over four hundred leading scientists, led by Robert Watson, the World Bank’s chief scientist, asked how we’re going to feed the world in 2050, when there will be 9 billion of us.”
There were 6.8 billion of us in 2008. Apparently four hundred scientists thought it would take another forty years to get to 9 billion. We’re on track to reach it by 2030, the end of this decade. How could 400 scientists make such a mistake? Well, making mistakes is easy – getting it right is what is hard.
So, when you read these ‘scientific’ statements now that the world population is going to level off at 12 billion, you have a right to be sceptical
But can’t we be optimistic anyway? After all, Asimov’s 8 billion had to go underground, while we’re all still here living in the open. And we’re still feeding ourselves.
Let’s get something straight – the problem isn’t just whether we can feed 12 billion people, or however many we get to. Those 12 billion will need housing, sewage removal, transportation, education, health care, and armies to fight our never-ending wars.
Can we do that? Well, since World War II, given that we chose not to have a World government as Einstein insisted we needed, the world has enjoyed a relative peace anyway. This has allowed expanding trade, an overall rise in the standard of living, and a larger and larger population. But to maintain this, we’ve needed an unofficial world police force – the armed forces of the USA. The United States maintains over 700 military overseas bases, some very large, in about 80 countries. No one seems to want to admit it, but this, more than anything else, has kept the world stable for the past 7 decades.
The problem is that this is slowly bankrupting the USA. They’re showing signs now of being ready to finally hand in their resignation from this job. Once that happens, we’re all in trouble.
In his many recent videos, American geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan has been warning of the chaos that will result from American withdrawal. Once the great American naval fleets are largely gone, sea-going freight will drop dramatically. Even for those who are willing to gamble (piracy could rapidly become a word-wide industry), insurers won’t be willing to insure many routes. Transport of grain, oil, liquified gas, fertilizer, etc will drop dramatically. Famines and depressions will result. Never mind feeding 12 billion people – Peter Zeihan says we may soon not be able to feed 8 billion.
We also have to understand this – 8 billion people is already not sustainable. Yes, we can switch to wind and solar energy, etc, and we must do it, but what about the world-wide shrinking of forests? What do we do when they’re gone? And because of large scale industrialized farming, most of the world’s arable soils are deteriorating. Year by year, farmers have to increase the amount of fertilizer they use, which many can’t afford to do.
And never mind that we’re displacing species all over the planet, and driving many extinct. There are said to be only about 3500 wild tigers left. Is it okay to say goodbye to them, except those we keep in zoos? Is it okay that most songbirds and most insects, especially wild bees, are in trouble now too?
And of course, these human numbers I’m talking about are the foundation of all forms of pollution, and probably most of global warming.
For those who, cynically, say World War III will take care of human over-population, I would remind them that WW II, the greatest war in human history, when, in the last couple of years, a million people were dying every week, did not reduce the world population at all. It only slowed it down a bit.
Well, we’re here whether Mother nature likes it or not. We’ve shown ourselves able to fight off her diseases, like covid-19 recently. We know how to save ourselves that way, so we better start thinking about what we are going to do when she finally throws back to us the job of saving the world.