A Follow Up on My Paper: Past the Point of No Return
In February I published my contribution to the Global Population Speak Out in which I stated that I have thought of a way by which the problems associated with overshoot and deficient human cognition in one stroke. As a result of pulling up short in describing that way, I got a flood of e-mails and a few comments here suggesting I was taking a cowardly way out! Or at least I was being coy. The reason I pulled my punch had to do with worries expressed by several others in the population degrowth community who were concerned that my “solution” would be viewed by general readers as too radical, and only contribute to the public's opinion that degrowth concepts are only had by nut cases. I did not want to seem to confirm the public's negative opinions about a group of otherwise very serious and very intelligent people who have happened to look into the future consequences of over population and have realized that they weren't good.
In this blog I will rectify my former timidity. Enough time has passed that my blog will not likely draw much attention from the general public (GPSO advertised blog posts back in Feb. and I got a record number of hits over several days) and I will try to satisfy the curiosity of regular readers who have been writing me about it.
In “Past the Point of No Return”, I promised that the solution would involve things that no one would particularly like. I repeat that warning now. Please try to bear in mind that what I present here is not something that I particularly advocate per se. The question before us is what could we do to mitigate the problem of overpopulation. It is that question that I seek to provide an answer for. This is an exercise in feasible solution finding. Not in politics.
To recap, I asserted that there was no solution to the overshoot problem if we insist that the problem is characterized as: We want some mechanism by which we can stabilize population levels and then see a gradual decline until we find a steady state level in consonance with nature. The UN models of population dynamics suggest that kind of scenario dependent on the demographic transition model of cultural development. It does not take into account resource depletion (esp. oil and water) nor climate change disruptions, say to food supply. Under this scenario the ‘plan’ is to simply increase the wealth of developing countries where the population growth rates are still relatively high. Magically, then, the fertility rates will decline globally to just below replacement and the total population will begin a long slow decline. What is wrong with this picture?
Most obviously the plan cannot be executed (i.e. make everybody wealthy). With peak oil and the already passed peak of net energy to the economy, there is no way we can expect the rest of the under developed world to catch up to OECD standards of living. Under ordinary conditions that would simply mean that the higher birth rates in these nations would remain high. Those future new citizens of the world will not be able to become excessive consumers (on the plus side in a negative way!) But these are not ordinary conditions. Net energy to the world economy is in decline. This means our ability to create new assets is going down. Everybody is going to be poorer in the near future. So the likelihood is that those in the underdeveloped world will be stressed even further. Moreover, climate change scenarios promise to put even further stresses on the world as a whole, but particularly on regions where poor nations are found. The population will decline but not because everyone got rich. People at all ages will die because of running out of food and water (and likely major disease epidemics for lack of public health and medical supplies).
Populations in rich nations consume resources at alarming rates and generate greenhouse gasses as a result. We are not going to solve the overshoot problem by continuing on the way we have, assuming that the demographic transition phenomenon will work. We are at an impasse if we insist that any solution be for the problem as characterized above (see my book review of William Catton's “Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse”). That problem, as stated, cannot be solved.
Recasting the Nature of the Problem
When I first became motivated to ‘do something’ I thought as most people do that the problem was to find a way to “save” the population of people on the planet — a more or less typical liberal sentiment that doesn't want anyone to suffer. Over time, and as I learned more about how the world seemed to really work (as opposed to the propaganda put out by our education, media, and political systems) I started to realize that the salvation of all humanity was simply not possible, let alone feasible, given the overshoot problem. Then I began to consider a fallback objective. Maybe we would have to give up on the majority of humanity, but not the species itself. I began to think about ways to save the species, and, by inference, the nature of our cultures. In effect this means salvaging a smaller cohort of humans that would be numbered in accordance with the carrying capacity of the planet at some nominal level consistent with that population's consumption requirements. Higher consumption per person means lower total population in order to maintain a steady state. But, and this is a crucial point, the idea of saving the species assumes that we would end up with a much scaled back version of what we have now, with essentially the same amount of genetic diversity that exists in the extant population. We would have the same culture but just with many fewer people. Set aside, for an instant, the problem with how that cohort would come to be chosen so as to have fair representation from all races and ethnicities, all mental and physical competencies, a truly egalitarian society. Saving the species implies saving the whole gene pool.
Then, along the way, I began to consider the issues of human nature and how it might actually be at the heart of the conundrum in which we find ourselves. Human beings are no different biologically from all other animals on the planet. Our development is instigated by genetic endowment guided by environmental contingencies. In spite of the ongoing debates about nature or nurture, genes vs. the environment, biologists now do have a much better understanding of the role that genetics has in determining both form and behavior. They also have a better understanding of how the development of the human brain is determined morphologically by genetics, but especially in the cerebral cortex, how it is highly adaptive based on those environmental contingencies. But it is the fundamental morphology that determines overall kinds of behavior that are possible while the adaptations due to learning simply determine the details of how those behaviors play out in specific circumstances. For example, all humans have the capacity to learn language because of the morphological and cytological aspects of certain areas of the brain. But what language they actually learn depends on what culture they are born into, generally. As another example, all humans have moral sentiments and basic emotions but what counts as morally right or wrong actions is mediated by culture. Specifically what one finds disgusting in other humans' behaviors seems to be modulated by cultural norms. Nevertheless there are universals with respect to human mental capacities. All humans find some things disgusting.
One of those capacities that is largely determined by genetics with a small amount of environmental modulation is general intelligence (see also fluid and crystallized intelligence). There are actually many kinds of intelligences that are capable of handling problem solving in different domains of our social existence. For example, some people have stronger numero-logical intelligence that allows them to understand and use mathematics more complicated than arithmetic. Some people have higher than average social intelligence that makes them good at interpersonal relationships. General intelligence, on the other hand, is a set of general problem solving mechanisms that seem to underlay all of the various particular forms of intelligence. For example, capacity of working memory (number of chunks that can be active in the mental space), quickness at encoding patterns (learning), speed and accuracy of recall, etc. are all components of basic intelligence. And there is really good evidence that these functions are highly determined by genetics. Intelligence quotient, or IQ, is a measurement taken on a subset of these various intelligences that are more appropriate to school-type learning, though newer implementations of the tests seem to be attempting to capture more of the range of intelligences. Some portion of the IQ measure captures general intelligence, while the rest capture aspects of specific kinds of intelligence that may be more subject to environmental influences. It is always possible to denature or degrade the brain mechanisms that produce these functions with environmental factors such as toxins present in the environment, especially during prenatal development. And the brain's functional strength may be moderately boosted if a child finds itself in a particularly information rich environment with demands to use that information for achieving goals. But by and large, intelligence is dependent on good genes. IQ is normally distributed in the population. Since in our modern world we know that the distribution of wealth is not normally distributed (more of a step function with the largest step belonging to the fewest people) we cannot take recourse to an explanation that wealth (and the implied kind of intelligence supportive environment) is a strong factor in intelligence levels.
I kept wondering about intelligence. For one thing the common belief was that solving all problems depended on high intelligence and that there are some number of highly intelligent people in our population (as shown by the normal curve) who could do the work. There is a general belief that humans as a species had reached a generally high level of general intelligence (say compared with chimpanzees, our nearest biological relatives) and most people could solve many kinds of problems. The difficulty I faced with this premise is that if it were true, why do most people, including some very bright ones, do really stupid things? The world is in a really sad state due to humans and their economic activities. Ironically, we actually know about these stupid things and know what we SHOULD do to avoid or correct the situation. Yet, we don't do anything about them. Indeed we keep making matters worse. My big question became why, if we are so smart, are we being so stupid? But this was the wrong question to ask. The big mistakes we are making are not due to stupidity but to foolishness — the lack of wisdom. That was when I started to focus in on what I began to realize is a major lacking in the species itself. This lacking has to do with a brain competency that is nascent in the human species and was relatively sufficient in the context of human societies in the late Pleistocene but is now totally inadequate in our modern world. That capacity is one for superior moral judgment in support of ordinary intelligence. I call it sapience.
I raise this aspect because to understand anything about my suggestions with respect to the population problem will require grasping what sapience is and why, in its current realization in our species, it is not sufficient for our future. For anyone who has not read my working papers on the sapience hypothesis I would ask that you take the time to do so, otherwise you will not have the background to appreciate what follows and will undoubtedly react negatively to it.
So the recasting of the problem statement involves a recognition that the human species as currently constituted is actually no longer fit for the very environment that we have created with our cleverness. If this is true then this adds another dimension to the problem. Namely, the evolutionary dimension in which every unfit species will be selected against in the larger context of the environment. Humans are no different from any other biological entity. Being unfit usually leads to extinction over a long enough time. In one very real sense, humans may be destined for extinction under the assumptions of this hypothesis. Needless to say this complicates any kind of solution we might find to the over population problem. The latter IS the problem and is what underlies all the others that demonstrate just how unfit we are. Saving the species, as described above, is neither feasible, nor even desirable. The species cannot be saved because it is unfit for the environment it finds itself dwelling within.
Now I submit this recasting of our problem as a species, and suggest that this recasting allows finding a solution to the problem properly understood (e.g. properly constrained). The problem can now be stated in terms of how do we save, not the species, but the genus? Homo sapiens is the only extant species in the genus Homo. If our species goes extinct without giving rise to a new, more fit variant, that will be the end of sentient, abstract thinking, language communicating beings on this planet. Since part of our problem, the destruction of natural habitats, is also the problem for most great apes who will be driven to extinction along with us, by us (as well as many, many other species of animals and plants), the world will be left with no species that have any near term potential for developing into the kind of creatures we have been. Thus the key would seem to be finding a way to save some representatives from our species who have whatever it takes to be more fit in the future environment. Representatives who are closer to giving rise to a wiser species than is found in the general population.
Preserving the Genus Homo
I assert that within the human population there are a few people who have a genetic endowment that provides them with much higher than normal sapience. Ordinary variation in the gene pool would suggest that this is the case. In order to predict how many people have this high sapience capacity one needs to know the kind of probability distribution for the attribute. As mentioned above IQ is normally distributed with about 68% of the population falling within ±1 standard deviations (set at 15) or essentially, the majority of people fall within the IQ range of 85 to 115. People with IQs of 140 are quite rare, those with IQs of 180 are extremely rare (the same is true at the low end). But sapience may not be normally distributed (meaning a perfectly symmetrical Gaussian function). Other distributions are possible. In particular, when a new attribute arises in a genus, since this occurs in very few initial individuals, the distribution of the attribute is highly skewed toward the left (low end). That is the vast majority will fall toward the low end of the attribute variation range. Graph 1, below, shows the progression of an early development distribution (based on a Poisson distribution) and two stages that develop over evolutionary time where the beneficial attribute becomes more prevalent in the population, approaching a normal-like curve.
Graph 1. An early distribution of the new attribute (red line) where the majority of people in the population have lower levels of the attribute. As time goes on, the most beneficial genetic configuration spreads in the population (green line) but at the same time evolution pushes the higher level of the attribute. Eventually after a long period of genetic drift and increases at the high end of the attribute the distribution approaches normal.
My hypothesis is that the current human population is still at the first stage, or more like the red trace in the above graph. That is, the vast majority of people are clumped at the low end of a “measure” of sapience. In recent years a tremendous amount of psychological research in the field of judgment has shown quite clearly that humans suffer from a variety of biases in making even simple judgments (judgments are largely subconsciously applied, or intuitional influences on decisions being processed by the intelligence machinery in the brain, as I describe in the above referenced working papers). These biases, themselves, are the product of the application of built-in heuristic processes that have served well in evolutionary history, but seem to get in the way of good judgments made in the modern world. Sapience is a second-order capacity for judgments to be based more on the application of tacit knowledge gained over a lifetime and that are able to override the automatic heuristics. The more comprehensive and internally consistent that tacit knowledge, the more ‘in tune’ one's judgments will be with actual needs and less susceptible to automatic biases.
But, that capacity is still fairly weak in the species with only a small number of individuals, under the variation predicted by the distribution curve, having significantly higher capacity. It seems to be the case that the number of people with superior judgment ability in very complex social problems, in other words wise people, are rare.
An Evolutionary Bottleneck and Its Consequences
I am on record as thinking that the likelihood for a very rapid and deep crash of the human population is quite high. My reasons for thinking this way have been covered in previous blogs, but in sum amount to recognizing a chaotic dynamic resulting from entering a phase of human history characterized by diminishing net energy, highly disruptive climate change, subsequent diminishment of many other resources, rising sea levels forcing mass abandonment of the most populous coastal areas, and our low sapient psychological responses to these conditions leading to conflicts on all scales. All of this against the background of population overshoot. Making predictions about chaos is a fool's game and I resist the temptation to name a date when all of this will come to pass. Nevertheless, the patterns seem to already be emerging, suggesting to me that the trends will be clear within the next 50 to 100 years. But, it could be sooner. And in this chaos I think most people will die early and often horribly. The population will crash in the classical ecological sense.
How far it will crash is not predictable either. However, it is highly likely that if the crash is rapid enough, the momentum downward can take the entire population to zero, in other words extinction for the species. There is a minimum breeding population that is required for any species to survive and replenish. The size of that population depends on many factors involving the situation in the environment, how dense the population is on a given geographical territory, and behavioral and adaptability characteristics. For humans it is actually conceivable that a concentrated population as small as several hundred individuals might be able to recover. There is a growing body of evidence that this situation was actually realized at least once before in human history when dramatic climate change reduced the total population on Earth down to a few hundred to a few thousand individuals living at the southern end of Africa (see “When the Sea Saved Humanity”: Scientific American, Aug. 2010 issue). Such a catastrophic collapse is called an evolutionary bottleneck and results in a diminishing of genetic variability to just whatever the surviving population gene pool contains. The archeological record seems to indicate that the population tends to recover fairly rapidly but also that as it spread out from the single location of survival there is an increase in variability and even possibly new speciation if sub populations are isolated.
Bottlenecks are neither good nor bad in the evolutionary sense. But they do offer opportunities that ordinary allopatric speciation processes do not. By restricting the gene pool that manages to make its way through the bottleneck, it provides a somewhat more homogeneous starting population to emerge. Since the survivors of the cataclysm that led to the bottleneck obviously posses the traits needed to survive in the new environmental conditions this is a clear advantage in terms of increasing the probability of further survival as those conditions persist. Any marginal survivors should continue to be selected against by the conditions and this leads to something of a purity of the kind left. But what exact traits survive, especially free rider traits, will determine the long-term viability of the species going into the future. It is true that, generally, it is good to have more diversity in a gene pool, than less. More diversity provides a kind of insurance policy that if the environment changes again that at least some members will be pre-adapted to that set of conditions allowing the species to persist (another view of a bottleneck). But subsequent to a reduction in diversity (variability in the gene pool) species tend to effloresce rapidly as new ecological niches are created by in the new environment. There is some reason to believe that evolvability may actually play a role as an active biological phenomenon as opposed to letting mere chance of the right mutations occurring account for variation arising. If the latter were the only possible case, then small populations would never survive for long. Instead, species that experience a sudden opening up of options seem to undergo rapid mutation rates that make up in time for what is lost in numbers and parallel mutation at a low background rate.
For the moment let us consider that such a bottleneck event is in our future. As unpleasant as this thought might be to those of us who are going to be negatively effected (putting it mildly) from an evolutionary standpoint it could be beneficial to the genus. Evolution will continue on no matter what we do. If you think that evolution came to a halt with the advent of modern humans with their technologies, you are sadly mistaken. Evolution never stops. I take it as the only description of how the universe proceeds until all energy flow from stars to deep space ceases. For Earth, of course, Sol will eventually burn out and life on our planet will come to an end. But as long as energy flows from the sun through the Earth system to space, evolution will go on. The only real question is will intelligent life be a part of that process. If some representatives of sentient intelligent life makes it through such a bottleneck then the chances of this being so are increased. If extinction is the final outcome then it is far less likely that the Earth will be a planet upon which intelligent life continues to develop.
If there is to be a small surviving population of Homo, and that means some form of the sapiens species, then the question comes to what attributes can and should the survivors possess that will increase the chances of the genus evolving yet more into the future. Here I would like to advance an argument for why the primary trait that should be considered as not only desirable but essential is higher than average sapience.
The argument is based largely on the competence that a wiser human population (both collectively and as individuals) would possess in continuing to adapt and survive in a very unpredictable future world beset by climate change uncertainties and massive species losses (read food options) around the globe. People in the future must develop the kinds of coordination strategies that started to play a major role in early man's evolution. Group selection may have accounted for more of our evolution toward cooperators and away from being competitors. While many will argue that in a world where resources will be further constrained beyond what we see now, that competition will be essential to survival. But I argue just the opposite. Competition is a necessary strategy only in cases where the competing populations are growing, whereas, if some kinds of population control are in effect the need for competition is much less. And, one of the attributes of wisdom is understanding the balance that needs to be established in managing the human populations in light of knowledge of ecological footprints and carrying capacities. Wiser heads think long term and large scale. They can plan for contingencies further out in time and space as a result of their capacity for much more tacit knowledge learned through life. I argue that high sapience, not higher intelligence or creativity, is the key to the evolutionary future of humanity.
Measuring Sapience and Correlation with Genetics
Sapience is, right now, just a hypothetical construct based on brain science and the psychology of wisdom. But there are a number of threads of recent research that are giving me hope that soon the concept will come to dominate our thinking about human intelligence and decision making. If that happens it should become clear that anything that promotes higher sapience would be a collective good for the species. In other words, if we could somehow encourage the reproduction of more sapient individuals as compared to the less sapient (or if my conjecture about the distribution of sapience is correct, this means the average sapient) then our species would be better off in the far future in terms of the efficacies of decision making.
Assuming that we come to a consistent and holistic vision of sapience and the underlying brain functions/structures involved, it would then be a matter of identifying individuals of reproductive age who have higher than average sapience and encouraging them to mate selectively with others of the same kind. Here we run into several problems, though not really technically unsolvable. First, we have to measure sapience in some consistent manner. From a psychological perspective this means probing for subtle behavioral responses to testing. There are, in the wisdom research literature, a growing number of tests targeted toward assessing subjects' judgment. More subtle tests of moral judgment are being developed. It seems there is already a trend in attempting to find ways to measure for judgment something akin to a wisdom quotient (WQ). If these efforts move forward, it would be interesting to apply them primarily to older individuals since they would have had a lifetime opportunity to develop wisdom if they already had the sapience capacity. We could infer a sapience quotient (SQ) from such studies correlated with brain morphology studies (from autopsies of wise and not so wise people). In my working papers I argue strongly for the role of the patch of tissue in the prefrontal cortex called Brodmann area 10 (BA10 in PFC) as the seat of sapience. Studying the comparative differences in size, density, and other morphological attributes between and among individuals previously tested psychologically for wisdom capacity might reveal the truth of my conjecture regarding BA10.
The next step would be to study the genetics of development of BA10 to find out which genes are responsible for the uniqueness of BA10 and their timing of activation/shutoff. We would be looking for genetic markers that would identify the reasons why some individuals had larger or more powerful BA10 patches, and, presumably, were wiser in their lives. In other words, I speculate (but with good scientific reasons) that we might be able to find markers for sapience. Moreover, we might be able to find variant alleles in those markers that would identify the degree or strength of sapience in the population. We might be able to (in principle) determine if a young person who is not yet behaving wisely (as most young people are wont to do) possesses, nevertheless, the potential to develop higher sapience and greater wisdom in their later years. Such people would contribute positively to the population if they end up reproducing (with other high sapients) disproportionately to the general population.
Consider it. If a breeding population of high sapient individuals could be identified and aggregated, and if that population out breeds other populations (with lesser sapience) then higher sapience would begin to dominate in the extant population and we would move toward a world of generally better decision makers. At least in theory! Either the bottleneck event will do the identification and aggregation through extremely strong natural selection of the competency, or there is another option. And this option could actually mitigate some of the deleterious effects of the bottleneck event itself. We humans could exercise what little wisdom we might possess, and use our superior intelligence to understand, and actively intervene in the evolutionary process in such a way as to ensure a higher likelihood that future humans (say in 10,000 years) have the genetic make up of high sapient beings so as to give that population a head start in evolving to a species of eusapiens, truly wise humans.
Easing the Bottleneck While Still Getting the Benefits
Here then is the plan. Remember that the problem is really overshoot of the population. This is compounded by several factors. We are in the midst of significant resource depletion and potentially catastrophic climate change. At the same time we have neither effective political decision processes, nor is human nature going to be very cooperative in terms of something like voluntary sterilization. We have proven this over and over again. Yet unless we literally stop population growth dead in its tracks we are guaranteed to have a major collapse that could immediately take out a vast majority of the population due to conflict, starvation, dehydration, natural disasters without relief, and/or pandemics without medical assistance. Imagine nine tenths of the global population disappearing in pain and suffering virtually over night. It is not a pretty picture and there is every likelihood that you and your children will be in that group. Then picture the remaining one tenth scraping to get by, to survive at a subsistence level, using up whatever remaining resources they can find and competing incessantly among themselves. Imagine most women being impregnated by forcible sex and either dying themselves in childbirth for lack of any sanitation, or the child mortality rate climbing past ancient levels. This surviving population is moribund and most likely would disappear entirely within several centuries of the collapse. A lot here depends on timing and if the collapse is later rather than sooner, there might not be many resources left.
Then imagine a completely different approach. Suppose we make a choice to protect and support a small population of highly sapient individuals while also choosing total sterilization of every other individual. If we have identified the genetic markers mentioned above this may be feasible to do chemically rather than with mechanical means (e.g. mass vasectomies and tube ligations). It is at least possible in principle to use the genetic markers to deactivate an agent that would otherwise be active in shutting down the spermatogenesis or oogenesis (egg development) processes thus rendering anyone not in possession of those markers effectively sterile. Assume the vector would be some form of viral infection spread deliberately and that included a sleeper time so as to allow it to be spread globally before activation, say five years. This is admittedly not a democratic or informed consent approach. It is covert and without regard to individual rights (though those rights include destroying the Earth!) At least it is not coercive. No one need be threatened with sanction, such as loss of life, if they do not comply.
Now since I mentioned that we really do not have any kind of political process that would facilitate even a discussion of this topic, let alone a decision, and since the vast majority of humans will either simply react emotionally or, at best, see it as a destruction of a basic human right (to procreate without concern), there is virtually no chance that such a decision would be made even if it is the most rational and moral thing to do. It is rational because it helps conserve resources since the population would immediately start to come down with noticeable effect, It is morally the right thing to do if our objective is to minimize total suffering (which I think most people would agree with in principle). Yet we are hard wired to reject such a solution because it infringes on our own autonomy, and this is perfectly natural and understandable.
So I wouldn't look to politics and emotional humans to make this decision and carry it out. No, this decision can only be made by someone with sufficient moral and rational capacity, intestinal fortitude, and extraordinary sapience. And then it can only be carried out if there are a number of such individuals who can actualize the plan. You need geneticists, evolutionists, physiologists, and any number of other specialties to carry it out (if it can be). They would all have to be among the wisest humans on the planet. How could such a cadre be assembled, if it even exists?
The Effects of Immediate Sterilization
If my conjecture about the probability distribution of sapience (most low, a few high) is correct, then a surviving non-sterile population would be particularly small and would therefore not represent a large demand on the planet (wiser people tend to require less in material wealth to be happy!) If we can find a marker for really high sapience this number should be fairly low. The remaining population would finish producing whatever babies were in the pipeline at the time of introduction of the vector which should correspond roughly with the extant fertility rate in a region. After those babies are born, flushing the pipeline as it were in nine months, no new pregnancies outside of the high sapients would occur. From that time on the population demographic would tend toward aged population bulges. This, of course, presents another problem in terms of an aging population not having young workers to produce the goods and services needed to provide for some level of comfort as they grow old. However, even there, my work in robotics has convinced me that long before we reach a crises of aging it will be possible to replace the food, clothing, and shelter production workers with robots that will replace human workers. Maybe I will write more about that at some time in the future.
The population decline rate will then essentially be that of the death rate since no births will ensue (if you haven't watched the movie “Children of Men” or read the book, you should in order to get a possible vision of the social disruptions — the dark side of this proposal — that a childless world could engender). The death rate will necessarily rise since our health care systems cannot handle the load we have now, it certainly couldn't do so in the future (resource constraints). People will not live to ripe old ages unless they have natural good health. But that doesn't mean we can't do things to ease their passing. After all the majority of humans have lived with mortality at younger ages for the entire history of humanity. We would just be going back to a time when people died of frailty, failure of body parts, and diseases rather than having a system that tries desperately, at very high cost, to keep grandpa alive even if he has to sit in a wheelchair and stare at a TV all day. I assure you readers that with my health conditions, as soon as I suspect I am not producing anything of worth (and for some of you that may be judged to be now) I will volunteer to forgo my medicines and hasten my own demise. I really do believe it would be the moral thing to do.
If the decline in population and commensurate consumption is rapid enough, then we might be able to avoid the worst kind of collapse. It is a matter of taking the pressure off quickly so as to prevent a blowout. No one has to be killed to achieve this, though, as I mentioned in the above paragraph, we will see higher mortality from natural causes. This seems completely humane. It is possible that we will reconsider euthanasia to prevent suffering in patients of debilitating diseases, I will admit. That was explored in the movie I mentioned. We are already facing this issue today and with much less worry about debilitation and painful suffering of the older people. So I suspect it too will be seen as a moral good.
The population of non-high sapients will diminish rapidly. Within a hundred years there will be an essentially empty world where nature can recoup her losses and large tracts of land and sea can lie fallow while adjusting to the vagaries of the yet-to-be-played-out climate changes. Many ecologists and environmentalists have asserted that the best thing humanity could do for the Earth is leave it one way or another. This approach has us doing so, but leaving a seed population that could adapt and learn to live within the means of the eventually stable environment.
The Greater Moral Position
Preventing destruction, pain, and unimaginable suffering, or at least minimizing these, ought to be the highest moral position. Allowing a catastrophic collapse with attendant suffering ought to be the lowest. As individuals we are programmed to seek self survival even at the expense of others. So I doubt that an appeal to morality will sway the masses to accept this kind of plan and allow it to be carried out. Perhaps, and this is just another conjecture, but perhaps there exists a few very highly sapient and thus highly moral people with enough skills and knowledge to make something like this happen. Frankly I doubt it. But it would not upset me at all if one day I heard on the NPR news that OB/GYN clinics across the world were reporting that they hadn't seen a new pregnancy in several weeks, a statistically impossible situation. There would then be a great deal of work to be done to prepare for an entirely new kind of existence for humanity. But the shock of realization that humans were headed for extinction might just move the rest to consider other options. If it were learned that there were still a few humans able to reproduce, so all was not completely lost, would we come together to provide support for them? I would hope so under the circumstances.
The alternatives would be much less hopeful. Either a few increasingly brutish people would survive and conceivably lead to a devolution of humanity. Or we would simply disappear from the planet leaving only traces (see “The World Without Us”) of what we were and what we did. Unless an archeologist from another planet happened by to excavate and evaluate the evidence, it wouldn't matter. All that humans were or might have been would be irretrievable lost. Our story would go completely unappreciated. That thought saddens me.
I am fully cognizant that this “solution” will offend some readers. I fully expect that the word “eugenics” will be brought to the minds of those who automatically bolt at suggestions like this. Since my argument hinges on the fact that the majority of people in the world are not really very sapient (a kind of insult in itself, I realize) I fully expect some of those less-than-wise to react without careful thought. Please try to realize that it is not my intention to offend. This is an exercise in intellectual honesty. If asked how do we solve the over population problem with minimal pain to the majority of people, this is what my mind comes up with. This is an incredibly complex set of issues that do not admit fully to a thorough scientific analysis as one might hope. My judgments applied are based on the sense of differences in rates of change and their consequences. I have modeled depopulation and found that nothing short of absolute shutoff of births will bring the population down to a sensible number based on a rational argument about carrying capacity for the planet (and that mostly based on fossil fuel supplies declines).
A simple request. Please feel free to comment on my logic, or assumptions if you think I have gone astray somewhere. Question Everything(!) after all. But if you either agree with this, or are emotionally enraged and want to flame me, please resists. If you agree you do not need to reveal it. If you vehemently disagree, but on the basis of emotions rather than reason, then be forewarned; your comments will fall on deaf ears at this end. I respond only to reason and evidence, not your limbic system. Thanks in advance.