Riding the Asymptote


The latest issue of The Economist, my favorite magazine (or “newspaper” as it calls itself) carried a feature on water’s looming scarcity and outlined some cockamamie scheme to drain the Great Lakes, sending the water south to replenish exhausted aquifers and maybe pump some into tankers headed for benighted parts of the world.  It also, again, calls for an increase in the human population — especially here in the US.

Are they nuts?  Sadly, yes — at least when it comes to the human population.  The editorial board of The Economist, along with many other economists and churchmen, feel the greatest economic good can be obtained by having the greatest possible population. Of course a moment’s consideration reveals this to be arrant nonsense. Any country with a population that incontinently reproduces ends up with a thin scum of bloated fat cats floating on a vast sea of paupers. Then comes the revolution where the fat cats are put in labor camps, but there will still be too many people so humanity will end up with famine, pestilence and war. Recall Europe before the Black Death where you had a smattering of wealthy aristocrats living off a populations of serfs. After the Black Death cleaned house, there was a terrific labor shortage. Not only did the rich have to do work themselves, but the former serfs could be picky and demand more money for their toils. The playing field, you could say, was leveled.

When I was born sixty-eight years ago, America had 134,859,553 souls.  As of mid-May, it now has over 309,334,709 (http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html).  That’s more than double.  And don’t we know it. This cancer-like growth is felt from restrictions on entering national parks to interminable commutes to the sprouting of big-box stores to oil spills to suppressed wages. Out here in western Washington, the press of population says the metropolitan counties will eventually be paved over from Puget Sound to the Cascade Crest and the only flowing water to be seen will come out of a garden hose.  Oh, and don’t forget about the increasing tax burdens for roads, schools and whatnot. And of course, wages will be even more depressed.

As for the planet in general, it now has 6,822,734,271 people aboard.  By 2100, if things keep on as they are, it will have over 10,000,000,000; almost double what it is today. Our numbers will be such that we’ll be living like insects in a hive. We could drain the Great Lakes and there still won’t be enough water to go around.  We could plant crops in every part of the earth that’s not solid rock and we still couldn’t feed everyone.  We will have ruined the earth in extracting its resources and still there won’t be enough goodies to satisfy everyone.

It’s a geometric progression, folks. Each new mouth will cost evermore to feed, and each additional resource will cost evermore to extract. Clearly, we are riding the asymptote. At some point, the energy to glean one more morsel of food will exceed humankind’s ability to obtain it.

What’s to be done? We could try what Red China has done: Deploy the minions to scout for unauthorized babies, and when found, grasp them by their little heels and dash out their brains on a convenient rock.

Humm, no; that won’t work.

Oh, wait a minute: How about carpeting the undeveloped world with neutron bombs?  This will decrease the surplus population, that’s for sure, and leave almost everything else unmolested.

Nah, bad idea.

Ah, but I kept reading and on page 81 of its 22 May 2010 issue, The Economist pointed they way to solve overpopulation. It seems that a couple of mad scientists have created life. Yes!  Just like God! Oh, to be sure it’s not The Blob; their prodigiousity is a simple bacterium, one that seems to cause something like the clap. Not much you say? Well, their little bug does the thing that defines life: It reproduces.

The fellows built this chimera by taking bits from one organisms’ DNA and combined them with bits of DNA they cooked-up in their laboratory, creating a new genetic code that has no natural ancestor. They stuffed this new code into an enucleated cell and, presto-changeo, a new species.  The implication is that by having a parts bin of genes and chromosomes — some man-made  — you can assemble them in novel ways. Say a buffalo with the head of a dog. The possibilities, the scientists assure us, are limitless.

Now while The Economist and others see man-made creatures as simply new ways to despoil the earth and make money, I perceive them to be our saviors. Let’s say you start off with the bird flu virus (H5N1), which is transmissible by air and is highly contagious and infectious, and make three modifications to its genome. The first change is making H5N1 infect humans. Second, add to the H5N1 a souped-up gene resembling the one in the mumps virus that causes mumps to “go down” on human males, a condition called Orchitis,which can render the victim sterile.  Such a virus will easily infect a human male and when it does, it will go on a search-and-destroy mission, frying his nuts. Before the mumps vaccine came along, my uncle and two of by chums got the mumps and they had no kids. Third, they need to make this nut-killer temperature sensitive.  As birds have an average body temperature of 105F, our boys could set the new virus to fall apart at, say, 100F.  That way the new H5N1-based bug cannot infect, and kill-off, all the birds.

Naturally, a vaccine will have to be developed on a parallel track; after all, we don’t want the human population to fall too far. Say to about where it was in 1700 — a little less than one billion.

There will be some socio-economic problems here. Let’s address each:

  • In most societies, men see the number of children they father as representing their masculinity. Such men uniformly blame their females when children are not forthcoming. Well, with his testicles all messed up, who then can he fault?  Lots of these dudes will flame out. We must be prepared to provide extensive psychotherapy for these men.
  • Women, released for the burden of ceaseless child-bearing will find new empowerment. It’s possible that, world-wide, human civilization might drift toward matriarchy.
  • Old people will have to work until they drop off their perches; there simply won’t be enough young people paying into Social Security and other plans like it.
  • Wars will no longer be fought as there simply won’t be enough cannon fodder to sustain them.
  • The skies will clear, the oceans will heal and the land will recover.
  • With the supply of meat machines drastically reduced, automation will burgeon in the workplace. Stoop-labor and grinding toil will be things of the past.

Oh, true, with the supply of children curtailed, we may miss out on another Einstein (this is a favorite wheeze of writers at The Economist and other such journals), but we may also miss out on another Stalin. Not a bad trade-off, if you ask me.

-Merlin-

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