Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Apocalypse please?

The Christian millenarian movement (those folks who expect to be raptured up to the heavenly kingdom while the rest of us have to deal with the tribulations and the reign of the Antichrist and the battle of Gog and Magog and what not) justly get a lot of attention, because they vote for Republicans and support insane policies like invading Iraq, expelling Palestinians, and stoning homoexuals to death. But there's a lot more of that end-of-the-world stuff going around. Or at least close-to-the-end-of-the-world stuff.

The survivalist movement of the 1990s is still a fresh memory. Supposedly computers wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the Year 2000 and 1900, and the result would be the collapse of civilization and the death of billions in famine, plague and war. Since I've started blogging, I occasionally get e-mails from people who have absolutely figured out that within a year or two there will be a global currency crisis that will destroy civilization resulting in the death of billions in famine, plague and war. (I can save myself and my family by hoarding silver, or joining their society which is going to issue its own currency, or heading to the hills and developing a self-sufficient lifestyle.)

The threat of emerging infections is real enough, but there are those who seem convinced that we aren't just talking about a disruptive event with a lot of sick people, economic losses and a spike in mortality, but the collapse of civilization resulting in the deaths of billions in famine, plague and war. Sometimes these fears are concatenated -- the flu pandemic brings about the currency crisis, leading to etc. etc.

One starts to suspect that, at least in the case of many people, these are expressions not of fears, but of wishes. Certainly that is true in the case of the Christian millenialists, but is the psychology of the secular apocalyptics similar? Do they yearn for a better world on the other side of the Great Dying?

Ecologist Eric Pianka of the University of Texas gave a speech at the Texas Academcy of Sciences in March in which he warned of plague that might kill billions. He was falsely accused by creationists and other nut cases of advocating this, and even of trying to manufcture pathogens. However, it does seem that Pianka thinks the world would be better off with something like 10% of the human population we have now.

Now personally, I don't think there is anything outrageous or immoral about having that opinion. The earth once had a much smaller human population, and perhaps it will again one day, and people on the whole might be happier in a world with fewer humans. It is perfectly logical and ethically defensible to like humans in the particular but to believe that humanity in the mass is a destructive force. However I do not think it is ethically defensible to want to get there by slaughtering vast numbers.

I don't know exactly what Pianka hopes for, I have never communicated with the man and published excerpts of his remarks don't make it entirely clear. This is not about him or his bizarre case. But it is about the phenomenon of actually hoping for some form of acpocalypse, either consciously or unconsciously. I think that a human population crash could result from nuclear war, although given the present distribution of nuclear weapons it would have to be a war between the U.S. and Russia, which is not at all likely. (That could change, some day.) A war between the U.S. and China could be nearly as horrific, but seems an extremely remote possibility. A regional nuclear war, involving such nuclear powers as Israel, Pakistan, or India, is more probable. It would be locally devastating and might have very severe economic consequences, particularly by eliminating much of the supply of petroleum. But a global depression will not cause the human population to crash. After all, we had one in the 1930s, followed by the most terrible war in history, and the population just kept growing.

Similarly, even the worst infectious disease outbreak that is in any way plausible would not cause a human population crash. The 1worst flu pandemic in known history, in 1918, caused a transient spike in mortality but scarcely interrupted the upward curve of human population. The Black Death, the most destrutive known plague of any kind, killed perhaps 1/3 of the population of Europe over a generation or so, but that was before people understood pathogenicity. We have the knowledge today to far more effectively control such an event, even in the case of a novel pathogen for which we lack a vaccine or a pharmacological treatment.

So it seems to me that predictions of apocalypse are either paranoia, or wishful thinking, and I'm inclined to believe that the latter is more prevalent. A decline in the human population is desirable, in my view, but we are very unlikely to get there by a massive spike in the death rate, and we certainly should not wish for that. A long-term decline in the birth rate will get us there, although there are certainly great difficulties to be overcome from the epoch of radically aging population through which we would have to pass. That is a surmountable challenge, though, and we ought to be thinking about how to take it on.

And for all the wishful thinkers out there, if civilization does collapse and 90% of the people die, you should not expect to see the utopia on the other side -- even if you do stockpile a year's worth of biscuits.

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