I often write about things I see in the “outer” world, the “natural” world, the part of the world that is not part of global human society. Out there is global warming; out there is the steady march of extinction; out there are many things which tend to concern me. Out there is also much beauty and much of value. I look at it often; I live among it; I should write about the beauty more.
When I write about human society, I mostly am viewing society at a mid level: politics, business, and other small, essentially local things. Local to the United States at least. I live here; I write about what I see. Sometimes, though, it is an interesting mental exercise to take a step back, to think of myself in terms of my membership in all humankind and to consider how we are doing.
There are a lot of us. Our numbers have grown exponentially in just a few short lifetimes. We are the big change. For a long time, for most of the time since we got here, human populations grew only slowly, in fits and starts, with bursts and setbacks. Nobody knows exactly how long, for sure, but we have a pretty realistic idea, give or take a few millennia. Tens of thousands of lifetimes at least. Humans as we are now have been a part of the earth ecosystem for maybe a couple hundred thousand years. And before that, we spent eons becoming what we are, evolving our differences from the rest of creation. Then and now, we’re just as much a part of this world’s ecosystem as any other critter here. For almost all that time we wandered around, little bunches of us here and there. Tribes, extended families. We ate what we could find or what we could kill. We became human; we invented language, music, and art. At some point we decided to stay put where we were and plant, herd, domesticate and harvest our food. I’ve heard a theory that we did it because we had discovered beer. I can’t prove that one but I do find it appealing.
Even after inventing agriculture our numbers grew slowly. Some two thousand years ago, at the point at which we today divide the count between “years before” and “years since”, there were maybe 350 or so million humans on earth. On the whole planet. There are over a tenth that many in Tokyo today.
Where 350 million people were in the year one CE, in 2016 there are about 7.5 billion. For every person on Earth then, there are over 21 people on earth today. Go into your bedroom. Close the door. Now open it and invite twenty more people in with you. That’s the difference.
Our sheer numbers have a great deal to do with the damage which our existence does to our home planet. The Earth would be overburdened with 7.5 billion whitetail deer, or 7.5 billion hogs, or 7.5 billion goats. Of course it is overburdened with 7.5 billion human beings. Human population levels drive the extinction of other species. We all have to eat. A lot of us aren’t getting enough to eat, but only a few of us are getting so little that we die from it. Therefore even the hungry get up the next day and eat again. We eat animals; we eat fish. We plow up their homes so we can eat rice or cattle. There are so many of us that the planet can’t keep up. Things vanish. They go extinct. The future is not bright for most living things besides humans. Rats and cockroaches appear to be doing fine.
Add to that our blasted cleverness. We can light up the night, cool the summer air, heat the cold winter. We can jump into our magic carriages and travel hundreds of miles, and do it faster and more easily than most humans in all of time could go five miles
There is simply an amazing number of human beings on Earth. It sounds like I might be saying that this is a bad thing. I don’t know that one could reasonably say that. It’s not a good thing, either. It just is. This is the actual, inescapable arithmetic of humanity today. We figured out how to cure a bunch of diseases. That’s one of the roots of how we got so big. People used to have maybe 8 or 9 kids, and be lucky to raise 2 to adulthood. The 9 kids are natural. Sex is pleasurable. It used to be dark longer every day. We are part of nature.
It’s natural, too, to want to keep your kids alive. Throughout as long as we have records, people have wept at their children’s deaths. No doubt longer than any records can show. Medicine saved me when I was five, medicine which had just become available about when I was born. Penicillin. Antibiotics. My parents didn’t say, Gee, I wonder if saving our kid will contribute to an ecological disaster, they said SAVE MY KID and the doctors did. Saved me. Saved a lot of other people’s kids, too.
We – humans – invented vaccinations. It became common for people to raise all their kids to adulthood, uncommon to lose some of them along the way. It still happens, people still lose kids, but not so many, not so often. Nobody said, Hey, bad idea. I certainly didn’t.
There are issues regarding distribution but to a greater or lesser extent lifesaving medicines and technologies are available worldwide. Everybody’s kids are surviving at never-before-known rates. So most of the kids lived, and they had kids, and most of those kids lived, and… seven billion. Plus. Now what?
To me our huge numbers appear to be as hard on us as they are on our planet and all the things that share it with us. By one set of standards simply having attained seven billion plus could be seen as proof that humanity has been, and is, pretty successful, but there are other ways to look at it. I think we could do better than we are, even with all these numbers, but I’m not that confident that we will.
For one thing we are clearly getting on each other’s nerves. Overcrowding is making us crazy, at different rates and to different extents, but crazy. Terrorists are crazy. Anybody who straps a bomb onto his or her body and goes and blows it up, killing themselves and a bunch of other people, is crazy. Anybody who chooses out of the clear blue sky to kill a bunch of strangers is crazy. Anybody who flies an airplane into a building full of people, or parks a truck bomb in front of a building full of people, or puts a bomb in an airplane full of people, is crazy. Anybody who takes a gun and goes and murders a bunch of theater goers, or school children, or coworkers or fellow students, is crazy. I’m not talking of “not guilty by reason of insanity.” I’m saying that these people are, in the current vernacular, batshit crazy. Something has driven them mad. These acts, and many like them, are acts of madness. They are qualitatively different from war. Overcrowding is making many many people all over the world crazy.
War is, unfortunately, not part of this particular craziness. I don’t approve of war. I wish it would go away. However, humans have always done war. Chimpanzees do war. War is different from the craziness of today. And a few people have always done crazy things. But that, too, has increased exponentially right along with our numbers.
Lots of us all over the world aren’t getting enough to eat. Not that many are literally dying of starvation, although here and there some do and everybody looks the other way, but there are more people on Earth today who live their whole lives hungry than all the people in the world when the United States Constitution was written. Literally.
So we’ve got terrorists. We’ve got hungry people. There might be a connection, although I don’t think it’s a simple 1:1 link.
Here is what happened: the population grew to the point where the economy as we have it currently arranged can operate just fine while employing only some of the people, and the rest can just starve. They are unneeded. They are redundant. There are too many people for the work that needs to be done. Pretty much all the terrorists are among those for whom our economy has no other use. As are all the homeless people. And lots of other folks.
We can break this down into finer detail if we choose. Technology and so forth. Things that might be causes, things that might be effects. That is for another day. The point here is that there are many millions of entirely capable human beings – over 200 million by UN estimates back in 2013 – who can’t find productive work to do in the world economy, and yet somehow the world economy manages just fine without them. In fact, the world economy manages to produce so much stuff every year that the bigger problem is finding somebody to buy it all and enough landfill space to throw it away into. Nobody needs those 200 million people. Add that to being crowded by seven billion other people, and some of those 200 million unemployed are going to get grouchy.
There are, of course, a great many things that it would be nice to see being done in our economy, things that the extra people could do. There are productive things humans could do that would improve our lives, but there is no money to be made doing them. What we have now appears to me to be a nearly textbook, worldwide, ideal example of a free market economy at work. Only profitable things are worth doing; only certain classes of people are profitable to employ.
Our capitalist economy has only one use for those 200 million unemployed people; it is profitable to make things to kill them with, and to arrange fights between them. It’s not hard to get groups of people to fight with one another. It’s one of the things we humans do best. But to make the most money in the arms trade there must be compliant governments. So that’s where we are. How did we get here?
Most of the machinery ever invented has replaced people who did physical work. Weavers, one of the first to go when industry revolted, had to know more than meets the eye, but the knowledge only had to be applied once in a while. The rest of the time the weaver stepped on treadles, lightly tossed a shuttle across the loom, pulled the beater to himself, pushed it away, and repeated the process, step, shuttle left, beat, step, shuttle right, beat, over and over for however many hours a day they worked. One of the earliest machines ever invented replaced the weaver. The original, real Luddites were redundant weavers who smashed power looms because the machines were taking away their livelihoods.
Machines replaced warehouse workers, factory workers, farm workers, even an amazing number of road workers. Machines replaced typists. Machines replaced people who did physical work. You don’t go to RoboSurgeon. You may check the law on the internet, but if there’s going to be a real judge and real money involved you aren’t going to CyberLawyer. Machines may some day replace educated professionals, but they’re not there yet.
Drivers are likely to be next, which will be another disaster. Hauling the products of our techno-industrial economy around the world is one of the last refuges of working men. Now all the talk is remote control cars, oh goodie, but not far down that road is a truck that drives itself to the warehouse. It won’t be hard from there to engineer the truck and the warehouse to plug themselves together and unload the stuff. Here and there, widely scattered about, for a while, will be humans interacting with the warehouse machine. The warehouse part of that vision, by the way, already exists. They don’t know how to unload a truck yet, but vast modern warehouses are giant, computerized material handling machines. So far there are still a few humans scattered about inside the machines, working feverishly, doing those bits that nobody has yet figured out how to automate, barely keeping up with the machine’s inexorable pace.
Human society needs to have physical work to do whether or not our economy does, because that’s what some people do. You can’t turn them into something else. We are all human. The fact that some of us had skills that were easier to automate than others of us does not reduce that fundamental fact. The value of a human being cannot be measured solely by his or her ability to generate money for somebody else. We are all human, and all valuable, just as we are. And if somehow all those working people did miraculously change – does anybody really want to pretend that the world economy could absorb 200 million more IT techs? 200 million more computer programmers? 200 million more doctors and nurses? Not unless nurses want to work for minimum wage.
A whole group of human beings is not needed by our economy. Not a race – race problems come and go, but this group spans all races. Twenty-first century Earth has very little use for people whose fundamental skill set is to do productive work with their bodies. We would never have gotten this far without them; it is not reasonable to just throw them away now.
I have some dreams, some visions, of how we might work our way out of this mess. I believe that it would be possible to find productive work for all who are capable. I believe that everyone would be better off if we did. I don’t think it is likely to happen. I’m more inclined to expect ecological disaster and mass murder to fix the overpopulation problem. However, I’ll be making some suggestions over time, just on the off chance that anybody cares.