Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Anti-Copernicus (IV)

Continuing from here a piece on Adam Roberts' E-published work Anti-Copernicus.


“The petri dish is foaming with bacteria, has gobbled the disc of nutrient jelly to a sliver, and is still consuming it, although starvation must necessarily follow. When she was younger, before her marriage, Ange had been quite active in a Netherlands-based Ehrlich group, agitating for much more aggressive population control.”- Anti-Copernicus

That's half of a quote, really. The other half will come in the Mars section below. Venus and Mars traditionally go together.

Remember when I said that everyone thinks they know how the population story turns out? Well, in reality, no one really knows how it turns out. Concerns of this kind are, I think, best divided into two overlapping areas: how high will the population get, and can that population be sustained without damaging the ecosystems that it depends on and thereby leading to mass deaths. These are “overpopulation” and “sustainability” respectively. As long as the death rate doesn't go up due to some catastrophe or ecological crash, and lifespans don't get extended much (it seems very unlikely that they will), overpopulation is mostly a matter of births: how many do people have, and how late in life do they have them. Sustainability depends on how people live, so it's pretty much determined for a given population level by a mixture of culture, technology, and politics unless people bump up against some kind of hard limit on resources needed for that population level and can't do anything. No world society has yet bumped up against a hard limit, so we don't really know what this looks like. I pretty much believe in Amartya Sen's work, which says that famines so far have been political, not resource-constrained. Even the collapses of island societies that Jared Diamond writes about in his excellent book Collapse are political, if you look at them closely.

Anti-Copernicus is mostly about overpopulation, so I won't write much more about sustainability. For overpopulation, the United Nations' current best guess is 9.3 billion people in 2050. However, there has been a decline in the population growth rate, and the United Nations predicts 10.1 billion in 2100. Declining fertility is supposed to be linked to the Demographic transition, and high standards of living generally, although there's a paper in Nature that claims that this will reverse itself back to what looks to me like replacement levels. There's no point in my quoting a number of wiki pages at you at this point: the environmental work that I do is mostly about pollution and global climate change, and I don't have any special expertise in the actual field(s) of study involved in overpopulation.

However. I do know about SF, and SF's general attitude towards overpopulation is all wrong. This may be the most problematic area in the text. The first warning sign is Ange's membership in an Ehrlich group. Ehrlich groups still exist, in an attenuated form, and I suppose it's conceivable they'd still exist in Ange's time. But it's rather like saying that she was a Yippie, or a Situationist, or part of a Maoist group. People are still very concerned about overpopulation, but Ehrlich's approach is considered to be antiquated where it isn't considered to be discredited, the heir to eugenics. At least in the U.S, towards the turn of the century, work against overpopulation is mostly about feminism.

The accepted conventional wisdom among people who care about overpopulation is, as far as I can tell, that what's important is how much power women have. Raising children is a whole lot of work. It starts with the aptly named labor, and continues with nursing and a multitude of home chores, and with basic education, all of them typed in Western societies (and most non-Western ones, as far as I know) as women's work. Now that child mortality has gone down to the point where people don't have to have a lot of children so that some will survive, the ability to have a lot of children depends on one's ability to fob off this work unpaid to someone, and (in richer societies) for women to choose having more children over more leisure time. The more power that women have to decide on when they'll get pregnant and how many children they'll have, and the more that their labor has to be accounted for in monetary terms, the fewer children people tend to have. Therefore, the main concern is really patriarchy. Population control is centered on women, not in the simple they-produce-babies sense, but in the sense that if they have power the natural incentives not to have many children are quite strong enough. Cultural imperialism makes talk about natural incentives problematic, of course.

I'm not sure how much it's useful to write about Ehrlich at this juncture. It's sort of a shame that anyone is still concerned with his work on population and famine in a world where Amartya Sen exists. As of a roundtable in 2008, he seems to be saying mostly unobjectionable things about the importance of women's rights, although he seems to slip back naturally into a genderless, central-incentive approach: “You could simply raise the taxes very high on people who have beyond two children.” But the policies he advocated in the past, in his book The Population Bomb, were really very bad: various kinds of coercive regulation, sterilants added to staple foods if only more biological research on them could be done, denial of food aid to countries that didn't control their populations. Big science fiction ideas, in other words. I'm inclined to think that The Population Bomb may be a significant part of SF's problem; it was one of the first “futurist” books that I remember of the kind that SF fans of the era fondly liked, and SF authors and fans may dimly remember it when they haven't been exposed to much else. Ehrlich was later involved in U.S. anti-immigration groups, and that strain of thought led to a quite recent and damaging blowup in the U.S. Sierra Club.

I don't want to focus too much on a single word in the text. But Ange seems to be following a Zero Population Growth (Ehrlich's first group) kind of line; she refers to her “rationally chosen childlessness”. If rationality is defined as taking actions that seem likely to lead to a desired result, then personal childlessness isn't a rational response to overpopulation. Overpopulation is a social problem, and no likely amount of volunteerism from upper-middle class people (because that's what Ange is) is going to have any effect on it. Political action is rational, but politics depends on communication with people: what does a voluntarily childless person really have to say to a parent? Their daily concerns are very different, and people who want children are naturally suspicious of people who don't seem to want them at all saying that they should restrain themselves. Of course this decision, and Ange's decision in the text, is not really made on the basis of pure rationality.

At any rate, it's not that Ange is being held up by the text as an exemplar of the ideal activist. On the contrary, it's made quite clear that she's a personally rather chilly person whose politics are guided by her personality. Maybe she's supposed to have gravitated towards a tiny splinter group that isn't representative of majority concerns in her future society at all. The problem is that the rhetoric of what I'd consider to be a more mainstream extrapolation from current concerns doesn't seem to be familiar to her, to crop up in her internal monologues. She, and the text, seem to think of overpopulation as an abstracted “people having children” rather than “some people having children for particular reasons”. I could more easily believe that she was a member of a (Margaret) Atwoodite group, say. That would bring feminism more obviously into an already crowded work. But for a work concerned with overpopulation among humans, it kind of has to be there. Feminism is at the center.

Feminism is still present in the work, of course. Ange is skilled, independent, not waiting for a man to tell her what to do. And she isn't a heroine-iized character made to be unusual and remarkable because she has these qualities; her crewmate Ostriker is presented as being somewhat annoying, but really has them too. This is nowhere near the usual SF attitude in stories about overpopulation. About which, more later.

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