Do We Need Another Black Death?
By Sam Vaknin
Author of "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
The Black Death – an epidemic of bubonic plague in the 14th century – decimated between one third and one half of Europe’s population, yet it was the best thing to have happened to Mankind in many centuries. The depleted number of survivors shared in the vast fortunes of the deceased, laying the foundation for modern, entrepreneurial capitalism; the added physical spaces and vacancies made available via the devastation of numerous households spurred urban renewal and magisterial architecture on an unprecedented scale; the crumbling authority of the Church and its minions led to reformist religious stirrings and the emergence of the Renaissance in arts and sciences; labourers and women saw their standing in society much improved as the scarcity of workforce rendered them much sought-after commodities.
So, is the solution to our global and escalating woes another pandemic?
The latest census in Ukraine revealed an apocalyptic drop of 10% in its population - from 52.5 million two decades ago to a mere 45.7 million last year. Demographers predict a precipitous decline of one third in Russia's impoverished, inebriated, disillusioned, and ageing citizenry. Births in many countries in the rich, industrialized, West are below the replacement rate. These bastions of conspicuous affluence are shrivelling.
Scholars and decision-makers - once terrified by the Malthusian dystopia of a "population bomb" - are more sanguine now. Advances in agricultural technology eradicated hunger even in teeming places like India and China. And then there is the old idea of progress: birth rates tend to decline with higher education levels and growing incomes. Family planning has had resounding successes in places as diverse as Thailand, China, and western Africa.
Some intellectuals even regard the increase in the world’s population as a form of “quantitative diversification”: as technology homogenizes cultures, societies, and civilizations everywhere, the risks associated with such a monoculture grow. Homogeneous populations are less adaptable and, therefore, less fit for survival. The only defense lies in the sheer force of numbers. The greater the number of people, goes this strain of thinking, the more varied the human species, such variety and variation being the sole guarantors and generators of adaptability and, therefore, survival.
In the near past, fecundity used to compensate for infant mortality. As the latter declined - so did the former. Children are means of production in many destitute countries. Hence the inordinately large families of the past - a form of insurance against the economic outcomes of the inevitable demise of some of one's off-spring.
Yet, despite these trends, the world's populace is augmented by 80 million people annually. All of them are born to the younger inhabitants of the more penurious corners of the Earth. There were only 1 billion people alive in 1804. The number doubled a century later.
But our last billion - the sixth - required only 12 fertile years. The entire population of Germany is added every half a decade to both India and China. Clearly, Mankind's growth is out of control, as affirmed in the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.
Dozens of millions of people regularly starve - many of them to death. In only one corner of the Earth - southern Africa - food aid is the sole subsistence of entire countries. More than 18 million people in Zambia, Malawi, and Angola survived on charitable donations in 1992. More than 10 million expect the same this year, among them the emaciated denizens of erstwhile food exporter, Zimbabwe.
According to Medecins Sans Frontiere, AIDS kills 3 million people a year, Tuberculosis another 2 million. Malaria decimates 2 people every minute. More than 14 million people fall prey to parasitic and infectious diseases every year - 90% of them in the developing countries.
Millions emigrate every year in search of a better life. These massive shifts are facilitated by modern modes of transportation. But, despite these tectonic relocations - and despite famine, disease, and war, the classic Malthusian regulatory mechanisms - the depletion of natural resources - from arable land to water - is undeniable and gargantuan.
Our pressing environmental issues - global warming, water stress, salinization, desertification, deforestation, pollution, loss of biological diversity - and our ominous social ills - crime at the forefront - are traceable to one, politically incorrect, truth:
There are too many of us. We are way too numerous. The population load is unsustainable. We, the survivors, would be better off if others were to perish. Should population growth continue unabated - we are all doomed.
Doomed to what?
Numerous Cassandras and countless Jeremiads have been falsified by history. With proper governance, scientific research, education, affordable medicines, effective family planning, and economic growth, this planet can support even 10-12 billion people. We are not at risk of physical extinction and never have been.
What is hazarded is not our life - but our quality of life. As any insurance actuary will attest, we are governed by statistical datasets.
Consider this single fact:
About 1% of the population suffer from the perniciously debilitating and all-pervasive mental health disorder, schizophrenia. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 16.5 million schizophrenics - nowadays there are 64 million. Their impact on friends, family, and colleagues is exponential - and incalculable. This is not a merely quantitative leap. It is a qualitative phase transition.
Large populations lead to the emergence of high density urban centers. It is inefficient to cultivate ever smaller plots of land. Surplus manpower moves to centers of industrial production. A second wave of internal migrants caters to their needs, thus spawning a service sector. Network effects generate excess capital and a virtuous cycle of investment, employment, and consumption ensues.
But over-crowding breeds violence (as has been demonstrated in experiments with mice). The sheer numbers involved serve to magnify and amplify social anomies, deviate behaviour, and antisocial traits. In the city, there are more criminals, more perverts, more victims, more immigrants, and more racists per square mile.
Moreover, only a planned and orderly urbanization is desirable. The blights that pass for cities in most third world countries are the outgrowth of neither premeditation nor method. These mega-cities are infested with non-disposed of waste and prone to natural catastrophes and epidemics.
No one can vouchsafe for a "critical mass" of humans, a threshold beyond which the species will implode and vanish.
Luckily, the ebb and flow of human numbers is subject to three regulatory demographic mechanisms, the combined action of which gives hope.
The Malthusian Mechanism
Limited resources lead to wars, famine, and diseases and, thus, to a decrease in human numbers. Mankind has done well to check famine, fend off disease, and staunch war. But to have done so without a commensurate policy of population control was irresponsible.
The Assimilative Mechanism
Mankind is not divorced from nature. Humanity is destined to be impacted by its choices and by the reverberations of its actions. Damage caused to the environment haunts - in a complex feedback loop - the perpetrators.
Immoderate use of antibiotics leads to the eruption of drug-resistant strains of pathogens. A myriad types of cancer are caused by human pollution. Man is the victim of its own destructive excesses.
The Cognitive Mechanism
Humans intentionally limit the propagation of their race through family planning, abortion, and contraceptives. Genetic engineering will likely intermesh with these to produce "enhanced" or "designed" progeny to specifications.
We must stop procreating. Or, else, pray for a reduction in our numbers.
This could be achieved benignly, for instance by colonizing space, or the ocean depths - both remote and technologically unfeasible possibilities.
Yet, the alternative is cataclysmic. Unintended wars, rampant disease, and lethal famines will ultimately trim our numbers - no matter how noble our intentions and how diligent our efforts to curb them.
Is this a bad thing?
Not necessarily. To my mind, even a Malthusian resolution is preferable to the alternative of slow decay, uniform impecuniosity, and perdition in installments - an alternative made inexorable by our collective irresponsibility and denial.
From an interview granted to Transitions Online, August 2008
The Macedonian government has initiated a campaign to provide economic support and benefits to families with children.
Q: Do you think that the economy maybe influences the society in some other way - maybe with the young people going out of the country to work, or the fact that the majority of the workers don't have free time for the family or...?
A: The fact is that the poor people have more children. The highest birth rates in the world are registered in Africa and parts of Asia with less than 1 US dollar a day in income. Birth rates decline as people become more educated and wealthier. The lowest birth rates in the world are in Germany, Scandinavia, and California. Even within Macedonia, poor minorities have the most children per household.
People tend to rationalize their decision not to procreate by using economic excuses. The truth is that many of them simply put career, money-making, enjoying life, and seeing the world ahead of having children. It is a shift in social values and priorities, not a decision driven by harsh economic realities (and, admittedly, in Macedonia they are harsh).
Q: What is according to you the best idea to stimulate the people to have children? What is your opinion about this whole campaign? How it may effect
the economy on short, medium and on long term???
A: Not every problem can be solved by throwing money at it. Modern civilization is self-centered, individualistic, hedonistic, and narcissistic. People put themselves and their interests first. Experience from countries such as Israel, France, Germany, and Scandinavia where childbirth and childrearing are heavily subsidized shows that government intervention is futile and a colossal waste of resources. In the medium to long-term, it has zero (insignificant) statistical effect. In all these countries - despite the fact that these policies are still being implemented - population growth is flat to negative (except in Israel and France which have a lot of immigrants).
Instead of encouraging women to have more children, the government should make sure that current families and households are well catered to: workplace discrimination against pregnant women and women in childbirth ages should be outlawed and persecuted; day care centers should be opened and made available to young mothers; parenting classes and free medical care should be rendered accessible and affordable; a whole gamut of goods and services - from public transport to formula milk to textbooks should be made free to families with more than 4 children; maternity wards should be improved and modernized; new mothers should have preference in professional re-skilling and re-training.
The Misanthrope's Manifesto
1. The unbridled growth of human populations leads to:
I. Resource depletion;
II. Environmental negative externalities;
III. A surge in violence;
IV. Reactive xenophobia (owing to migration, both legal and illegal);
V. A general dumbing-down of culture (as the absolute number of the less than bright rises); and
VI. Ochlocracy (as the mob leverages democracy to its advantage and creates anarchy followed by populist authoritarianism).
2. The continued survival of the species demands that:
I. We match medical standards, delivered healthcare and health-related goods and services with patients' economic means. This will restore the mortality of infants, the old and the ill to equilibrium with our scarce resources;
II. Roll back the welfare state in all its forms and guises;
III. Prioritize medical treatment so as to effectively deny it to the terminally-sick, the extremely feeble-minded; the incurably insane; those with fatal hereditary illnesses; and the very old;
IV. Implement eugenic measures to deny procreation to those with fatal hereditary illnesses, the extremely feeble-minded; and the incurably insane;
V. Make contraception, abortion, and all other forms of family planning and population control widely available.