CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
The pace of technological change makes the 21st century more dangerous to our species than any previous century. Unless we work diligently to mitigate catastrophic risks, this is apt to be a century of catastrophes. But when we think about these kinds of risks, we are prone to grave cognitive mishaps.
Milan M. Ćirković and Nick Bostrom, the editors of Global Catastrophic Risks, define a global catastrophe as one that causes ten million deaths or US$10 trillion in damages. It is difficult to offer a precise appraisal of the odds of such catastrophes, but many of the scenarios described in this volume are a good deal more likely than we’d prefer to think. Indeed, we’d prefer not to think about them at all. When we’re forced to do so, we tend to think about them in an irrational way.
We’re highly prone to a particular set of cognitive biases when we think about catastrophic risk. Some of these biases afflict us in thinking about other problems. Some are particular to the way we think about catastrophes. Together, they amount to a blinding and dangerous set of obstacles to rational thought.
Some readers, predictably, will shrug upon learning this. “People have been warning the end of the world is nigh since forever,” they will think, “but we’re still here.” That’s a cognitive error: survivorship bias, to be precise. Catastrophic risk isn’t a function of the number of people who’ve warned of it in the past and been wrong. It’s a function of the size of the asteroid.
Some catastrophic risks (annihilation by asteroid, for example) are neither more nor less probable than they were a million years ago. But the 21st century is more dangerous to our species than any previous century. Why? Because of the pace of technological change. Unless we work diligently to mitigate these risks, this is apt to be a century of catastrophes. We could well wipe ourselves out completely. It’s irrational to think otherwise.
People tend gravely to underball these risks. For example: How do you think you’re more likely to die: in a car crash, or an event that causes the extinction of humanity? If you chose “car crash,” you’re probably wrong.
It’s very difficult—impossible, really—robustly to compute the risk of the extinction of humanity in the coming century. But existential risk has become the object of an emerging field of serious study. Everyone who studies these problems rigorously has concluded you’re more likely to die in an extinction event.The literature is vast; here are some suggestions: An upper bound for the background rate of human extinction, by Snyder-Beattie et al., who treat only natural risks—asteroids, stellar explosions, … Continue reading
People who rarely think about it tend to figure the risk of human extinction in the coming century is quite low. When asked to guess the odds, for example, more than 30 percent of Americans estimated they were below one in ten million. But the literature on extinction-level risks in the coming century converges on an annual risk of .01 to 0.2 percent.
Suppose this is right. It’s probably the right order of magnitude: low, but not negligible. But small annual probabilities compound significantly over the long term. This means the chance of human extinction in the next century is 9.5 percent. Thus you’re quite a bit more likely to die from an event that annihilates the entire human race than you are to die in a car crash.
Did you respond to that argument by dismissing it? Before you really thought it through? Denial is another severe cognitive bias to which we’re prone when thinking about risk.
We’re only a fifth of the way into this century and we’ve already got one catastrophe under our belt. Another one is highly likely, if not inevitable, unless we start thinking straight and do something about it. But our deep aversion to thinking about these risks, and the mistakes in reasoning we tend to make when we try, make us far less likely to mitigate them. The human tendency to think poorly about catastrophic risk is, itself, a source of catastrophic risk.
Like many of the other risks we confront, our cognitive weaknesses can be mitigated. By understanding and recognizing common errors in cognition and teaching ourselves to think more rigorously, we can improve our odds.
THE IMAGINARY RATIONAL SOCIETY
Let’s posit an imaginary rational society. In this society, politicians and the public regularly and calmly consider these questions:
- How much should we worry about events that would be catastrophic if they occurred, but are not likely to occur?
- How do we assess these probabilities?
- How should we think about catastrophic events that are highly unlikely to occur on any given day, but highly likely to occur in any given decade, century, or millenium?
- Can we assess the odds of such catastrophes by asking how often they happened in the past?
- What is the best way to mitigate catastrophic risk, both generally and for any given risk?
- How much money should we spend to mitigate high-probability catastrophic risks? What about low-probability ones?
- At what point does risk mitigation become more costly than the risk it’s meant to mitigate? How do we measure this?
- Given limited resources, which are the most important risks to mitigate?
Now consult the headlines of any newspaper. You will probably note that you don’t live in a rational society.
Are democracies capable of catastrophic risk mitigation? The legitimacy of government, in a democracy, devolves from the consent of the governed. But large majorities of the governed are unwilling or unable to think rationally about catastrophic risk—or any risk, for that matter.
If we hope to survive the coming century, we must not only train ourselves to think more rationally about these risks, but our fellow citizens.
WHAT HAPPENS TO US WHEN WE CONTEMPLATE EXTINCTION?
The mitigation of catastrophic risks is sometimes simple—using Permissive Action Links to prevent an unauthorized missile launch, for example—but more often difficult. Many such risks, for example, stem from new, dual-use technologies with a global reach. It is difficult to create an enforceable international legal regime to regulate these technologies.
Surprisingly often, this observation prompts people instantly to say that creating such a regime is impossible. Perhaps this word came to your mind in response to the suggestion that we must train our fellow citizens to think more rationally about risk.
But that’s absurd. Of course it’s possible. The overwhelming majority of human beings on this planet do not want to perish as the result of a lab accident. Even imperfect risk mitigation would be much better than none.
Take a moment to consider how strange the instinct to say it’s impossible is. You would never respond to a grave risk to a member of your family by throwing up your hands and declaring the situation hopeless.
Suppose you’d just learned that your child carries the gene for a life-threatening disease. You would read everything, try anything, grasp at any hope, to save your child. You would raise money for medical research. You would pursue every avenue for international collaboration in the hope of finding a cure. You would never say it’s impossible—the words wouldn’t occur to you.
But when confronted with a much bigger threat—a threat not just to one of your children, but to all of them, and to you and everyone else now alive, and all of their descendents, for all of time, including not only H. sapiens but every species that may descend from us—you throw up your hands. How does that make sense? Logically, a bigger threat should make us more motivated to reduce the risk, not less.
Denial, despair, and shrugging one’s shoulders because nothing can be done are not rational responses. Of course things can be done—many things—and they should be done. So why, when we consider existential catastrophes, do so many of us throw up our hands and say, “It’s hopeless?”
Why, too, if we are prone to think of these risks at all, are we prone to fixation on one risk, to the exclusion of others? In the past century, this risk was nuclear war; in this century, it is climate change. It is perhaps explicable that nuclear war was the cynosure of existential anxieties in the twentieth century. The Bomb was indeed the biggest human-made risk mankind had thus confronted. But that risk hasn’t gone away. Why do people think it has? Why does climate change now occupy our minds to the exclusion of all other risks? That this has happened demonstrates that the way we think about these risks is shy of rational.
Why do figures like Greta Thunberg arise? Thunberg herself is not an inherently mysterious phenomenon—she’s a young woman who suffers from severe anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by a restricted, repetitive pattern of behavior and interests. But why has such a figure become—in Time Magazine’s assessment, at least—one of the 100 most influential people in the world?
Why would a high school dropout who suffers from emotional and cognitive disabilities that by their nature make her less likely correctly to appraise risk be invited to lecture the Parliament of the United Kingdom—a serious, modern nation-state—about climate change, one of the most complex problems imaginable?
The opinion of literally any physical scientist conversant with thermodynamics, computer modelling, and climatology would be more helpful to the Parliament of the United Kingdom in formulating a rational assessment and response to this risk than the views of a Swedish high school dropout. Greta Thunberg is prone to saying we must listen to the scientists and newspapers are prone to quoting this approvingly—so why are we listening to her?
Again, this isn’t how people think, or behave, when confronted with much smaller risks. Imagine a young man—let’s call him Ned—who suffers from Greta Thunberg’s suite of disabilities. Ned is fixated on brain tumors. He reads and commits to memory large chunks of text from the International Journal of Neurosurgery and cannot be dissuaded from doing this. He’s never taken a class in anatomy, no less gone to medical school. Clearly he doesn’t understand very fundamental things—for example, that brain tumors may be deadly but are not always deadly, and the risk of death falls within a range of probabilities, or that the cure might be so costly and painful it could be worse than the disease. If you learned that you had a brain tumor, God forbid, who would you call—Ned? “Ned, this is an emergency—should I have the hippocampal-sparing whole-brain radiation with memantine?”
Of course not. But when people have a bigger problem than a brain tumor—a problem that places the whole living world at risk—Greta Thunberg gets nominated for a Nobel Prize. Three times.
Clearly, something odd happens to the human mind when it considers catastrophic risk. It gets scrambled. This happens no matter the catastrophic risk they’re contemplating.
At the millennium of the birth of Jesus, Apocalyptic and millenarian sentiment swept popular religious consciousness.
“Few Christian teachings,” writes Richard Landes,
more directly concerned and excited the commoners than chiliasm, with its promise of a time of heavenly peace, dreamlike prosperity here on earth, and a justly ferocious punishment for sinners, particularly those who had abused their power by oppressing the poor and defenseless.
According to the best understanding of the world available at the time, humanity faced an imminent existential risk. The eschatological fervor to which this fear and hope gave rise produced a series of popular messiahs uncommonly like Greta Thunberg, and the social reaction to such figures was strikingly similar. Many—including schooled clergy who should have known better—were swept up in the apocalyptic revolutionary movements they led. Others mocked, ridiculed, and denounced them.
Whenever apocalyptic expectations rise, Landes writes,
we find two opposing stances: on the one hand, the apocalyptic enthusiasts, who wax eloquent about the imminent dawn, wishing to wake the believers for the great day; and, on the other hand, the sober antiapocalyptics, who insist that it is still the middle of the night, the foxes are out, the master asleep, and that only damage can come of stirring the population to life before the appointed time.
Authority figures of the eleventh century faced a problem similar to that of British Parliamentarians. They couldn’t quite bring themselves to denounce the Gretas of their age as noxious little brats with a screw loose (although some did). These eschatological beliefs, after all, are the core of Christianity. This is why people who basically accept the consensus view of anthropogenic climate change have trouble saying, “What are you talking about, you pest?” Then as now, the Establishment had to thread a slender needle: Yes, this theory is partly correct, but—Good grief! This isn’t what we meant.
“As a social phenomenon,” Landes writes,
apocalypticism defies all expectations of fundamentally rational behavior. … apocalyptic believers live in a world of great intensity—semiotically aroused, they see every event as a sign with a specific message for them; emotionally aroused, they feel great love and sympathy for their fellow believers and for all potential converts; physically aroused, they act with great energy and focus; vocationally aroused, they believe that they live at the final cosmic conclusion to the battle between good and evil and that God has a particular role for them. While this belief may be internally consistent, from a larger temporal perspective it is neither rational nor, in most cases, compatible with social stability.
Consider the story of Thiota, a “pseudoprophetess,”
who rather disturbed (“non minime turbaverat”) the city of Mainz in 847 by announcing: “that very year, the Last Day (ultimum diem) would fall. Whence many commoners (plebeii) of both sexes, terror struck, flocked to her, bearing gifts, and offered themselves up to her with their prayers. And what is still worse, men in holy orders, setting aside ecclesiastical doctrine (doctrinas ecclesiasticas postponentes), followed her as if she were a master (magistram) sent from heaven.” Here we have classic apocalyptic millennial dynamics: the prominence of women; the popular response; the defection of clerics who, putting aside their (Augustinian) teachings, entered into apocalyptic time, with its new rules and new roles.
This is a very recognizable description of the Greta phenomenon. And many have seen this parallel.
But what does this mean, exactly? What does it tell us? It does not tell us that there’s no such thing as catastrophic risk and there’s nothing to worry about. It does tell us that something goes haywire when we think about them
The sociologist and bioethicist James Hughes describes this phenomenon in an essay titled “Millennial tendencies in response to apocalyptic threats.”Unless otherwise specified, in the volume that Milan M. Ćirković kindly sent to me. Millennialism appears to be a universal human belief. Western historians have focused on Christian millennialism, but this set of beliefs is pancultural, found from Europe through Asia, century after century, in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other religions. Eschatological despair—and hope—is one of the most compelling and common themes of popular theology.
Nor is millennialism unique to religious movements. The great historian Norman Cohn drew the connection between Christian millennial movements and revolutionary communism and fascism, and he was right to do so. We might view these secular movements as corrupted species of Christian millenarianism—heresies, in other words; or we could go further and ask whether Christianity itself is a species of an even more instinctive and universal millennialist ur-belief.
Why would millennialism be a universal human instinct? Where might it come from? Hughes offers no deep insight into this question. I have none either. But I’m put in mind of Freud’s observations about the death wish. Our bodies are destined to die just as they are destined to live, Freud remarked, speculating that some aspect of the living organism longs for the peace of death as much as it struggles for life. Perhaps this is also true of whole species. After all, 99.99 percent of the species that have ever walked, flown, or slithered across the Earth are extinct. Is it possible that in some very deep way, we grasp this to be the way of the world, or that in a part of our soul to which we have little conscious access, we long for it? Wherever it comes from, this extinction instinct, we are born with it. And when we contemplate human extinction, this drive colors our reactions.
There is a taxonomy of millennial beliefs, religious and secular. Premillennialists assume the world will descend into horror before the millennial event—a climactic end of history—brings about the messianic kingdom. The obvious example is Christian eschatology based on the Book of Revelations. It is generally a fatalistic worldview. Nothing can and nothing will change the timing of the Tribulation, the Rapture, or the Second Coming. The secular analogue of this belief may be found in the classical Marxist eschatology: Capitalism will immiserate the world until it collapses under its own contradictions, uniting the world’s workers in a global revolution. It’s inevitable; it will happen with or without the aid of a revolutionary vanguard. The idea of the Singularity—the techno-Rapture—constitutes another secular example.
Amillennialists, by contrast, believe the millennial event has already occurred. In Christian terms, these represent teachings of Augustine and the official doctrine of the early Church, which considered premillennialism a heresy. For Augustine, Christians were not awaiting a millennium of perfect peace on earth to come, but rather already living in the invisible millennium—an era of peace and justice unfolding, imperfectly, since the Ascension of Christ. For a secular parallel, think of the fellow travellers who believed Stalin and Mao had successfully ushered in paradise, and soon the rest of the world would follow. Or, say, Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay.
By contrast, the postmillennialist view—dominant among the American Protestants and great reformists of the 19th and 20th century—is not fatalistic. In this view, humans must act to immanentize the eschaton. A similar focus on revolutionary human agency may be found in the Pali canon, and, of course, in revolutionary Marxist-Leninism. Accelerationism is a postmillennialist strain of thought. Such forms of millenarianism are notoriously prone, as Hughes notes, to birthing messianic figures and charismatic revolutionary leaders.
Pay close attention to the way people respond when you mention catastrophic risks. Note how quickly they slip into fatalism—we’re doomed and there’s not a thing we can do about it—before exhibiting even the least bit of curiosity about what might practically be done to diminish the risk. Note how many people who would not respond with a shrug if you told them their family’s safety was at risk are sanguine about the prospect of human extinction—as if the thought satisfies a very deep expectation. Or a deep sense of what we all deserve.
Hughes firmly locates our inability to think clearly about catastrophic risk in this phenomenon. “We may aspire to a purely rational technocratic analysis,” he writes,
calmly balancing the likelihood of futures without disease, hunger, work, or death … against the likelihoods of worlds destroyed by war, plagues, or asteroids, but few will be immune to millenial biases, positive or negative, fatalistic or messianic.
How do these biases manifest? In what Hughes terms the “manic and depressive errors of millennialism”—tendencies to utopian optimism, apocalyptic pessimism, fatalism, and messianism. Thus the helpless shrug—”nothing can be done”. It is true that some risks may be beyond human powers to remedy. But most catastrophic risks may be mitigated just the way you mitigate any other risk: by being more careful.
As Hughes argues, all of these biases—utopian, apocalyptic, fatalist, and messianic—incline us to underestimate the power of ordinary actions and normal political processes to bring about the millenium or prevent apocalypse. Contra the fatalistic bias, ample evidence suggests that changing state policy through normal democratic mechanisms can determine the future. Contra the messianic impulse, it isn’t true that normal democratic mechanisms are too slow and ineffectual to confront problems of heroic magnitude. Efforts to solve them in any other fashion typically deliver violence and authoritarianism, not solutions. What’s more, the millenial instinct invariably gives rise to simplistic and impractical views of the world and how best to make it conform to one’s preferences. Those in its grip, writes Hughes,
tend to reduce the complex socio-moral universe into those who believe in the eschatological worldview and those who do not, [which] contributes to political withdrawal, authoritarianism, and violence … society collapses into friends and enemies of the Singularity, the Risen Christ, or the Mahdi. … Given the stakes—the future of humanity—enemies of the Ordo Novum must be swept aside. Apostates and the peddlers of mistaken versions of the salvific faith are even more dangerous than outright enemies, since they can fatally weaken and mislead the righteous in their battle against evil.
Obvious examples come to mind: Jonestown, the Unabomber, Aum Shinrikyo, the eco-fascism of the El Paso and Christchurch mass murderers. “Whenever contemporary millenarians identify particular scientists, politicians, firms, or agencies as playing a special role in their eschatologies,” he writes, “we can expect similar violence in the future.” Eliezer Yudkowsky observes something similar in his essay, “Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global risks.” The largest catastrophes in human history involve deaths on the order of ten to the power of seven.
Substantially larger numbers, such as 500 million deaths, and especially qualitatively different scenarios such as the extinction of the entire human species, seem to trigger a different mode of thinking—enter into a “separate magisterium.” People who would never dream of hurting a child hear of an existential risk, and say, “Well, maybe the human species doesn’t deserve to survive.” … The cliché phrase “end of the world” invokes the magisterium of myth and dream, of prophecy and apocalypse, of novels and movies. The challenge of existential risks to humanity is that, the catastrophes being so huge, people snap into a different mode of thinking. Human deaths are suddenly no longer bad, and detailed predictions suddenly no longer require any expertise, and whether the story is told with a happy ending or a sad ending is a matter of personal taste in stories.
Quite so. There are many other cognitive biases to overcome before we can appraise and respond rationally to these risks. But the propensity to enter this different mode of thinking is the most significant. Catastrophic risks may seem to us like myths and dreams, but they are very real. If we’re to improve our odds of surviving the century, we must begin thinking of them as we would any other problem we’re serious about solving.
Claire Berlinski is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.
|↑1||The literature is vast; here are some suggestions: An upper bound for the background rate of human extinction, by Snyder-Beattie et al., who treat only natural risks—asteroids, stellar explosions, super volcanoes. They put the likelihood of human extinction within the next year to be somewhere between one in 15,000 and one in 87,000. The lower estimate puts us firmly in the range of “more probable than a car crash.” The Global Catastrophic Risks Survey puts the odds of human extinction in the coming century at 19 percent. The Stern Review, which focuses exclusively on worst-case climate change scenarios, puts it at 10 percent. I suspect most climate scientists would say this estimate is too high. Nuclear War as a Global Catastrophic Risk indicates there is no consensus. In The Precipice, Toby Ord puts the odds at one in six in this century, up from one in a hundred in the 20th. He focuses (correctly, in my view) on the risk from nuclear and biological weapons. Here are some individual estimates of the likelihood of nuclear war or terrorism—which are not necessarily existential risks, but certainly catastrophic ones. It is notable that politicians who experienced a close call place the odds so much higher than people who haven’t had this experience.|
|↑2||Unless otherwise specified, in the volume that Milan M. Ćirković kindly sent to me.|
I believe that governments and citizens need to focus (within reason) on catastrophic risks. This requires greater scientific literacy of gov, media and citizens. A problem that pulls us away such a focus is that “read in an hour daily printed newspaper” of 20 years ago has been replaced by scattered and never-ending rabbit holes of information on all topics on the internet. National leaders need to display an example of necessary concern that populations can then aspire to.
The literature of apocalypse—extensive, lively, enduringly popular—suggests that humanity is not really blind to the possibilities of global catastrophe. On the contrary, we’re comfortable with them. They even give us a thrill. This quirk of human nature manifests itself in many ways, from the Human Extinction Movement to “The Walking Dead.” George Romero knew what he was doing when he invented the zombie apocalypse.
Why this is so seems fairly obvious: One person’s apocalypse is another person’s Declaration of Independence. TWD’s villains tended to be tyrants, warlords, gang chiefs, freed by the collapse of civilization to actualize their inner fascist. Sociopaths are all around us and no doubt a fair percentage of them would be delighted if things were to fall apart. So would other, even more sinister types.
I mention this because in thinking over what Claire has written here, it seems to me that the element of the death cult that lurks in the human subconscious has to be taken seriously. Getting people to think about the possibility of real-world catastrophe, apocalypse, extinction, may produce effects the opposite of those intended. Science, indeed, is the font of rationality. But on the whole people are irrational—as I was prompted to reflect today by the sight of a woman out for a walk in our spacious subdivision—wearing a mask. A small thing, you may say. But the Cult of Greta and that of Trump, etc. are not small things. It’s sobering to reflect that most people nowadays are no less superstitious than their ancestors, though their superstition may have a different focus.
I agree. Good points, all of them.
A similar point was made by George Orwell who somewhere or other wrote that though literature can boast of many lively depictions of Hell, no one has ever succeeded in producing a compelling pen portrait of Heaven. I’ve pondered this point before and even wrote a short story whose central character was one of those sinister apocalypse huggers to whom I referred.
The extinction of the homo sapiens doesn’t interest most people because few of us have any loyalty to our species. I would actually argue that none of us posses this loyalty and those who claim to are merely preening in the hope of achieving social status by impressing their contemporaries. People are not any more interested in human extinction than cats are in the extinction of all felines.
What humans are obsessed with is the extinction of their family, their tribe and their nation. In “The Star of Redemption,” the German philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote,
“Just as every individual must reckon with his own death, the peoples of the world foresee their own extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed the love of the people for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentment of death…Thus the people’s of the world foresee a time when the land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customs have lost their living power.”
We can’t bear our own mortality without the hope of immortality and our sense of immortality is purely social. It has nothing to do with a sense of commitment to the survival of our species and everything to do with the survival of our offspring, our religious traditions, our language and our tribal or national culture.
If the source of that social immortality is threatened people will lash out in often irrational ways. David P. Goldman (Claire’s old colleague from Asia Times) has pointed out that the worst violence in war occurs after one side faces inevitable defeat. He gives the example of the American Civil War where most of the carnage and death occurred after the South had no reasonable chance of emerging victorious.
The other reaction to inevitable national extinction is profound ennui. One of the first obvious symptoms is plunging fertility rates.
Two thirds of Italians and three quarters of the Japanese will be elderly by 2050. Unless there’s a resurgence in German fertility, the number of living Germans will plunge by 95 percent in the next two centuries. There is no social security program anywhere which can survive this inverted population pyramid. The problem in the Islamic world is even worse, especially in Iran. The more Iran confronts demographic death, the more confrontational and desperate it may become.
An 18 year old French or German green activist praying for a declining world population to save the planet from climate change is likely to discover that when she’s in her 80s, she will spend her dotage in miserable fashion because their won’t be enough Europeans alive to pay for her pension or medical care.
Worry less about an extinction level event afflicting humanity because you will simply never get people to care about it. Politically speaking, it’s not relevant now; it will never be. That’s doubly true if we need to rely on globally implemented solutions like treaties or regulatory schemes.
But there’s a lot more misery yet to come that we might be able to do something about. Instead of focusing on death by homicide, accidental or otherwise, we should be focusing on death by suicide and how to prevent it.
David P. Goldman’s treatise on all of this is well worth a read. It’s entitled, “It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You.”
This all reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw, it went like this:
Nietzsche: “God is dead.”
God: “Who’s laughing now?”
While this might be going a bit off topic something I find interesting is the degree to which people on the political right concerned about demography and declining population themselves make very strange political decisions and alliances. For example I have heard from social conservatives for a long time that pornography and prostitution are two of the causes of declining birth rates and in light of this problem social conservatives should ally with radical feminists on the left who also strongly oppose prostitution and pornography too. The thing as I see it as libertarianish type person who on the other hand supports prostitution and pornography is that the radical Feminists are totally nuts and in the long term even more hostile to what social conservatives claim to want in terms promoting family formation and increasing birth-rates than the pornographers and prostitutes are. So why the hell cozy up to the Andrew Dworkin’s, Julie Bindel’s, and Kate MckInnon’s of the world if you are concerned about death by suicide?
Tim, pornography and prostitution have little or nothing to do with demographic decline. The causes of population decline are pretty well documented. Urbanization, secularization and especially improvement in female literacy lead to plunges in population. While this is true in the West, it is especially true in what we use to call the third world.
Everywhere you look, as female literacy increases, the number of children that women have goes down; often way down.
In much of the Muslim world girls who grew up with five or six siblings will bear only one or two. Who will take care of them in their dotage is an open question now that the number of children they can rely on is few and given the low economic productivity of their societies.
It’s no accident that the European nations with the lowest fertility rates are in the East, where decades of communism purged these nations of much of their religious inclinations.
In the United States, which avoided this problem longer than most developed nations did, increasing secularization in the past decade or so, has been associated with declining fertility rates in our country.
While it’s been female literacy that has been shown to spur fertility declines, one has to wonder whether female empowerment in general also leads to fertility decline. In the United States as more women assume leadership positions in the working world, fertility has gone down but whether this is merely an association rather than causative is unclear.
A rarely discussed aspect of all of this is the increasing age at which women bear children. For all of human history women had their first child in their late teens or early 20s. In the west, that age is now the late 20s or early 30s.
It’s an enormous experiment in human biology that’s taking place without people even realizing it. There’s been a debate in medical circles about whether the increase in rates of autism and attention deficit disorders are real or merely due to better surveillance. What’s scientifically well documented is that increasing parental age, especially increasing paternal age is significantly associated with these disorders and others. There’s reasonably good evidence that schizophrenia and even diminished IQ in offspring is positively associated with increasing paternal age. It seems that the sperm of 30 year old men is simply not as “good” as the sperm of men in their teens and twenties.
I think this is all related to the point of Claire’s essay. Yes, there are meteors, pandemics and nuclear accidents to worry about. But what most threatens national cultural and political extinction is entirely self-imposed.
Suicide is what we need to worry about.
An excellent point. Technological civilization may bear the the seeds of its own demise by suppressing the production of the most valuable capital of all: human capital.
I think that’s right and it suggests some very uncomfortable possibilities. Sadly nature and culture don’t always align and in the end, nature wins every time.
It’s much more conducive to societal stability for women not to have children in their teens; by waiting they are more likely to be able to sustain permanent two parent relationships and to be economically secure enough to support their children. The other side of the coin is that by waiting, women are more likely to put their children at risk for neurological damage which leads to autism and other neurological conditions. Most people would be shocked to see how many maladies seem to be associated with increasing paternal age.
A discussion about the role of women in society has the potential to be even more fraught. Everyone agrees that increasing female literacy leads to declining fertility, but there’s reason to think it goes beyond that.
Universal female literacy has been the rule in the United States for about a century, maybe a bit more. Throughout this period, fertility in our country almost never fell below replacement. More recently, the United States has joined all of Europe and much of Asia in failing to produce enough offspring to prevent population decline.
Concomitant with this decline in fertility in the west has been an increase in female empowerment in many sectors of society. The uncomfortable question that arises is whether female empowerment is suppressing fertility even beyond that which can be accounted for by improvements in female literacy.
The implications for society could be as calamitous as nuclear war, a newly emergent pandemic or a meteor strike.
There’s not a nation in the entire OECD (except Israel) which is having enough children to keep population stable. In much of Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, fertility is closer to one child per mother than the 2.1 children needed for population stability.
Again, our understanding of ethics and the realities of nature may be colliding. All but the most miserable idiots (e.g. the Taliban) will agree that women, like men have the right to reach their full potential. As women have been freed to pursue educational opportunities and their career ambitions, not only have the lives of women been dramatically improved but so have the lives of men.
But alas, the conundrum; if female empowerment is in fact contributing to a problematic birth dearth, the societies benefiting from the feminist liberation movement may at the same time be fundamentally weakened by it.
It’s a very tough issue to think about. It would be both ironic and horrific if societies where women and men were equal in every way were unsustainable because of the impact of this reality on fecundity.
There are two possible solutions. One is a technological fix. Mechanical artificial wombs are coming; they are being perfected as we speak.
If we were to return a century from now, it is likely that at least some fetuses will be gestated in an artificial womb.
The second alternative is more attractive. Thomas you mentioned a line from Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” in one of your comments. We all know what the narrator was attempting to convince the subject of his affection to acquiesce to. In today’s world, the narrator would be considered a sexual predator. If he were a college student he might be expelled. If he worked at a Fortune 500 company he would probably be disciplined or fired. Maybe we need a society that’s more permissive and even appreciative of sex and love than the society that the current incarnation of Victorian-mimicking feminists is trying to promote.
How true. An alliance of convenience may sometimes be necessary, but usually it’s found to have a steep downside. In this case I’d say that it would be all downside…
Some of my favorite political issues to argue about are things like nuclear power, Brexit, prostitution, and pornography in part as I am a political independent who hates organized political parties and these issues tend to divide and destroy political parties internally(I am also 38 and childless so I don’t have certain parental biases that someone my age with children would have either). What I find interesting about prostitution as a political issue and how it divides the political left is that both the anti prostitution radical feminists and the kind of newer edgier woke Bernie Sanders left who supports its decriminalization really don’t even understand what prostitution is and how it works in 2021. Some of this to be fair is a consequence of the laws regarding prostitution tending to be very old and centered around antique “pre internet” concepts like streetwalking, pandering, houses of “ill” repute etc.
I would argue a big chunk of what is prostitution or “quasi-prostitution/prostitution adjacent activity” in the year 2021 is basically wealthier middle aged to older aged men seeking paid female companionship(that the majority of the time probably does involve sexual relations but not always) arranged over the internet with younger very “conventionally” attractive females who look like Playboy Playmates(or in some cases actually did appear in Playboy). Anyways I am pretty sure the radical fems intensely dislike this aspect of society but they also choose to de-emphasize it in favor of talking about street prostitution during their political campaigning. On the other hand the elements of the woke left who support decriminalization of prostitution don’t really understand how as a laid out above a large part of the prostitution industry so to speak actually works. I doubt for example the typical wealthier middle aged “buyer” of younger female companionship is particular woke or that in love with the politics of Bernie Sanders or AOC. I also suspect these wealthier middle aged buyers would prefer their taxes and especially the top bracket tax rates to be lower instead of higher. And BTW, on the other side of the transaction the younger very physical attractive women in the trade i.e. the “high class” call girls, companions, escorts etc. probably lean more left than the male buyers but they are hardly flaming Bernie Sanders or AOC supporters either. Most do well enough financially to also notice the “squeeze” of the income tax system.
So in conclusion instead the new edgy woke takes the proposition that “street prostitution” or “survival prostitution” really isn’t that bad and isn’t nearly as bad as the radical feminists make it out to be and maybe we should even celebrate “street prostitution” even if you talk to anyone involved in anything “close” to prostitution they will tell you that street prostitution is not just really bad but really dangerous. Instead we just get these dogmatic fights because both sides got locked into these totally incorrect narratives about how the real world actually works.
A final conclusion I will make is I don’t think it is not a coincidence that the countries that have legalized prostitution like Germany, Australia, Switzerland, etc. tend to more “masculine” male dominated societies that lack the organized radical feminist movements of the US, Canada, UK, France, Sweden, etc. Sweden for example is probably one of the most anti prostitution nations on earth.
You missed part of my argument. Whether you feel loyalty to your species or not, the extinction of your species entails the extinction of your family, your tribe, and your nation–and you–so it makes no sense to be indifferent to species extinction because it doesn’t involve those narrower categories of loyalty. In any event, I don’t agree with you that we feel no loyalty to our species. Many of us not only do, but behave as if we do.
I actually think to Claire’s point the problem as I see it is we have too much loyalty to our tribes and our nations. Hence my point about why I love political issues like nuclear power and prostitution as they tend to destroy and breakdown political tribes and as someone who hates political tribes I love talking about these issues.
To go off on tangent but then trying to return to Claire’s point(and this is something I wished I brought up during Energy Week) is that I do think some of the deep seated emotional dislike of nuclear power or even more advanced power sources like fusion is this sense that everything dislikable about Western Society and the human race will become even more dislikeable when energy no longer become a constraint on human activity i.e. a world powered by nuclear energy will be a world that is even more in the style of “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” Something I have just become aware of for example is there was a significant element of the German Green Party who wanted to ban research on mRNA technology right up until the pandemic hit. I suspect some of these people are unhappy that even more people did not die from Covid and the vaccines are making it all to easy for the Western World to go back to it’s “Keeping up with the Kardashians” slumber.
Which gets me to my last point is maybe some people on both the right and left are so into talking about extinction level events because they are actually hope one will happen in order to punish the human race for it’s decadence(i.e. that we became a “Keeping up with the Kardashians” race”). I of course hardly hope for this but if you say opposed all mRNA research prior to Covid on the basis of “ethical grounds” it makes my at least wonder if you are not purposely trying to seek the death of the entire human race.
He makes the same argument, using the same examples, in this book: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/159698273X?pf_rd_r=2B32AMRARYQY15ZSKQ06&pf_rd_p=5ae2c7f8-e0c6-4f35-9071-dc3240e894a8&pd_rd_r=71605afa-6e34-415c-becb-37d70fb3351c&pd_rd_w=8pECQ&pd_rd_wg=S9VdC&ref_=pd_gw_unk
Amazon tells me they were published on the same day. Do you know whether they’re the same book?
Rachel, they are two different books that deal with some of the same subjects. Goldman is a polymath who is keenly interested in demographics. He is also a classical music critic (a damn good one).
I believe the book you referenced is a series of essays that he published under the pseudonym of “Spengler.”
The relevance of his books to Claire’s thesis is that he believes several societies in Europe and the Islamic world are facing extinction level events because of demographic implosion.
“I would actually argue that none of us posses this loyalty and those who claim to are merely preening in the hope of achieving social status by impressing their contemporaries.”
I am interested in the prevention of existential risk and a portion of my income is dedicated to reducing them, and a portion of my time to discussing them. Are you still so sure of my motives, or is that narrative of why I do things convenient to your world view?
I could not agree more.
For probably 99% of the human race, humanity, the species, is a mere abstraction. This is no doubt because most people lack imagination. But it’s also due to the fact that in their daily lives most people are preoccupied with other problems. Consider the case of a single mother with two or three kids who works long hours and sacrifices much in order to keep her family intact: How interested is she likely to be in the issues under discussion here?
I myself will be 72 in August, “And at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot, hurrying near.” We all have a date with our customized individual extinction event and perhaps that is true of humanity in the large. Personally, however, I’m in no big hurry about that. Whether our species’ collective consciousness reasons similarly remains an open question.
I suspect, if we’re clever and reasonable, we might be able to put extinction off for a few million years.
Humans aren’t designed to think rationally.
We are designed to see and recognize patterns.
This worked well for survival in a primitive world where survival is the number one priority each day.
In our current complex world humans still use pattern recognition as the primary mechanism to make sense of the world, but it doesn’t work all that well. Much irrational behavior results.
Pattern recognition is so much easier and efficient than rational thinking and research.
Those are really hard work for the human mind. Most people won’t make the extra effort.
I’m not sure I understand your argument. Do you believe humans are designed? If so, why do you think they aren’t designed to think rationally? Plainly, the ability to think rationally is a trait humans *do* possess. It’s an innate faculty, one that can be honed with training and effort. Take a class of fifteen-year-olds of average aptitude and teach them propositional and predicate logic. After this, most of them will think *much* more rationally. This wouldn’t be possible if the aptitude for learning this wasn’t there to begin with. It is: It’s an innate and common human trait. Whether you think this trait a product of random mutation and natural selection or design, inarguably it is there.
I also don’t understand why you draw a sharp distinction between “pattern recognition” and “rationality.” Recognizing patterns is part of reasoning, surely. “Rational thinking and research” very often involves looking for patterns–although of course we need to be sure we really see the patterns we first think we see, and ask ourselves if these patterns are genuinely meaningful.
That people are sometimes irrational doesn’t mean we have no ability to be rational, or that rationality doesn’t significantly guide our behavior and decisions.
Nor do I think it’s true that “most people” won’t make the effort to be rational or do research. I see people exhibiting both behaviors all day long, every day. The difference between the rationality humans exhibit on a daily basis and the capacities of other animals is extraordinary. I love animals with all my heart, but it’s an obvious fact that even the dumbest and crudest human can perform astonishing feats of reasoning compared to even the very most intelligent of animals.
What do you mean, exactly?
Regardless of by what or whom, natural selection, intelligent being, or some other mechanism, we have “designed” ways of perceiving the world in that sense that what works best survives and propagates.
Our primary mechanism is to recognize patterns. Once we figure out how to deal with a pattern, when we perceive it again, we will react based on our experience with the same pattern before. This mechanism allows us to simplify a very complex world down to something our minds can manage. We do this automatically. If we didn’t, the sensory input we constantly experience would overwhelm the mind.
We are also capable of rational analysis, but that takes a great deal more time and effort than simply fitting everything we encounter into prior patterns.
If the English on the coast took the time to study, think and analyze every time Viking ships appeared on the horizon, that extra time could prove fatal.
The pattern of past experience quickly said flee or prepare to fight.
Driving a car is another good example. We are able to perform most driving functions by pattern and reacting even while we are thinking about other things, like listening to a podcast. Being alert in that situation means snapping our full mental capabilities back to driving when something outside the patterns occurs.
Another example: I could react like a troll to your comment or take an hour or so to compose this response. The former would be easier and quicker, the latter I choose because I am motivated by the enjoyment of our interaction.
I agree the two processes can mix together, but most rely on patterns first because all life forms take the easiest path. It’s a survival mechanism. Expend the least energy and time to get a result that appears to work.
While I agree with you that almost all have the capability to stop and take the time to rationally analyze a situation, it requires some motivation to make the effort. Some are motivated by curiosity. Often the motivation occurs when a situation or problem cannot be fit into prior patterns. It is also a capability that is enhanced by education that emphasizes critical thinking and skepticism.
For example: If the pattern one is locked into is that everything Trump says is crazy or wrong, then if Trump says Covid might have come from an accident at the Wuhan lab, the mind has two choices: 1. Follow the pattern and now believe it is impossible it came from the lab and other people who say it might are also crazy. 2. Rationally analyze what we know and accept that in this case, Trump might be correct. This option does require a lot of effort and can result in some discomfort because it creates a crack in the pattern.
When people become completely invested in a pattern and something in reality breaks the pattern, they will often engage in incredible mental gymnastics to hang on to the pattern. They will not see things in front of them or see things that don’t exist. It is an amazing process called cognitive dissonance. It is an internal mental exercise we are all always juggling. I’ve caught myself doing many times.
But I digress.
I think where we disagree is our level of expectation that the average person will take the time and effort to think deeply about and analyze all the potential apocalyptic scenarios. My expectation is lower than yours, so I don’t experience your apparent level of distress at their lack of interest.
Another thought: Schools from kindergarten through higher spend way too much time teaching children to see patterns of racism and oppression in everything.
They spend almost no time teaching critical thinking skills like risk analysis.
I suspect a large percentage of those who were subject to our education system over the last 30 years, if they read your article, will be mentally searching through it trying to fit the apocalypse into the racist oppression they have been taught to see in everything. That is how they will decide if it is a real problem or not.
There has been and always will be racism and oppression, but if that is all one has been taught to see, it will be difficult to rationally analyze most problems.
Just finished submitting the comment below when I saw this article.
“Alina Chan is a biologist at the Silver lab at the Harvard School of Medicine. Chan is one of 18 scientists who finally admitted in the journal of Science last month that the Wuhan coronvirus likely originated in a Wuhan, China virology lab. Chan says liberal scientists lied to the American public for months about their beliefs on the origination of the virus. They did this because they didn’t want to be associated with President Trump.”
Here we have scientists changing what they are reporting to the public for non-rational reasons. If scientists will lie instead of reporting accurately because of a political motivation, we are in trouble.
Can we count on them not to do this in other apocalyptic areas of study?