On Death and Overpopulation, Sept. 3, 2018

This is not an entry to read to be comforted as you grieve the loss of a loved one. If you are in the throes of grief, I am so very sorry. Please send me a note to pray for you.

Our grief is, I think, meant to move us somehow. If you believe, as I do, that God made us with our emotions and need for relationships, then grief is a natural part of our makeup and must serve a purpose. We weren't meant to avoid it, nor to cover it over. Before my time, as I am told, people encountered it often, and at every stage in life. In 1911, the infant mortality rate (IMR) in the U.S. was 135 deaths per 1000 live births. Even as recently as the period 1950-1955, the IMR worldwide was 152. There were, as well, numerous instances in which a mother died in childbirth. An article of Laura Helmuth states that a century ago over 600 women died per 100,000 births in the U.S., but that this figure is now down to 15. A recent figure puts infant deaths in the U.S. at 582 for 100,000 births (i.e., 5.8 per 100). Naturally there are many factors, not the least of which is better medical care, which have helped to make these mortality rates drop precipitously over 100 years. We can hope that these numbers can be made lower still. In fact, the tone in Helmuth's article reflects our 21st Century impatience that it should have taken this long.

Of course, while having a death in one's own house, or in the house of a neighbor, was once commonplace even just for the limited reasons already stated, there were plenty of other fatal dangers. Alongside the development of drugs that put off disease and prolong life, we have seen safety become a watchword in American life; the lawsuit, for all its ills, deserves credit for decreasing accidental deaths. There are other factors, of course, and the benefits to human life are undeniable, as life expectancy in developed regions of the world has risen, according to Wikipedia, from about 67 years to about 82 years since the 1960s.

This is all “good news”, though there is still much that can be done, most particularly in bringing underdeveloped nations in line with these developments. Nevermind that, again from Wikipedia, the world population has risen during this same period of 50-60 years from under 3 billion to nearly 7.6 billion. Naturally, this means competition for resources, along with its byproducts (war, famine), continue to haunt us. But now, at these high population levels, we are seeing the new phenomenon that resource ends are in view---i.e., an end to the supply of oil, the falling off of agricultural production in future years perhaps due to soil becoming unserviceable or to the decrease in numbers of bees and other helpers, perhaps even a climate that becomes inhospitable to human life. Some projections say the population will continue its increase unabated to as high as 15 billion, perhaps in 50 years or less, and one can imagine the atrocities that could accompany that kind of growth. The hope of Christians, Christ himself, may come before then. Meanwhile, research in the scientific community continues, in the hopes that innovation can make for a sustainable environment—sustainable for all life, not just the human population—even if/when we reach that level. A question, however, that should nag even the most optimistic thinker remains: so we create a sustainable environment for 15 billion people. What then? Will governments legislate limits on procreation at that point? Will we naturally gravitate, as a species, toward a view of sex as a recreational activity only, with dwindling interest in producing children? Will our population continue doubling every N years, but innovation remain in step with it? Will we become nomads in a universe that presumably has another life-sustaining world within reach every time we exhaust the resources on our then-current planet?

I see a day coming when our impatience may be focused anew on the very developments that stave off death. Hear me out. I am quite aware of the fact that, at a personal level, our natural urge is to applaud such innovation. I may be able to say, in the abstract, that curing cancer is not our most pressing problem—one, say, that demands more resources than reversing global warming—but as soon as I hear of a positive biopsy, my reaction, like anyone's, is to see cancer research as the best of human endeavors. Nevertheless, if/when resources become scarce enough to threaten the lives of well-connected, affluent people, there will be a corresponding drop in philanthropic concern for the masses.

I recently read Inferno, one in the series of books by Dan Brown featuring the character Robert Langdon. (The novelty of Mr. Brown's formulaic writing has worn on me to the point that I don't trust my opinion on whether it is a better or worse book than any of its predecessors.) The villain is an intelligent, rich fellow who is so convinced that what humankind needs to survive is a major hit to the population that he develops a highly contagious virus for this purpose. In the screenplay for the film version, this villain is depicted as unambiguously evil, a mass murderer who designs his virus to kill half the world's population. Those who have studied the history of plagues and devastating influenza outbreaks say this sort of thing is coming; perhaps if/when it arrives, it will be seen as a correction that saves life on earth as we know it. But if we reach a day when someone not only has the capability to release such a killer virus, but is lauded as a hero for doing so, we will have turned a real corner morally as a species (the same kind of corner, I hasten to add, that many think we turned when abortion-on-demand became legal). In Brown's book, the nature of our villain is more ambiguous in that the virus he designs to infect all humans does not kill, but only renders impotent, half the world's population. Granted, I think human cloning if farther along in gaining acceptance than such an act as this one from the novel, but it doesn't seem outlandish to me that it would be viewed by historians as acceptable, at least if it really did reduce population levels significantly.

I say “if”, because any such virus would bring on impotence in seeming random fashion. Many of its victims would be people with the means to go child-shopping. And many non-victims would be economically motivated to take on child-producing as a business opportunity. The function of gender-specific organs could become “entertainment only” for most, and revenue-generation for rest, those most fertile among us. Perhaps the next “innovation” would be biofactories that grew children in fetal tanks. In short order, these factories would be tailoring genetic traits to order. It makes Aldous Huxley look all the more prophetic to ponder such a future.

In the end, my conclusion is that innovation, which has generated fortunes and been the bringer of our age, is not as friendly to life as we might first think. Once a life-sustaining innovation becomes available, it brings responsibility on those authorized to use it, responsibility to save lives; to not do so is, at best, negligence, and at worst, murder. But is there a mandate to innovate? Is there a growing mandate, one that looms larger as the human population grows, to slow, or even halt, life-sustaining innovation? I have argued that population growth cannot be checked by a single person (visionary? madman?), as in Mr. Brown's book. If it is to happen at all, it will take consensus, the kind of broad agreement that would rule out birthing factories as one of its first, but not only, measures. That sort of consensus would take time and many conversations. It might require throwing aside our hubris that sees past generations as fools in comparison to the wisdom we now possess—perhaps even acknowledging ourselves as the fools—and beginning to immerse our young in the circumspect wisdom of plain, ordinary people of past generations. By the time the world is ready, it may, indeed, contain 15 billion people. But in having these conversations, in instituting this sort of education, we could position ourselves better to answer my nagging question posed earlier, "what then?"