The Future of Humanity: a Lecture by Isaac Asimov

The Future of Humanity: a Lecture by Isaac Asimov

Newark College of Engineering, November 8, 1974

[I’ve truncated most of this very long article]

We wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in [if people weren’t stupid, illustrated with humorous examples that were snipped]. Because believe me, we’re in a mess. Now, it isn’t very difficult to see that we’re in a mess, or even to see years ago that we were in a mess.

In 1933, I read a story called “The Man Who Awoke” by Lawrence Manning. In it, the hero wished to see what the world of the future would be like. So he invented a potion, which when he drank it, put him to sleep for five thousand years, and then woke him up a little hoarse, but otherwise OK. He found himself a vault in which he would lie undisturbed for five thousand years. And then woke up unharmed.  And he thought he was going to come out and see a very futuristic world with all kinds of extremely super-modernistic devices flying through the air, and magical food pills and all that. And instead, what did he find? He found a very constricted world. A world in which everybody lived rather…rather not very lavish lives. You know, they dressed in homespun, and they walked everywhere, and they worried a lot about what the next meal would be. And so he said to them “What is this?” he says. “You guys are leading such a constricted lives. What’s all this futurism I expected?” So they said “Oh well, you don’t understand.” He said: “We’re short on energy. Very short on energy because some thousands of years ago there was a generation or two of human beings who burnt up all the coal and oil on Earth, and left nothing for us.” And our hero said “Strange you should say that”. He said “I happen to be from the very generation that did this to you!”

And so they tried to lynch him, naturally. And he got back to the vault just in time, slammed the door, and took another potion to see if anything new happened five thousand years later still.

When I  was thirteen, I started thinking.  Major premise: The Earth’s volume is finite Minor Premise: The total volume of coal and oil on the Earth is less than the total volume of the Earth Conclusion: The volume of coal and oil are finite.

You would think that this was so obvious! Now, let’s start and make this conclusion the major premise of the next syllogism:

Major Premise: The volume of coal and oil are finite Minor Premise: We are burning some every day Conclusion: We will use it all up eventually

Well, I got that in 1933. And so you see how science fiction helps you escape. It helps you escape to the kinds of problems that’ll keep you worried for forty years.

Well, here we are. We have just come through a thirty year period of mankind’s maximum prosperity, on the whole. We’ve done very well since World War Two. We have…the world as a whole has eaten better, has lived better, has had a higher standard of living than it has ever had before. Now, you might tell me that through this entire thirty years there have been millions…hundreds of millions of people always hungry, always starving, with very little, and I’ll say yes; it’s been rotten. My point is that before now, it’s always been rotten-ER. And we haven’t really appreciated how temporary this is.

For one thing, we’ve had ample supplies of food, and part of the reason for that was that we’ve had an extremely good spell of weather for the last thirty years. In fact, there are some people who say that this last thirty years was the best thirty year spell of weather that we have had in the last thousand years. Now you may remember cold spells, and floods, and droughts, and all the rest of this stuff. But there has been less of it the world over than usual. In addition, just as we’ve had this good weather, we’ve also been applying energy at a far greater rate than ever before to farm machinery, to irrigation machinery. In addition, we’ve been using insecticides and pesticides of various sorts, to sort of clobber those little beasties and those weeds who think they’re going to get some of our food. And in addition to that we’ve also developed new strains of grain, so-called “green revolution”, that grow a lot of protein very fast. And what with all these things put together, our food supply has been going up.

But now, look what happens.

The very thing that makes it possible for us to use more and more energy is our industrial technologized world.

It’s getting hard to get energy. Energy is much more expensive than it used to be; oil prices are up. And that means that fertilizer is more expensive than it used to be. And it turns out that the green revolution depends on strains of grain that require…yes, they do what they’re supposed to do…but they require a lot of irrigation; a lot of water, and a lot of fertilizer. And the fertilizer isn’t there. And the irrigation machinery is hard to run now with expensive oil. And, of course, the pesticides are produced in high-energy chemical factories; their price goes up. Everything is combining to cut down on the food supply. And to arrange it so that in years to come, we may have trouble keeping our present level of food, let alone increasing it.

Of course you might say: “Well, heck! Mankind got along thirty years ago, before the good weather spell came, when there were droughts in the midwest, and dust bowls, and when there was comparatively much less farm machinery in use, and irrigation machinery, and there was no green revolution, and we weren’t using pesticides…except Paris Green and other tasty things like that. And when we weren’t worrying, we weren’t worrying about all the other means of improving the food supply either, so we’ll go back to what it was then, and we’ll live the simple life.”

There are always people who think that all we have to do, after all is abandoned, all this foolish technology that we’ve made ourselves slave to, and go back like our ancestors and live close to the soil with the good things of nature. That would be great if we could do it. If we could go back to the way it was before World War II, technologically, we could support all the people that lived on Earth before World War II. The catch is that in these last thirty years one billion and a half people have been added to the population of the Earth. And we have been feeding them largely because of all these things that we have done in these last thirty years, the good weather, the fertilizers, and the pesticides, and the irrigation, and the green revolution, and all the rest of it. If we abandon that, we also have to abandon a billion and a half people; and there are going to be very few volunteers for the job.

Alas, this goes in general. We are in a situation where we cannot go back. We cannot abandon technology. We can’t say “Well, heck! We’ll go back to the good old fireplace with wooden logs! We don’t need this damned central heating!” There’s two things about the fireplace with those good old natural wooden logs. In the first place, it’s a rotten system for heating the house, which is why everyone switched to first the coal furnace, and then the oil furnace. They didn’t do that because they hated nature. They didn’t do that because they turned their backs on things that were nice, and just wanted filthy modern stuff, no.

The wood fire doesn’t work! That’s what it doesn’t!

And the second thing, if all of us decide to have wood fires the way our pioneering ancestors did, we’d better remember that there were maybe three million of our pioneering ancestors, and there are two hundred million of us. And there ain’t enough wood. And the price will go up instantly. And there will be a black market. And the forests will be destroyed.

And the same will be if you substitute for electric lights, candles. There’s something very romantic about studying by candlelight unless you try it.

And if you think studying by candlelight is bad, wait until you try to run a television set by candlelight.

Well then, what are we going to do in the future? Population is still going up. Population right now is higher than it’s ever been in the world’s history; it stands at just under four billion. And the increase, the rate of increase is higher that it’s ever been in world history; two percent a year. Never been anywhere near that high. Right now, the world’s population is going up by two hundred thousand hungry mouths every day. By the year 2000, barring catastrophe, the Earth’s population is going to be seven billion. Nobody thinks the Earth’s food supply is going to nearly double by the year 2000. It may be that our food supply won’t go up much at all. There’s going to be terrific amounts of famine. What can we do about it?

Well, throughout the history of life on Earth, there have been periods where a given species has, for one reason or another, spurted it’s numbers upward temporarily. There’s been a surprisingly good supply of food, the weather has been just right, somehow there have been no predators…something has happened, and the numbers went up. They always went down again, and always the same way; by an increase in the death rate. The large numbers of the species starved when the food ran short. They fell victim to some disease, when as a result of being on short rations they were weaker. They made good marks for predators. It always went down. And the same thing will happen to mankind, we don’t have to worry. The death rate will go up, and we will die off through violence, through disease, through famine.

The only thing is, must we have our numbers controlled in the same way that all other species have them controlled? We have something others don’t; we have brains. We can foresee. We can plan. We can see solutions that are humane. And there is a solution that is humane, and that is to lower the birth rate.

No species in the history of the Earth has ever voluntarily lowered it’s birth rate in order to control it’s population, because they didn’t know what birth rate was, how to control it, that there was a population problem.

There is no need to decide whether to stop the population increase or not. There is no need to decide whether the population will be lowered or not. It will, it will!

The only thing mankind has to decide is whether to let it be done in the old inhumane method that nature has always used, or to invent a new humane method of our own. That is the only choice that faces us; whether to lower the population catastrophically by a raised death rate, or to lower it humanely by a lowered birth rate. And we all make the choice. And I have a suspicion that we won’t make the right choice, which is the tragedy of humanity right now.

But supposing we do? Supposing we imagine that we have entered the 21st century, and that we have survived? Then the question is: what kind of a world will we have survived into? What will the twenty-first century world be? If we survive, if there is a civilization, if there is a technology.

Well, in the first place it’s going to be a low birth rate world. It’ll have to be; that’s the conditions of survival. It’ll have to be a very low birth rate world, because the population will be too high at the beginning of the 21st century, and it may take a century to lower the population to some reasonable value.

So, that throughout the century, the birth rate will have to be lower than the death rate; and the death rate, we hope, will be low. So that babies will be comparatively rare, mothers will be never multiple mothers very much. I imagine that it will be the kind of world where every woman will be expected to have no more than two children. If she has only one child, good. And if she has no children, fine. I mean, people think of that, instantly they think of race suicide. “Oh my goodness! We’re all going to vanish!” We will have billions of people on Earth, more than we have ever had prior to this century! And through all of history before, we’ve had lower populations. No one worried that we’d vanish from the Earth!! And besides, if it looked as though we were going to vanish from the Earth, all that has to happen is the word goes out: have babies. And you’d be surprised how fast we can make it up.

Do you know that through all of the disasters in history, that only one disaster as far as we know has ever actually lowered the world’s population? The Black Death in the 1300’s. Which may have killed off one third of all humanity. Lowered the world population, and took it a century to make it up.

Those were the days when death rates were very high; of course it would take a century to make it up. Nowadays we can make it up in maybe twenty years. And since then, the disasters that have come: World War I, World War II, the Influenza pandemic of 1918…haven’t even made a wiggle in the rise of human population.

So we have great powers of increasing like rabbits. We needn’t worry if we allow the population to drop. God, how easily we could reverse that if we had to. But, there are other things to remember. If we do have a very low birth rate, then what are we going to do with women?

Throughout history, the purpose and function of womankind has been to have lots of children. Now, no sane woman, if she came upon this whole thing cold, would want a lot of children; they’re a lot of trouble, and they’re dangerous to the health…

Seriously! When the germ theory finally came in and people learned how to arrange it so that women could have babies in reasonable safety, the world discovered to their surprise that women had a longer life expectancy than men. This had never been understood before, because throughout history women had, on the average, lived years and years less than men had. With all the dangers men faced, the hard work in the fields, the hunting accidents, the killings in war, everything else, women died faster for one reason and one reason only: childbirth. Every woman had one baby after another until one of them killed her. Usually, it didn’t take long.

Well then, why do women do this? Because they are carefully told that being a wife and mother is the most glorious thing in the world, the one thing they’re fit for, the most noble activity they can possibly have, and…and this is told to them until they believe it. And if they don’t believe it, there’s a lot of trouble made for them.

Well, I won’t go into the whole thing. I suspect that you women know all about this already, and you men would rather not listen.

But notice the difference: once you want women not to have children, you’re going to have to give them something else to do! It is absolutely impossible to tell a woman that she can’t have children, and at the same time that she can’t do anything else either except maybe wash an occasional dish.

Because if you tell a woman that, she’ll figure out some way to have a baby.

I think I know the way, too!

Well then, in the world of the 21st century in order to keep the birth rate down, we’re going to have to give women interesting things to do that’ll make them glad to stay out of the nursery. And the interesting things that I can think of that we give women to do are essentially the same as the interesting things that we give men to do. I mean we’re going to have women help in running the government, and science, and industry…whatever there is to run in the 21st century. And what it amounts to is we’re going to have to pretend…when I say “we”, I mean men…we’re going to have to pretend that women are people.

And you know, pretending is a good thing because if you pretend long enough, you’ll forget you’re pretending and you’ll begin to believe it.

In short, the 21st century, if we survive, will be a kind of women’s lib world. And as a matter of fact, it will be a kind of people’s lib world because, you know, sexism works bad both ways. If the women have some role which they must constantly fulfill whether they like it or not, men have some role which they would have to constantly fulfill whether they like it or not. And if you fix it so that women can do what suits them best, you can fix it so that men can do what suits them best too. And we’ll have a world of people. And only incidentally will they be of opposite sexes instead of in every aspect of their life.

See, I’ve been so shrewd that I fixed it so that I was born in 1920. Which means I’ll be safely dead. Before the crunch comes!

But you guys will see for yourself. I hope you see a world in which mankind has decided to be sane. But I must say in all honesty that I figure that the chances are against it. Thank you.

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