Saturday, April 26, 2014

Future Depopulation

Two of the basic facts about natural selection, a process in which even creationists believe, are that populations grow exponentially and that resources are limited. An inescapable inference from this, according to Ernst Mayr’s outline of natural selection, is the struggle for existence.

All of us hope that the human population will level off, without any catastrophic crashes. And most projections of world population show a leveling off, perhaps at nine billion people. This is because, although our population continues to grow, the rate of growth is decreasing. We have passed the inflection point (where the second derivative = 0, for you math types) and we hope to eventually reach a stable maximum (where the first derivative = 0).

Unfortunately, I fear that this is not going to happen. I fear that the world will experience massive, catastrophic depopulation. Here’s why.

More and more jobs are being done by robots and computers. Robots can build cars mighty well. Someday computers may replace all physicians except specialists. I recently talked with a student who had just given up the idea of being a radiologist, because X-rays will soon be something a computer can do with minimal supervision by a lower-level staff member. Of course, only large corporations can afford the computers and robots, but there is an increasing trend for large corporations to drive small companies out of business. Indeed, it seems that many people are beginning to work like robots. They go through the motions of work without thinking about what they are doing. That’s why there are so many basic mistakes and malfunctions in the products we buy.

Eventually, I suspect, job opportunities will greatly decline even while population continues to grow. We are facing a massive unemployment problem. There are only three things that can prevent this.

The first is continued economic growth. If an ever larger proportion of jobs are being filled by robots, the economy has to grow even faster so that people can find the jobs that robots cannot do. But this cannot happen indefinitely. Remember the basic fact that resources are limited. As economist Kenneth Boulding said, anyone who believes that exponential growth can occur forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. Of course, government can create jobs, but the tax and debt burden is becoming unsustainable, and government job opportunities are decreasing.

The second is for consumers to insist on patronizing only small businesses. But we already find this difficult to do. It is more expensive and less convenient—not much, but enough so that not enough people will do this to make a difference in the long run.

The third is for most people to become desperately poor and willing to work for almost nothing. Right now, robots are cheaper (once the corporation has made the initial investment). That is because employees have rights, such as minimum wage and now including health care. But as the number of unemployed people grows, aid becomes scarce. For example, House Republicans insisted on vastly cutting food stamps, and also insisted on creating an artificial crisis in order to destroy health care, both in September 2013. Most people will embrace even the lowest-paying jobs. They can work 19 hours and 58 minutes a week for less than minimum wage, have no health care, and have no recourse for getting safe working conditions (should unions all perish), if the alternative is starvation. They would even embrace indentured servitude, a form of slavery, if it meant that they would survive. I know I would. “Live free or die” sounds like a stirring motto but how many of us would do it? Indentured servitude would be good for business, and anyone who opposes it would be labeled as a big-government interventionist. As the mass of people get poorer while the top one percent get richer (a trend that is occurring rapidly right now), people will either have fewer kids or more of the kids will die, thus “reducing the surplus population,” as Scrooge said.

But this creates a circle that feeds on itself. This is because as more and more desperate people accept really bad jobs or even indentured servitude, more and more corporations will reduce their employee costs accordingly. And any generous corporations will find themselves losing money. It is a struggle for existence among the poor and among the corporations.

And then add the food shortages caused by global climate change on top of that.

How can we prevent this from happening? In the next entry, I will share an idea that comes from a most unexpected source.

Of course I hope I’m wrong. Let me know what you think.

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