What is the Optimal Human Population? Lessons From the Novels of Stephen Baxter

Mediocre science fiction writers echo the terrors of their own era. Great science fiction writers transcend them. Nowhere is this more obvious than in science-fictional treatments of population issues—or ecological issues, into which concerns about overpopulation have lately been ingurgitated, like Bruegel’s big fish eating the littler ones.

Our current Malthusian panic took off in the 1970s, following the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. The classic move Soylent Green, based on Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room!, appeared in 1973—two years before I was born; I ought to thank my lucky stars that my parents didn’t take the craze for zero population growth too seriously. Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside also dates from this era, satirically depicting a future where humanity’s teeming trillions are caged in 1,000-storey cities while continuing to reproduce their little hearts out in obedience to the Biblical imperative.

While the world’s population continues to grow, the population of Japan peaked in 2005 and is now in decline. The Japanese edition of National Geographic recently published an interview with Hiroshi Kito, a professor of historical population studies at Sophia University here in Tokyo. Kito points out that Japan’s population has in fact declined before (in the late Jomon, Heian-Kamakura, and late Edo periods), due to climate and social changes.

However, he stresses—and I think this is important to remember—that “what really triggered population decline was the psychology of the people” affected by these changes. What else, he goes on to ask, could explain Japan’s shrinking population now, when we have all the food we can eat?

In rough summary, his argument runs like this: Japan has always imported technologies and customs from overseas, but in the postwar period the process was accelerated too fast; this tsunami of foreign goods and feelings has not yet been assimilated; people are all too conscious of dizzying changes, especially to family structures, and this breeds a sense of unease. A malaise, if you will, of the soul.

Japan’s not alone in this, either. We’re just ten to twenty years ahead of y’all.

What the demographic future may look like is exhaustively described in The Rise of Post-Familialism, a research report recently published by the Civil Service College of Singapore. For a more colorful prognosis, try David P. Goldman’s How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying, Too). Goldman synthesizes the data into a big picture dramatically at odds with our anxieties about an overcrowded, overburdened Earth.

I’ll go ahead and break it down Wile E. Coyote style: we’ve already skidded off the cliff. We just haven’t noticed yet.

It’s not like this census data is classified. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, southern Europe: total fertility rates closing on 1.0. America: the current recession has nudged TFR below replacement level. We’re staring into the teeth of a Black Death level die-off of nations. So what’s with the continuing angst about overpopulation? My honorable Amazing Stories colleague, Michael Webb, recently echoed the concern that “more people live now on Earth than it can support indefinitely.” Fear not, Webb-san, they won’t be with us for long.

Prominent scientists and opinion-makers agree that although a swingeing cull of humanity would be morally reprehensible, and unfeasible, and of course no one’s contemplating any such thing, the ideal population of the earth is about, oooh, a third of its current level. Maybe that’s why they haven’t seen fit to make a fuss about the demographic cliff. You don’t rock the boat when things are going well.

I’m agnostic about the dangers of overpopulation. But I am curious about the roots of this mistrust of teeming, pullulating, writhing and multiplying humanity. Is it just classed-up racism? (The population control folks always seem to focus their efforts on the little brown people over there, not on our own shores.) Or is it the fault of science fiction?

People: we are much more influential than we know.

Today’s thinky science fiction novel is tomorrow’s hit movie. Today’s cult-fave movie is tomorrow’s zeitgeist. The thoughts in your brain right now are the bleeding edge of the future. We’re not just ahead of the curve. We make the curve happen. We need to be aware of that.

And that’s why I have such boundless respect for the science fiction writers who aren’t just playing their role as tuning forks, but thinking tomorrow’s thoughts today, and turning them into stories that horrify, educate, and inspire. Foremost among this elite of authors is Stephen Baxter.

Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence of novels is especially relevant to the topic of overpopulation because he speaks to both camps. His concept of coalescence is one of the most effective horrors I have encountered in fiction. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go. Buy. Read.)

Yet, instead of lazily settling for the alarmist stance, he goes on to relate an ecstatic future history of a universe swarming, pullulating, teeming with human beings who now count themselves in trillions. The Xeelee Sequence is not short on spaceship crashes, gigadeaths, malevolent aliens, or OMG ENTROPY moments. But it inspires, gloriously, because Baxter never once fails to make the point that every single one of those trillions is a human individual, whose life, however short and nasty, is infinitely interesting.

Overpopulation my left foot. The more the merrier!*

It’s pretty clear that on current trends, we are actually heading into a demographic crunch. That’s why I believe Stephen Baxter is ahead of his time. Give it another ten to twenty years and his celebration of numerous, pestiferous, splendiferous, rapturous, interesting humanity will look prophetic. Everyone will want more babies.

But even if the trends reverse and the global population heads for twelve billion, I’m not worried. The sustainability revolution’s a-comin’ round the mountain. And guess what?

We’ve got a whole universe to spread out in. We just have to get off our behinds and get out there.


* That “I’m agnostic” thing? It’s almost always code for “I’m actually pretty sure what I think about this.”

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  1. Michael is quite right. Sorry to say. Having spent more than a decade (early 1990s to mid 2000s) working and traveling in China, I can tell you from first hand experience that the carrying capacity of the cities, transportation system, arable land, water resources, and now even the air to breathe is stretched to the breaking point. My current work (in geographic analysis) also keeps flows of data from around the world (from various sources, such as government and financial statistics bureaus, remote sensing, and field research) streaming onto our TB bricks. When you add into this mix the raw facts of climate change and totally insane fixation in China on personal automobile ownership, as well as the continuous installation of new coal-fired power plants, your comment about "getting worked up about prophecies of doom" is more like burying your head in the sand. As for Japan, I've spent a year there too…it is a special case, in terms of the way in which MITI and Kairetsu primed the pump of R&D and captured huge profits from a captive population during the boom years. But those times are long gone. And look at reality: packed like sardines for three hour long commutes into the city, working until 10pm, then forced to drink with the boss…how can anyone raise a kid in those circumstances? In any case, I really liked your article and the themes you raised, even though I have to say that over-population of the human mono-species is completely obvious. Anthropogenic climate change is real too. Now, as SF enthusiasts and futurists, let's work on some hard choices…muddling won't cut it, unfortunately.

  2. Michael, thank you so much for this deeply felt and cogently reasoned response. I know this topic is controversial. And I know and respect many people who hold similar views to yours.

    But I believe in mankind's ability to muddle through, for want of a better term. None of the dire projections about climate change take into account the unexpected and unforeseeable–precisely the developments that can't be predicted. Some of these in the nature of things will be bad and some will be good. No one predicted the shale gas revolution, for example; and I read in The Economist just today (https://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21569686-soot-even-worse-climate-was-previously-thought-new-black) that soot accounts for much more of global warming than was thought hitherto, and it is relatively easy to reduce. On the other hand the models could be erring on the bright side and another of Baxter's novels, "Flood," will look prophetic. Either is possible.

    So I can't get too worked up about prophesies of doom, and I suppose you would say this is the very trait that is going to doom us.

    But I will and do wax excitable about outcomes that are already baked in beyond alteration. Like the degree and a half of warming we're already stuck with, which you mention. I suppose we may have to abandon some coastal cities and stop buying gadgets in order to pay for food. Not a nice thought. But I find the halving within a generation of the European and Japanese populations to be scarier on every count — not least because the more new people we have, the better our chances of having among them the genius who'll invent cold fusion!

  3. I spend a lot of time reading obviously, but not all of it is fiction. Years ago as I read about projections of what was to come, I started spending a great deal of time reading about overpopulation problems and why people make the projection that they do. I didn't just read the conclusions of scientists, I read their data too.

    When I read columns like this one, I am absolutely terrified. That isn't bombast or drama, I feel a little sick in side when I read things like this.

    It's likely that someone has already said something like what I'm about to say to you, and you evidently didn't believe them. I'm going to say it anyway and you can do what you like with my response. I feel its important that someone say it.

    Fears of overpopulation are not merely a meme spread by lazy writers. Today's scientists are very worried by what they see right now, and mainstream culture is in fact ignoring them. I am not afraid that the world will become overpopulated and resources will become scarce, I know that will happen. My fear is that things will become so bad we will drive our race into extinction, and that is not something I say lightly. That fear is there mostly because of our incredible ability to ignore what is happening around us.

    Since the beginning of the industrial age, the world has warmed about two degrees. That rate of change has accelerated exponentially as our industry has increased, and now the rest of the world is industrializing faster as well. Generally speaking, the estimate is that even if we pulled the car keys out of the ignition and all walked away from our cars, and then shut down most of our industry as well, the Earth would continue to warm for another degree and a half simply from the heat we've already accumulated. All the carbon dioxide we have released into the atmosphere stays there for a very long time, even after we shut down the plant that produced it.

    Some scientists have projected that when the average temperature goes from the two degrees warmer we have right now, to six degrees warmer, human civilization will end. As the bulk of the growing area we have for food will no longer have the necessary weather conditions to be farmed at all. Our food output has already been reduced by several percent, an effect you may have noticed at the supermarket. Not all scientists degree, some actually have projections which are even worse.

    Just about 90% of the United States was in drought conditions last year, and similar conditions are effecting much of the planet. There is a demonstrated scientific link between climate change and the increased number of Hurricanes we see every year. Their numbers are increasing, and their intensity is greater. Remember Hurricane Sandy? When was the last time you remember hearing of a hurricane hit New York? That isn't normal either.

    We have the potential to handle these problems, but it is only possible to do so if we know that we have them. Most of the world is. Europe has made great strides in changing it's co2 output, particularly Germany. Unfortunately, the United States has utterly failed to respond.

    Ultimately I suspect, there will be billions fewer people at the beginning of the next century then there are now. The only question in my mind, is whether we continue on the course we are on now and we arrive at this end through violence, or we are able to get there sanely through a sane model of easing back on our industry and having fewer babies.

    I don't want to give offense. I just feel that I have a responsibility to respond. I hope that you'll look into this. I wish more people would.

    Climate change stopped being a theory a long time ago, and the more people who are born, the more industry you need to support them. This is a solvable problem, but it may only be solved once people accept it and acknowledge for themselves that we must change the way we operate.

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