The Left Hand of the Electron
16 - STOP!
As some of my Gentle Readers may know, I am an after-dinner
speaker when I can be persuaded to be one. (For the information of prospective
persuaders, I may as well state at once that the best persuasion is a large
As a speaker, I must be introduced, of course, and introductions vary in
quality. It's not difficult to see that a short introduction is better than
a long one, since much preliminary talk dulls the edge of the audience and
makes the speaker's task harder.
Again, a dull introduction is better than a witty one, since a speaker can
easily suffer by contrast with preliminary wit, and an audience which might
otherwise be receptive enough becomes critical after the joy of the introduction.
Needless to say, then, the very worst possible introduction speaker can have
is one that is both long and witty, and on the night of April 20, 1970, at
Pennsylvania State University, that is exactly what I got.
Phil Klass (far better known to science fiction fans as William Tenn) is
associate professor of English at Penn State and it naturally fell to him
to introduce me. With an evil smile on his face, he got up and delivered
an impassioned address that went on for fifteen minutes and that had the
audience of some twelve hundred people rocking with laughter (at my expense,
naturally). As he went on, a kind of grimness settled about my soul. I couldn't
possibly follow him; he was too good. Naturally, I decided to kill him as
soon as I got my hands on him, but first I had to live through my own talk.
And then at the very last minute, Phil (I'm sure, unintentionally) saved
me. He concluded his talk by saying, 'But don't let me give you the idea
that Asimov is a Renaissance Man. He has never, after all, sung Rigoletto
at the Metropolitan Opera.'
I brightened up at once, rose smiling from my seat, and mounted the stage.
I waited for the polite opening applause to die down and, without preliminary,
launched my resonant voice into 'Bella figlia dell'amore-' the opening
of the famous Quartet from Rigoletto.
It was the first time I ever got the biggest laugh of the entire evening
with my first four words, and after that I had no trouble at all.
I tell you all this because in April 1970, I gave nine talks which, despite
Rigoletto, were not funny at all. It was the month in which the first
Earth Day was celebrated, and every one of my talks dealt, in whole or in
part, with the coming catastrophe.
I have discussed that catastrophe in the final chapters of a previous volume,
The Stars in Their Courses (Doubleday, I 971), and I have made it
quite plain that in my opinion the order of business is a halt to the population
increase on Earth.
Without such a halt right away, none of mankind's problems can be solved
under any conditions: none!
The question then is: How can the population increase be halted? Since this
is now the prime question and, indeed, the only relevant question that futurists
have to face, and since science fiction writers were futurists long before
the word was invented, and since I am self-admittedly one of the leading
science fiction writers, I consider it my duty to try and answer this question.
To begin with, let us admit there are only two general ways of bringing about
a halt in the population increase we might increase the death rate, or we
might decrease the birth rate (We might, conceivably, do both, but the two
are independent and can be discussed separately.)
Let's start with the increase of the death rate first and consider all the
variations on the theme:
A - Increase in the death rate
1 - Natural increase
This is the system that has been in use for all species since life began.
It is the system that served to
population throughout its history. When food grew scarce, human beings
starved to death, were easier prey for disease in their famished conditions,
fought each other and killed in order to gain access to what food supplies
there were, led armies into other regions where food was more plentiful.
For all these reasons the death rate rose precipitously and population fell
to match the food supply.
We have here the 'four horsemen of the Apocalypse' (see the sixth chapter
of the biblical Book of Revelation) - war, civil strife, famine, and pestilence.
Modern science has greatly weakened the force of the third and fourth horsemen,
and both famine and pestilence are not what they once were. This in itself
has amazingly lowered the death rate from what it was in all the millennia
before 1850 and is the major reason for the explosiveness with which population
has increased since.
We can well imagine, however, that if the population. continues to soar for
another generation, the efforts of science will crack under the strain. All
four horsemen will regain their ascendancy; the death rate will zoom upward.
Possibly one might be objective about this and say: Well, this is the way
the game of life is played. The fittest will survive and mankind will continue
stronger than ever, for the winnowing-out it has received.
Not at all! There might have been some validity to this view, for all its
inhumanity, if mankind were armed with stone axes and spears, or even with
machine guns and tanks. Unfortunately, we have nuclear weapons at our disposal
and when the four horsemen start out on their horrid ride, the H-bombs will
surely be used.
Mankind, living in the tattered remnants of a world torn by thermonuclear
war, will not be stronger than ever. It will be living not only in the ruins
of a destroyed technology, but in the midst of a dangerously poisoned soil,
sea, and atmosphere which may no longer be able to support vertebrate life
We'll need something better.
a - Involuntary
Instead of waiting for the course of events to enforce a
catastrophic increase in death rate, we might blow off steam by randomly
killing off part of the population from year to year. Suppose that preliminary
estimates during a census year make it seem that the world population is
10 per cent above optimum. In that case, take the census and shoot every
tenth person counted.*
About the only thing that can be said about this method is that it is perhaps
a little better than a thermonuclear war. I don't think any sane man would
consider it if any other alternative existed at all.
b - Voluntary
Random killing might be made voluntary if one constructed a
suicide-centered society.* In such a society, suicide
must be made to seem attractive, either through the effective promise of
an afterlife or through the more material offer or financial benefits to
the family left behind.
Somehow, though, I doubt that under any persuasion not involving physical
constraint or emotional inhumanity, enough people will kill themselves to
halt the population increase. Even if enough did, the kind of society that
would place the accent on death with sufficient firmness to bring it about
would undoubtedly be too unbearably morbid for the health the species.
* 'The Census Takers', an excellent
science fiction story by Frederick Pohl,actually uses this
* Gore Vidal's Messiah had something
of this sort.
3 - Directed
a - Inferiority
But if we must kill, would it be possible to neutralize some
of the horror by making murder serve some useful purpose. Suppose we kill
off or (more humanely) sterilize that portion of the population that contributes
least to mankind, the 'inferior' portion, in other words.
Indeed, such a policy has been put into practice on numerous occasions, though
not usually out of a set, reasoned-out population strategy. Throughout Earth's
history, a conquering nation has usually made the calm assumption that its
own people were superior to the conquered people, who were therefore killed
or enslaved as a matter of course. Under conditions of famine the conquered
peasantry would surely die in greater proportion than the conquering aristocracy.
Conquerors varied in inhumanity. In ancient times, the Assyrians were most
noted for the callous manner in which they would destroy the entire male
population of captured cities; and in medieval times, the Mongols made a
name for themselves in the same fashion. In modern times, the Germans under
Hitler, more consciously and deliberately, set about destroying those whom
they considered members of inferior races.
This policy can never be popular except with those who have the power and
the inhumanity to declare themselves superior (and not usually with all of
those either).The majority of mankind is bound to be among the conquered
and the inferior and their approval is not to be expected. The Assyrians,
Mongols, and Nazis were all greeted with nearly universal execration both
in their own times and thereafter. There are individuals whom the world generally
would consider inferior the congenital idiot, the psychopathic murderer,
and so on - but the numbers of such people are too few to matter.
b - Old age
Perhaps then people can be killed off according to some category
that isn't as subjective as superiority-inferiority. What about
the very old? They still eat; they are still drains
on the culture; yet they give back very little.
There have been cultures which killed those aged members but could not carry
their own weight (the Eskimos, for instance). Before late modern times, however,
there was usually little pressure in this direction, since very few members
of a society managed to live long enough to be too old to be worth their
keep. Indeed, the very few aged members might even be valuable as the
repositories of tradition and custom.
Not so nowadays. With the rise in life expectancy to seventy, the 'senior
citizen' is far more numerous in absolute numbers and in proportion than
ever before. Ought all those who reach sixty-five, say, to be painlessly
killed? If this applies to all humans without exception there would be no
subjective choice and no question of superiority-inferiority.
But what good would it do? The men and women thus killed are past the
child-bearing age and have already done their damage. Such euthanasia will
make the population younger but not do one thing to stop the population
Then why not the other end of the age scale? Why not kill babies?
Infanticide has been a common enough method of population control in primitive
societies, and in some not so primitive. Usually, it is the girl babies that
are allowed to die, and, to be sure that is as it should be.
I hasten to say that I do not make the last statement out of anti-female
animus. It is just that it is the female who is the bottleneck. Compare the
female, producing thirteen
eggs a year
and fertile for limited periods each month, with the male producing
millions of sperm each day and nearly continuously
on tap. A hundred thousand women will produce the same number of babies a
year whether there are ten thousand men at their free disposal or a million
Actually, there are some points in favor of infanticide. For one thing, it
definitely works. Carried out with inhuman efficiency, it could put an end
to the human race altogether in the space of a century. It can be argued
moreover that a newborn baby is only minimally conscious and doesn't suffer
the agonies of apprehension; that he as yet lacks personality and that no
emotional ties have had a chance to form about him.
And yet, infanticide isn't pleasant. Babies are helpless and appealing and
a society that can bring itself to slaughter them is perhaps too callous
and inhumane to serve mankind generally. Besides, we cannot kill all babies,
only some of them, and at once an element of choice enters. Which babies?
The Spartans killed all those that didn't meet their standards of physical
fitness and in general the matter of superiority-inferiority enters with
all its difficulties.
d - Fetuses
What about pre-birth infanticide - in short, abortion. Fetuses
are not independently living and society's conscience might be quieted by
maintaining they are therefore not truly alive. They are not killed, they
are merely 'aborted', prevented from gaining full life.
Of all forms of raising the death rate, abortion would seem the least inhumane,
the least abhorrent. At the present moment, in fact, there are movements
all over the world, and not least in the United States to legalize abortion.
And yet if one argues that killing a baby is not quite as bad as killing
a grown man, and killing a fetus not quite as bad as killing a baby, why
not go one step farther, and kill the fetus at the very earliest moment?
Why not kill it before it has become a fetus, before conception has taken
It seems to me then that any humane person, considering all the various methods
of raising the death rate must end by deciding that the best method is to
prevent conception; that is, to lower the birth rate. Let's consider that
next. If we consider the different ways of decreasing the birth rate, we
can see that, to begin with, they fall in two broad groups: voluntary and
B - Decrease in birth rate
1 - Voluntary
Ideally, this is the situation most acceptable to a humane person. If the
population increase must be halted, let everyone agree to and voluntarily
practice the limitation of children.
Everyone might simply agree to have no more than two children It would be
one, then two, then STOP!
If this came to pass, not only would the population increase come to a
halt* it would begin to decrease. After all, not all
couples would have two children. Some, through choice or circumstance, would
have only one child and some even none at all. Furthermore, of the babies
that were born, some would be bound to die before having a chance to become
adults and have babies of their own.
With each generation under the two-baby system, then, the total population
of mankind would decrease substantially.
I do not consider this a bad thing at all, for I feel that the Earth is already,
at this moment, seriously overpopulated. I could argue and have, that a closer
approach to the ideal population of Earth would be one billion people, and
this goal would allow several generations of shrinkage. In rational society,
without war or threat of war, it seems to me that a billion people could
be supported indefinitely.
If the population threatened to drop below a billion, it would be the easiest
thing in the world to raise the permitted number of babies to three
per couple. Enough couples would undoubtedly take advantage of permission
to have a third child to raise the population quickly.
*Provided the life expectancy doesn't
increase drastically. If it did, there would be a continued accumulation
of old people. It might be just as well not to labor to increase that expectancy
above the level that now exists. It embarrasses me to say so but I see no
I would anticipate that under a humane world government, a decennial
census applied to the whole world would, on each occasion, serve to guide
the decision whether, for the next ten years, third children would be asked
for or not. Such a system would work marvelously well, if it were adopted,
but would it be? Would individuals limit births voluntarily? I am cynical
enough to think not.
In the first place, where two is the desired number of babies per couple,
it is so much easier to far overshoot the mark than far undershoot it. A
particular couple can, without biological difficulty, have a dozen children,
ten above par. No couple, however, no matter how conscientious can have fewer
than zero children, or two under par.
This means that for every socially unfeeling couple with a dozen children,
five couples must deprive themselves of children altogether to redress the
balance. Furthermore, I suspect that those families who, on a strictly voluntary
basis, choose to have many children, are apt to be drawn from those with
less social consciousness, less feeling of responsibility - for whatever
reason. Each generation will contribute to the next generation in a most
This would, in fact, very likely cause an utter breakdown in the voluntary
system in short order, for there will be resentment and fear on the part
of the socially conscious. The socially conscious will easily convince themselves
that it is precisely the ignorant, the inferior, the undeserving who are
breeding and they may feel that it is important for them to supply the world
with their own, much-more-desirable offspring.
It is even rather likely that, as long as birth control, is purely voluntary,
it will be negated out of local sub-planetary considerations.
In Canada, for instance, the birth rate is higher among the French-speaking
portion of the population than among the English-speaking portion. I am sure
that there are those on both sides of the fence who calculate, with hope
or with fear, that the French-Canadians will eventually dominate the
land out of sheer natural increase.
The French-Canadians might be loath to adopt voluntary birth control and
lose the chance of domination, while English-Canadians might be loath to
adopt it and perhaps hand over the domination all the more quickly to a still
breeding French-Canadian population.
The situation might be similar within the United States, where Blacks have
a higher birth rate than whites; or in Israel, where the Arabs have a higher
birth rate than the Jews; or in almost any country with a non-homogeneous
It is not only inside a country where such questions would arise. The Greeks
would not want to fall too far behind the Bulgarians in population; the Belgians
too far behind the Dutch; the Indians too far behind the Chinese; and so
on and so on.
Each nation, each group within a nation, would watch its neighbors and would
attempt to retain the upper hand for itself or (which is the same thing)
prevent the neighbor from gaining the upper hand. And, in the name of patriotism,
nationalism, racism, voluntary birth control would fail and mankind would
Ought we then not merely to ask couples not to have more than two children;
ought we to tell them?
Suppose, for instance, that all babies were carefully registered and that
every time a woman had a second baby, the first one being still alive, she
be routinely sterilized before being released from the hospital.
Why women? you might ask. Why not men, for whom the operation is simpler.
My choice of women is not the result of male chauvinism on my part but only
because women, as I said before, are the bottleneck in reproduction. Sterilizing
some males will do no good if the rest merely work harder at it, while
sterilizing females must force the birth rate down. Then, too, one
knows when a female has two children; one can only guess at it with males.
Finally, it is the woman, not the man, who is on the hospital table at the
time of birth.
But would such involuntary birth control work? Or would it arouse such resentment
that the world would constantly rock with insurrection, that women would
have their babies in secret, that the government would be forced into more
extremes of tyranny constantly.
Somehow I suspect that the system would indeed break down if the process
were not carried through without exception. There would be a strong temptation,
I suppose, to work out some sort of regulations whereby some people would
be allowed three children or even four, while others might be allowed only
one or even none at all. You might argue that college graduates ought to
have more children than morons should; proven achievers, more than idle dreamers;
athletes, more than diabetics: and so on.
Unfortunately, I don't think that any graduated system, however impartially
and sensibly carried through, can possibly succeed.
Whatever the arrangement, there will be an outcry that group X is favored
over group Y. At least group Y will say so and will gather information to
prove that group X is in control of the World Population Council. Using the
same statistics and information, group X will insist
that group Y is being favored.
The only possible solution, however wasteful, would be to allow no exceptions
at all for any reason. Let the 'fit' have no more children than the 'unfit'
(no less, either), in whatever way your own emotions and prejudices happen
to define 'fit' and 'unfit'.
Then, when the population is reduced to the proper level and the Earth has
had several generations of experience with a humane world government,
propositions for grading birth numbers and improving the quality of humanity
without increasing its quantity may be entertained.
Yet I must admit that the use of the knife, the inexorable push of governmental
surgery is unpalatable to me and would probably be unpalatable to many people.
If there were only some way to make voluntary compliance as surefire as the
involuntariness of sterilization, I would prefer that.
Could we leave people the choice; could we let them choose the additional
child if they wish - but make it prohibitive for various reasons? Could we
find pressures as inexorable as the knife, yet leaving the human body and,
therefore, human dignity intact?
3 - Voluntary, with
Let's go back to voluntary birth limitation, but now let's not make it entirely
voluntary. Let's set up some stiff penalties for lack of co-operation.
To begin with, reverse the philosophy of the income tax. At present births
are encouraged by income tax deductions. Suppose there are penalties instead.
Your tax would go up slightly with one child, up again slightly with two,
and then up prohibitively with three.
In other words, couples are bribed not to have children. There are other
forms of bribes. When a third child is born, a husband might suffer a pay
cut, or lose his job altogether and be forced to go on welfare. A three-child
family may lose medical plan privileges, be barred from air flight, be ostracized
by other families.
This is all very cruel but in the world today that third child is a social
Is that kind of pressure better than the knife? Will it force mankind less
strongly into secret births, whole hidden colonies of forbidden children?
Will the third children who are born be mistreated or killed? Will the rule
discriminate in favor of the rich?
I don't know, but I can't think of anything better. It seems to me that the
need is overwhelming and the time is now. Let's begin at once to persuade
people, one way or another, not to have babies, to begin building the social
pressures against large families. It is that, or the death of civilization
and of billions of human beings with it.*
Only one thing-
Suppose we adopt this final alternative and suppose humanity generally and
genuinely accepts it. People everywhere honestly intend to have no more than
two children. Each couple which has its two children must now decide (without
compulsory sterilization, mind you) to figure out a way not to have the third.
How? What alternatives are open to them? For
remember, if there are no reasonable alternatives, we are back to compulsory
sterilization. - Or doom.
*In case your curiosity has grown
unbearable, I myself have two children. I will have no more.
|| The Left Hand of the Electron