Yin-ed but not quite Yang-ed or is it vice versa?

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 check.)
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 limit human 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 at all.
We'll need something better.

2 Directed general increase
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 situation.

* Gore Vidal's Messiah had something of this sort.

3 - Directed special increase
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 increase.

c - Infants
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 men.
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 place?
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 involuntary.

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 way out.

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 unbalanced fashion.
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 population.
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 he doomed.

2 - Involuntary
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 encouragement
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 felony.
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


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