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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