Tue, 05 Sep 2006

Remember when I was grousing a few months ago that liberal secularists are breeding too slowly, and that we will soon be outnumbered by fast-breeding religious conservatives? There’s a new movie out, written and directed by Mike Judge, creator of King of the Hill and Office Space, that posits a different, but equally grim, demographic outcome. This is from the review in the L.A. Times:

The movie begins with a comparison of two family trees. A high-IQ couple waits for the perfect time to have a child, a decision they don’t take lightly, while elsewhere, in the trailer park, the dim bulbs breed like rabbits. The high-IQ couple waits too long, the husband dies of stress during fertility treatments, and their line stops there. Meanwhile, the moron population explodes.

The predictable result is a future where intelligence is extinct, where trailer park culture prevails, where “the president of the United States is a three-time ‘Smackdown!’ champion and former super porn-star”. The movie is called Idiocracy, by the way. Read about it here, as it appears there’s little chance of it coming to local theatres.

I think Mike Judge’s predictions are insightful, as far as they go, and should be incorporated into the other theory:

The Revised Low Birthrate Theory.

Since effective contraceptive techniques are readily available, and since there is no longer any economic incentive to have large families (because we no longer need children to work in the fields and tend to us in our old age), the couples who have the most children will be either those who are too stupid or lazy to use birth control, or those who eschew birth control out of religious conviction.

Assuming that the rest of us persist in having small families – which we probably will – in a few generations the stupid, the lazy, and the religious will make up the bulk of the population. Given that the stupid and lazy are incapable of running things, the religious will take over. Eventually they’ll put a stop to porn and professional wrestling, and the stupid and lazy will have to entertain themselves as they did in olden times – by going to church, by going to war, or by having ever more children.

It’s scary. Maybe the present is as good as things are ever going to be. Maybe, in fact, we are right now enjoying the pinnacle of our civilisation – the pinnacle of science, of economic growth, of personal freedom. (I’d say we passed the pinnacle of literature and the arts at least a half-century ago.) Maybe from here on it’s just the slow advance of ignorance and repression, culminating inevitably in a planet-wrecking war with some other equally ignorant, repressed civilisation – maybe the Islamic world, maybe the Chinese with their surplus male population, who knows.

Like most of us, I’m fascinated by end-of-the-world scenarios. Some folks get their doomsday fix through the bloody prophecies of the Left Behind novels, where Jesus and the Antichrist between them slaughter the better part of the human race; some folks seek out the most extreme global warming forecasts and half-eagerly anticipate the Category 5 hurricane that will soon immerse Lower Manhattan; some folks who stockpiled beans and ammo in anticipation of Y2K now await redemption in the form of the avian flu. In one of my favourite end-of-the-world novels, Lucifer’s Hammer by the libertarian sci-fi author Larry Niven, a comet strike kills off billions and the survivors cluster in two warring camps. Ultimately the army of property rights and technological progress prevails in a bloody battle against the army of cannibalistic former welfare recipients.

What these fantasies have in common is obviously not an ideology, but an enthusiasm for the End Times, and especially for the times beyond, when the scum of the earth – the infidels, the unenlightened, the unworthy – will be wiped away, and civilisation can be begun anew with the chastened remainder. First, the purifying fire; then, Utopia. I always thought I was immune to end-of-the-world despair because, unlike the Utopianists, I’m not eager for the apocalypse at all. I rather like things the way they are. I’m pro-porn. I’m curious to see the outcome of Survivor: Battle of the Races. I can’t work up a righteous resentment against Hummer owners or Halliburton or Wal-Mart. I acknowledge that a significant portion of humanity doesn’t have it as good as we do in the materialistic West, but I reckon that’s a product of not enough Westernisation, not of too much. As for the global warming thing, it concerns me, but I figure we’re smart enough to tackle it. (Maybe not soon enough to rescue every sad-eyed polar bear who has the bad luck to get stuck on a shrinking ice floe, but we’ll probably save the residents of the Maldives from inundation, and I’m pretty darn sure we’ll save Lower Manhattan.)

Anyhow, I used to think I was optimistic about the future. But since I started thinking about this low-birthrate thing, I’ve become rather glum. Unlike the other end-of-the-world enthusiasts, I foresee no fire, no floods, and no better tomorrow. Just a slow decline into a new Dark Age, and then…

In another famous sci-fi novel, A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter Miller, some relics of civilisation survive a nuclear war and are preserved through the succeeding Dark Age by scattered monasteries. Many centuries pass, a new Enlightenment occurs, and science progresses at last to the point where humans rediscover how to harness nuclear power. Then, of course, they blow themselves up again. But before they do, a few people manage to launch themselves into space to start a new civilisation. The ever-so-slightly-optimistic conclusion is that these cycles of evolution and self-destruction are inevitable, but that each time a new peak is achieved, we don’t quite fall back to the same level of ignorance as the time before – ever so slowly, frustratingly, we climb up the down escalator, one collapsing step at a time.

I suppose I should quit bothering everyone with all this end-of-the-world stuff, and just sit down and write my own sci-fi novel. Maybe I’ll wrap it in plastic and stick it in a hole to be unearthed when the next Enlightenment rolls round. Or maybe I’ll publish it and make a fortune, which I can use to build a Space Ark and launch a few humans toward Alpha Centauri.

Of course, you guys are all welcome on my Space Ark. I’ll make room for a pair of polar bears, too.

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