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The Human Prospect

But all that remains yet to be demonstrated, or at least presented in some detail. And here we encounter a problem that must be faced before we plunge into the task of exposition. How are we to deal with the elements of wish and fear, bias, charity, and malice that come flooding into an inquiry such as ours, threatening to divert it, despite our best intentions, toward some outcome that we favor from the start?

I shall try, of course, to base my argument on findings that will withstand the demolition of next year’s research. But there is an aspect to the problem that goes beyond the obvious pitfalls in marshaling and weighing the evidence. It arises because much in our estimate of the human prospect must rest on generalizations for which there exist no objective data at all.

For the gravity of the human prospect does not hinge alone, or even principally, on an estimate of the dangers of the knowable external challenges of the future. To a far greater extent it is shaped by our appraisal of our capacity to meet those challenges. It is the flexibility of social classes, the resilience of socio-economic orders, the behavior of nation-states, and ultimately the “nature” of human beings that together form the basis for our expectations of the human outlook. And for these critical elements in the human prospect there are very few empirical findings on which to rest our beliefs. We possess little or no “hard” information about the propensities of nation-states to peace and war, about the adaptability of social classes, or about the malleability of individual beings, except for those frail generalizations that we assemble from our real and vicarious experience—itself biased by our situation within society and our private predilections. Thus, to the most important element of an effort to assess the prospect for man we have no guide but ourselves, and are thrown back to criteria that trouble us by virtue of their subjective foundation.

I raise these problems because I believe that not the least difficult part of an effort to discuss the human prospect is that of disengaging ourselves, either as partisans or apologists, from the social situation in which we find ourselves, or from the social situation in which we could imagine ourselves in the future. Such considerations of self-interest may, and perhaps should, powerfully influence the point of view we take in advocating or opposing certain kinds of social change, but they can play only a distorting role when we try to stand aside from our private fates and reflect on the probable course of, and causes for, events, whether they are favorable for ourselves or not.

Talleyrand once remarked that only those who had lived in the ancien régime could know what “les douceurs de la vie” could be. He was referring to a court in which elegance and extravagance knew no bounds, and in which the well-to-do and highly placed could indulge their whims and caprices with an abandon that we can only look back upon with the mixed feelings with which we regard the indulgence of all infantile desires.

In our time, however, it may well be that the threatened “douceurs” are those of an intellectual milieu in which the most extravagant and heretical thoughts can be uttered to a degree that has few parallels in history. Now let us suppose that the exigencies of the future, as we shall trace them, lead us to the conclusion that only an authoritarian regime will be capable of mounting the immense task of social reorganization needed to escape catastrophe. Might it not then be argued that the quasi-military devotion and sacrifice of such a task would be vitiated if the masses were exposed to the disagreements and diversions of intellectuals who strayed from, or opposed, the official line? Indeed, might not the people of such a threatened society look upon the “self-indulgence” of unfettered intellectual expression with much the same mixed feelings that we hold with respect to the ways of a vanished aristocracy—a way of life no doubt agreeable to the few who benefited from it, but of no concern, or even of actual disservice, to the vast majority?

I raise this issue not to debate its merits, but to bring home as sharply as I can the kinds of defenses, arguments, and rationalizations to which our analysis will lead on more than one occasion. For were the necessary sacrifice not freedom of expression but freedom of acquisition, I imagine that a quite different set of emotions and individuals would be outraged.

Let me therefore forewarn the reader that he must be prepared seriously to consider painful conclusions if he is not simply to substitute preference for analysis. Perhaps I should add that many conclusions in this inquiry have caused me great pain, a fact which in no way vouches for their cogency, but does at least argue that the human prospect, as I have come to see it, is not one that accords with my own preferences and interests, as best I know them.

II: The External Challenges

If we were asked to identify the principal “external” causes for the mood that assails us, I think that three aspects of the current human predicament would be unanimously selected. The first is a problem so well known that it has almost lost its power to shock, perhaps because attention has been focused largely on its humanitarian rather than its political implications. I refer to the demographic outlook for the next two or three generations.

World population is today roughly 3.6 billions. About 1.1 billion live in areas where demographic growth rates are now tapering off, so that, barring unanticipated reversals in the trends of fertility and mortality, we can expect these areas—mainly North America, Western and Eastern Europe, Japan, Oceania, and the Soviet Union—to attain reasonably stable populations within about two generations. These populations will be approximately 30 to 60 percent larger than they are now, and this increase in numbers will add its difficulties to the environmental problems facing mankind. But this ecological aspect of the human prospect, which we will examine later, must be disentangled from the immediate problem of population overload.

The latter problem concerns the ability of those areas of the globe where population stability is not now in sight to sustain their impending populations even at the barest levels of subsistence. The dangers involved vary in intensity from nation to nation: there are a few areas of the underdeveloped world that are still under-populated in their human carrying capacity. But in general the demographic situation of virtually all of Southeast Asia, large portions of Latin America, and parts of Africa portends a grim Malthusian outcome. Southeast Asia, for example, is growing at a rate that will double its numbers in less than thirty years; the African continent as a whole every twenty-seven years; Latin America every twenty-four years. Thus, whereas we can expect that the industrialized areas of the world will have to support roughly 1.4 to 1.7 billion people a century hence, the underdeveloped world, which today totals around 2.5 billions, will have to support something like 40 billions by that date if it continues to double its numbers approximately every quarter century.

Whether these horrifying growth rates will in fact remain unchecked largely depends on two variables. The first is the ability of the afflicted areas to introduce effective and stringent birth control programs. Limited success in this regard has been enjoyed in a few places, mainly Taiwan and South Korea, although it should be noted that this “success” still leaves Korea and Taiwan among the fastest growing populations in the world.1 Almost no success has been attained in curbing growth rates in India or Egypt, despite official endorsement of population control programs, and in those Latin American nations where growth rates are highest population control programs are not as yet even advocated.

Thus in the underdeveloped world as a whole population growth proceeds unhindered along its fatal course, with a virtual certainty of an 80 to 100 percent increase in numbers by the year 2000, and with projections thereafter that range between 6.5 billion and a grotesque 20 billion by the year 2050, depending mainly on estimates with regard to the rapidity of “spontaneous” or coerced changes in fertility.2

Still more alarming, an effective curb on population growth appears to be impossible for the next century. This is because the fast-growing countries typically suffer from population age distributions in which almost half the population is below child-bearing age. Therefore, even if drastic measures manage to limit families to a maximum of two children within a single generation, the steady advance of larger and larger numbers of individuals into their fertile years brings with it a vast potential increase in numbers. For example, if the underdeveloped countries were to achieve a zero population growth level of fertility by the year 2000, fifty years later they would nonetheless have increased in size by two and a half times; if they succeed in achieving the target of “Western” fertility rates only by 2050, they will meanwhile have grown four and a half times in numbers. 3

For the next several generations, therefore, even if effective population policies are introduced or a spontaneous decline in fertility owing to urbanization takes effect, the main restraint on population growth in the underdeveloped areas is apt to be the Malthusian check of famine, disease, and the like. According to the 1967 report of the President’s Science Advisory Panel on World Food Supply, malnutrition in the underdeveloped nations is already estimated to affect some 60 percent of their populations, with terrible costs in physical and mental retardation, while 20 percent suffer from undernourishment or actual slow starvation. All this contributes to preschool mortality rates three to forty times as high as those of the United States—a human tragedy of immense proportions, but also a demographic safety valve of great importance.

These Malthusian checks will exert even stronger braking effects as burgeoning populations in the poor nations press ever harder against food supplies that cannot keep abreast of incessant doublings. At the same time, the fact that population control in these countries is likely to be achieved in the next generations mainly by premature deaths rather than by the general adoption of contraception or a rapid spontaneous decline in fertility brings an added “danger” to the demographic outlook. This is the danger that the Malthusian check will be offset by large increases in food production that will enable additional hundreds of millions to reach childbearing age.

Here the situation hinges mainly on the prospects for the new “miracle” seeds, especially in rice and wheat, which have promised a doubling and tripling of yields. But the future of the Green Revolution is still clouded in uncertainty. The new strains have not yet been adequately tested against susceptibility to disease, and there are suggestions from recent experience that they may be subject to blight. Perhaps more important in the long run is that all the new varieties of grains require heavy applications of water and of fertilizer. Water alone may be a serious constraint in many parts of the world; fertilizer is apt to prove a still more limiting one.

  1. 1

    See Kingsley Davis, “Population Policy: Will Current Programs Succeed?” Science, Nov. 10, 1967.

  2. 2

    Tomas Frejka, “The Prospects for a Stationary World Population,” Scientific American, March 1973, especially p. 22.

  3. 3


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