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Paul Di Filippo is a science fiction novelist and short story writer of wide genrebending influence, as well as a journalist, a sometimes comics writer, a mail art fiend, and a bunch of other things that are probably very hard to describe.  Also, the first person to use the word “Steampunk” in a book title.  So he can be blamed for quite a lot.  The first time I ever spoke to him, he responded with “Ah!  Mon frere!”  I asked him to write to you about whatever was on his mind today, and he said:

Did you ever feel that all the world’s problems–environmental, cultural, political–could be the result of just too many fucking people on the planet? (“Fucking,” as used here, is a precisely descriptive adjective, and not a mere kneejerk intensifier.) Nobody wants to talk about this issue, since it’s too fraught with ethical conundrums: First World versus Third World, Elites versus Marching Morons, People of Color versus People of Pallor, Age versus Youth, Healthy versus Sick, Coercion versus Choice. What a minefield! And, yes, I know the “good news” about how the rate of population growth has leveled off, leaving us with a projection of “only” nine billion souls for mid-century, and even a hollowing out of certain countries like Russia, Japan and Italy. But I still say the current population level is at the root of most of our troubles.

I was born in 1954. (Geezer alert! Feel free to chalk up this whole rant to “You damn kids get off my lawn” syndrome.) The global population then was 2.7 billion. Today it’s nigh on seven billion, over 2.5 times greater than when I was a kid. Tell me that adding nearly five billion hungry mouths and goal-seeking individuals to our planet has no detrimental consequences. Dwindling resources, diminished elbow room, clashing ideologies–it’s all down to over-crowding. Although of course, it’s not as if we needed seven billion people to start World War II, did we? Still, the exact nature of our current dilemmas seem to me population-driven. But there’s an even more insidious threat than the physical ones, and that’s the spiritual one.

Lots of good stuff is perhaps attributable to all these many thronging masses. On alternate days I try to believe that every individual is a unique repository of ideas and feelings, and that having more people around simply means an expansion of the creative mindspace that humanity can colonize. Some poor refugee kid living in a garbage dump in Iraq will grow up to cure cancer, or create a new style of music. But on the off days, I believe the exact opposite. The sheer presence of seven billion people devalues the existence of any single person. The human continuum is only so broad, and every conceivable niche of it is overstuffed with identical individuals. If I die tomorrow, there are a hundred persons with my similar skillset and worldview to take my place. Does this seem harsh or an overstatement of the case? Consider the opposite scenario for clarity. Some seventy thousand years ago, there were approximately five thousand human females capable of breeding on the entire planet, our species having just gone through a population bottleneck. Imagine what the death of any one of these women meant to the race!  Now, tell me what the death of some miserable hapless miscarrying mother in any under-developed country today — or, to be fair, the death of any overprivileged Soccer Mom having her third kid in the best US hospital — means to you or me or the race?  I’m not trying to diminish the essential personal loss for this woman’s grieving relatives, but just place her significance on a larger map. Doesn’t it become easier to kill, too, when the line of “replacement” individuals stretches back infinitely?

John Brunner’s 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar seems to me to be a remarkably prescient version of our present situation in realistic speculative form.

Humanity going nuts under the pressures of overcrowding, Stop and read or re-read this book soon.

But Brunner had another story that conveyed our dilemma in starker metaphorical terms. In “The Vitanuls,” babies began to be born without souls, because, science discovered, there was only X amount of soul stuff to go around. It’s a chilling symbolism, but I see it in every headline.

Paul blogs at The Inferior 4 +1 regularly.

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