What, Me Worry?
January 22, 2013 3:13 AM   Subscribe

Every year, Edge.org asks a question. This year's is:"What *Should* We Be Worried About?" The responses are things like "Chinese Eugenics," "We Are In Denial About Catastrophic Risks," "Worry About Internet Drivel," "The Patience Deficit," "The Power Of Bad Incentives," "The Complex, Consequential, Not-So-Easy Decisions About Our Water Resources," and "The Cultural And Cognitive Consequences Of Electronics." They are from people like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, David Rowan, Evgeny Morozov, Kate Jeffery, Vernor Vinge, Bruce Schneier, Alison Gopnik, Steven Pinker, Virginia Heffernan and Simon Baron-Cohen. There are 154 answers.

2012:What Is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant or Beautiful Explanation?
2011:What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?
2010: How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?

All the way back to 1998: What Questions Are You Asking Yourself?
posted by the man of twists and turns (97 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite

 
I found it surprising that the topic I'm most worried about, climate change, barely musters a passing mention in most of these essays.
posted by j03 at 3:26 AM on January 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


I should have searched more thoroughly:

Previously:
2012: Elegant Explanations
2011: What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?
2010: We Think The Body Electric
2009: Not Obama ?!?!"
2008: Should I post this?
2007: Optimism
2006: Thoughtcrime
2005: I believe Donald Trump's hair has extraterrestrial origins, but I can't prove it.
2004: What is the Metafilter Law?
2003: Edge.org Annual Questionathon
2002: The 5th Annual Edge.org Question
2001: What Now?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:33 AM on January 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


I always find these edge questions amazing. No matter what the question or how it is phrased, almost every "deep thinker" on the list manages to argue passionately that the most important problem or idea is co-incidentally the one they have covered in their recent pop-nonfiction book.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 3:41 AM on January 22, 2013 [62 favorites]


Seems most of them answered in a predictable, self-serving way - to help them flog the books they have written. (I really enjoy Taleb's books, but man-o-shevitz stop talking about Black Swans - three excellent and exhaustive books on the subject, you've made your point already.) Also none of these people seem to live real lives so they can indulge in fantasy.

Fortunately for me, and I suspect for most people, concerns about what I *should* worry about are drowned by the real things I do worry about. Every year, every month it's the same pedestrian worry - earning enough money to keep a roof over my family's head and food on the table, so I don't have time (or interest) to be all that concerned about what cloistered eggheads say I *should* worry about.

I do my part about climate change, my carbon footprint could wear baby shoes, but I do not loose any sleep worrying about it, or Chinese eugenics, or catastrophic events of low probability and everything else that is out of my control.

Learn to roll with the punches, friends, they never stop coming.
posted by three blind mice at 3:45 AM on January 22, 2013 [13 favorites]


The first article is a starstruck report about eugenics that concludes: "The most likely response, given Euro-American ideological biases, would be a bioethical panic that leads to criticism of Chinese population policy with the same self-righteous hypocrisy that we have shown in criticizing various Chinese socio-cultural policies". Even if you overlook the fucking death camps that inform said biases, what about biodiversity? I think he overestimates the importance of the "IQ genes" even if we found them and that we shouldn't be expecting the Kwisatz Haderach any time soon.

It's also interesting that climate change gets many mentions, but mainly to illustrate other points rather than talk about climate change itself.
posted by ersatz at 3:55 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


on the list manages to argue passionately that the most important problem or idea is co-incidentally the one they have covered in their recent pop-nonfiction book.

I can't understand this criticism. Perhaps it's the other way around. They are so passionate about an idea that they wrote a book about it and because they wrote about it, they got invited to answer the Edge question.
posted by KMB at 4:09 AM on January 22, 2013 [17 favorites]


Egad, I had stopped reading that Chinese eugenics piece before getting to that bit, ersatz.

What nauseating, mindless crap that is. Evil, inhumane policies become just another, y'know, cultural approach, and opposition to evil, inhumane policies is self-righteous hypocrisy and bioethical panic rooted in our cultural biases. This kind of scientistic nonsense is a cancer.

Looking beyond that awful contribution, though, I found much of what I saw here kind of interesting in that many of the contributions introduced me to issues I wasn't aware of. No depth, of course, and it all had that glib, glitzy, self-congratulatory, celebrity-semi-intellectual, TED-y feel to it. But I'm glad to have it on my radar, nevertheless.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:10 AM on January 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I bet at least 50% of the responses are really sub-cases of overpopulation.
posted by DU at 4:16 AM on January 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


I like Eno's response: the problem is that most of the smart people he knows don't do politics. They have opinions and they might vote, but they're much too content doing other things to bother becoming politicians. And so the world is run by other people with other priorities, other incentives, people who don't mind starting a war or wrecking an economy on the way to getting what they want.
posted by pracowity at 4:20 AM on January 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


that is a lot of worrying
posted by thelonius at 4:31 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


The first response by Geoffrey Miller is unintentionally hilarious (and not because his fear is so incredibly xenophobic):
"The BGI Cognitive Genomics Project is currently doing whole-genome sequencing of 1,000 very-high-IQ people around the world, hunting for sets of sets of IQ-predicting alleles. I know because I recently contributed my DNA to the project, not fully understanding the implications."
The jokes, they write themselves.
posted by sutt at 4:32 AM on January 22, 2013 [14 favorites]


I bet at least 50% of the responses are really sub-cases of overpopulation.

One of them is under-population which.... well, words sort of fail me.
posted by Segundus at 4:37 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Individual humans arguing about individual reproductive choice being awesome is kind of like cancer cells arguing that undifferentiated division is awesome. What I am saying is that there may be some bias involved. I find the Chinese system an interesting experiment, if one done on a billion participants without their express consent, but on the other hand, our own system isn't really a system at all, rather just the continued execution of instinctive urges only barely restrained by rational thought.

At some point in the distant past, however, "individuality" at the cellular level spawned differentiation and created far more complex organisms. While differentiation has always been a feature of the human social world, China is making it less haphazard.

I'm not sure it's something to worry about, because if they're successful with their top-down planning for the future, the Chinese will solve the "get our species off the planet" problem before the west will, and will thus have a longer-term viability potential. That's good: I want to see the human story continue. (But then again, I'm a human.)

On the other hand, despite the existence of vastly successful differentiated organisms such as ourselves, trees and ants, there are still plenty of opportunities for single-cell organisms to survive and flourish both within and without the body [politic].

Star Trek may yet become real, and I bet the crew will be Han.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:51 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm with Terry Gilliam on this. "I've given up asking questions. l merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me... and marvel stupidly."


Though I thought Brian Eno's line was pretty clever, even if I only partially agree with his premise. "while we're laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing."
posted by Foosnark at 4:57 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


We need to fear a Chinese program to create super-babies through selective breeding, do we?

For a thousand years, China has been ruled by a cognitive meritocracy selected through the highly competitive imperial exams. The brightest young men became the scholar-officials who ruled the masses, amassed wealth, attracted multiple wives, and had more children.

You'd think an evolutionary biologist would see the fatal flaw in his argument after writing that. Maybe there's a reason eugenics is a discredited science that isn't related to a "bioethical panic"?

Next he will explain to us we need to fear their agressive program of Lysenkoism... their strains of heroic wheat will soon outproduce ours!

Mad scientists be mad, yo.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:59 AM on January 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'll be interested in what the other contributors are worried about, but that first Eugenics worry was better suited for the Washington Times.

Chairman Deng shifted the focus from economic policy to population policy? I don't think so.
posted by surplus at 5:01 AM on January 22, 2013


Shockingly, Sam Harris's piece sounded reasonable.
posted by KaizenSoze at 5:05 AM on January 22, 2013


You all know that edge.org is John Brockman's website right? The literary agent? A good percentage of the contributors are his clients. It's really good marketing that also generates tons of interesting public conversations.
posted by mneekadon at 5:15 AM on January 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


Any edge that the Chinese may gain by selecting their children for IQ will be more than offset by their industrial pollution problem.
posted by sour cream at 5:18 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Where's the Brian Eno piece?
posted by marxchivist at 5:18 AM on January 22, 2013


Brian Eno: We Don't Do Politics

"Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague—like Edge avoids it, in fact. Is this because we feel that politics isn't where anything significant happens? Or because we're too taken up with what we're doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Genomics or Generative Music? Or because we're too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because we just think that things will work out fine if we let them be—that The Invisible Hand or The Technosphere will mysteriously sort them out?

Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done—just not by us. It's politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It's politics that's bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It's politics that allows special interests to run the country. It's politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It's politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.

But we don't do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we're as laissez-faire as we can get away with.

What worries me is that while we're laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing."

It is a little bit of a runaround to get to the links for individual responses.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:30 AM on January 22, 2013 [13 favorites]


For a thousand years, China has been ruled by a cognitive meritocracy selected through the highly competitive imperial exams. The brightest young men became the scholar-officials who ruled the masses, amassed wealth, attracted multiple wives, and had more children.

If anything, they were selecting for the ability to write a passing 8-Legged Essay. Because, you may note, the Confucian Scholars who made up the main arm of the Imperial Bureaucracy (balanced, off and on, by the influence of the Eunuchs, although rarely in a productive way), produced policies that mostly, at least through the Ming and Qing Dynasties, did little except preserve a status quo. Well, preserve it until potentially avoidable crisis became regime change. If you are looking for the key to finding the "best and brightest," the Imperial Examination system is, at best, a very partial answer.

Unless you like 8-Legged Essays, which, I suppose, someone, somewhere, must have (although most of the comments we seem to have on the style were bitter complaints).
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:30 AM on January 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


my answer: people typing in all caps

Seriously, it irks me when things are typed out all in caps. It makes me not even want to continue reading an email, forum topic, comment or article.
posted by zombieApoc at 5:36 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


my answer: people typing in all caps

i no rite?!
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:51 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I worry that one day, Taleb will write a book that's not about Black Swans, and no one will have seen it coming.
posted by condour75 at 5:52 AM on January 22, 2013 [53 favorites]


Look, sex-essentialists and Savannah genes guys and Social Darwinists and evolutionary psychologists and publishers of "Men Are Like THIS Ladies Like THAT Because SCIENCE" books, let's make it clear: the reason we don't trust your Just So stories about human nature and race and sex is NOT because we're Commie pinko feminazis: I'm a right-wing rich white male with a BSc. in Genetics from a proper University, I think group selection is bunk, and The Selfish Gene is one of my favourite books, and I think your "science" is dodgy as fuck because (1) everything to do with human behaviour is ENORMOUSLY complex and hard, difficult science, and your crappy T-shirt-swapping student projects and opinion poll bollocks doesn't really cut the mustard in this HARD subject, and (2) the last time we listened to you guys seriously in the 1910s you were telling us that Jews and Poles and Hungarians were subnormal and stupid because SCIENCE, and let's face it the success of immigrant communities like Jews and Poles and Hungarians has rather fucked that up, hasn't it? and (3) we also strongly suspect that, although your stories are now largely about pink girls and blue boys and mating preference, if you were braver and more stupid you'd still also telling the same stories about blacks and whites and Jews that you did fifty years ago but you don't dare do it now, even though the science for this was apparently cast-iron before, you told us.

So you're guilty of making claims the science doesn't support, you're disingenuous when you wonder aloud why people react so badly to your theories given your shitty track record, and we've noticed that you're still happy to tell stories and publish books and papers about sex differences but you no longer tell stories about racial differences because that's no longer socially acceptable.

And that's why we don't trust evolutionary psychologists and their explanations for human behaviour. Not ideology. Experience.
posted by alasdair at 5:58 AM on January 22, 2013 [43 favorites]


Honestly, we're 40 years post–Green Revolution now, and I think anyone who still maintains that the planet is dangerously overpopulated has absolutely no excuse – they're simply committed to eugenics and the idea of the uterus as government infrastructure.
posted by aw_yiss at 6:06 AM on January 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


You should be worried that no-one is going to read your febrile noodlings unless your answer is one of the top ten on the list.
posted by Segundus at 6:17 AM on January 22, 2013


The brightest young men became the scholar-officials who ruled the masses, amassed wealth, attracted multiple wives, and had more children.

Yes, yes, yes and citation needed. I thought the big thing was that poor people had more kids as retirement pension insurance.
posted by DU at 6:19 AM on January 22, 2013


feebrile noodlings?

Just let my agent write the contribution. Easy enough to copy it from the dust jacket of my last book.
posted by surplus at 6:39 AM on January 22, 2013


For a thousand years, China has been ruled by a cognitive meritocracy selected through the highly competitive imperial exams.

And then this happened. And this. And warlords, and communists, and eventually this. I don't mean to imply some sort of direct causality there, maybe just that 'cultural meritocracy' at least didn't help.
posted by gimonca at 6:42 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was doing fine until I got to "I worry that we don't really understand quantum theory".

To live such a care free life ...
posted by TheShadowKnows at 6:51 AM on January 22, 2013


" . . . just the continued execution of instinctive urges only barely restrained by rational thought."

Finally, a helpful definition of the optimum state of mental health. One that helps elaborate the meaning of 'effortless ease.'
posted by RoseyD at 7:11 AM on January 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Honestly, we're 40 years post–Green Revolution now, and I think anyone who still maintains that the planet is dangerously overpopulated has absolutely no excuse – they're simply committed to eugenics and the idea of the uterus as government infrastructure.

I think that's a bit unfair. It's possible to believe that an unceasing increase in global population has worrying implications without buying into the idea that the solution is forced abortion and sterilising the "undesirables".
posted by ambivalentic at 7:17 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Honestly, we're 40 years post–Green Revolution now, and I think anyone who still maintains that the planet is dangerously overpopulated has absolutely no excuse

Yes, because if there's anything that sums up the past 40 years, it's the words "infinitely sustainable."
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:18 AM on January 22, 2013 [24 favorites]


Honestly, we're 40 years post–Green Revolution now

Remind me again what the plan is to keep that going when the petroleum feedstock runs out? And the groundwater? The groundwater we're currently fracking into oblivion in pursuit of supplemental petroleum feedstock?
posted by ead at 7:19 AM on January 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think anyone who still maintains that the planet is dangerously overpopulated has absolutely no excuse – they're simply committed to eugenics and the idea of the uterus as government infrastructure

Have you looked around the planet lately? Seriously looked?

Everywhere I go, in the cushy, prosperous, scenic parts of America and the rural backwaters alike, it is blindingly obvious that our civilization is eating the world alive. We've plowed and paved and mined and dammed and diverted and clearcut and generally shat all over everything we can get our hands on. The remaining relatively intact ecosystems are all (quite literally) running hot and falling apart at the edges. We show not the slightest inclination to actually modify this behavior on anything deeper than a cosmetic level. How much worse is it in the developing world?

Old-school super-creepy "holy shit we have to find a way to keep the brown people from reproducing" fears of Malthusian collapse are indeed untenable these days. And the important facts about civilization are not all facts about what has been destroyed, consumed, poisoned, and suffocated to build it. But it's hardly unreasonable to suspect that there are too goddamned many of us for this to go on indefinitely.
posted by brennen at 7:25 AM on January 22, 2013 [22 favorites]


> climate change barely musters a passing mention in most of these essays

The collection did not, did it? read as if 154 public intellectuals thought climate change was the defining crisis of our time.
posted by jfuller at 7:35 AM on January 22, 2013


Guys, guys, you're not reading Kevin Kelly. The human population peaks in about 2050 and then the human race dies out through voluntary failure to reproduce.
posted by Segundus at 7:38 AM on January 22, 2013


The first article is a starstruck report about eugenics....

Too many words. I've yet to read anything in the popular press about any kind of genetic manipulation that didn't fail to get that if we can put a flurophore in a cat, then creating a partially human armor plated killing machine was not just around the corner (or even possible). That's really the flaw in most of this - there are a whole bunch of essays here that see the electric lamp, from that, deduce something like the microprocessor, invent a whole host of concerns about what microprocessors might make possible (time travel, mind reading, industrial scale accounting) but absolutely fail to predict that a surfeit of coal fired power plants might not be a good thing.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:43 AM on January 22, 2013


1.) my favorite cafe evolution theory is that since the biggest brained homo (Cro Magnon? I forget that detail) went extinct more brainpower is a demonstrated evolutionary dead end. I do think eugenics is almost proven for making Yao Mings and Cam Newtons and Barry Bondses.

2.) they had Xeni write something I didn't read.

3.) the only one I read all the way was Bruce Schneier's. snip:

Debates over the future of the Internet are morally and politically complex. How do we balance personal privacy against what law enforcement needs to prevent copyright violations? Or child pornography? Is it acceptable to be judged by invisible computer algorithms when being served search results? When being served news articles? When being selected for additional scrutiny by airport security? Do we have a right to correct data about us? To delete it? Do we want computer systems that forget things after some number of years? These are complicated issues that require meaningful debate, international cooperation, and iterative solutions. Does anyone believe we're up to the task?

We're not, and that's the worry.

posted by bukvich at 7:54 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Me? I'm so worried about the baggage retrieval system they've got at Heathrow.
posted by bicyclefish at 8:00 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


That website would be vastly more interesting if it had the option to load a random essay each time or even if (radical notion) there was a clickable table of contents rather than word vomit. I'm interested in some of the bottom answers but my energy ran dry fairly early.

As for the responses, I found it concerning how many were about educated rich women failing to reproduce. I was also baffled at how few were concerned with sustainability: there were definitely some that addressed this question (at least one on water issues) but there seemed to be far more talking about women not having babies. Priorities, I think they are skewed here.
posted by librarylis at 8:04 AM on January 22, 2013


But it's hardly unreasonable to suspect that there are too goddamned many of us for this to go on indefinitely.

The fact that this has literally been said in just about every century of recorded human history, and has always been wrong, doesn't give you pause?

The vast, vast majority of the world is uninhabited by people. If we crammed the entire population of the United States into an area with the density of Manhattan, it'd be about the size of New Hampshire. The entire world, at the same density rate, would be about the size of Texas. And given that the solution to climate change is almost certainly going to be technological, isn't it a whole lot better to have as many minds working on the problem as possible?
posted by downing street memo at 8:06 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Xeni appears to be complaining that Science Has Not Brought Us Closer To Understanding Cancer.

All one can say to that really is Oh Yes It Has. Her argument seems to be merely that there is no single reliable cure for all forms of cancer in spite of Nixon having ordered one up long ago.

Intellectuals, eh?
posted by Segundus at 8:09 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


The fact that this has literally been said in just about every century of recorded human history, and has always been wrong, doesn't give you pause?

It is hard to know exactly what the exponent is, but easy to see the eventual outcome no matter what it is.
posted by localroger at 8:12 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Downing street memo, you are aware that Manhattan is not self-sufficient, right? It relies on agricultural and power production that requires a not-insignificant amount of land? Even if we can work around those challenges, we're not currently doing so, and it's a Big Problem.

And I'm not aware of anyone making Malthusian apocalypse scenarios--with the exception of small-scale agricultural and nomadic peoples keeping a cap on their populations--until the Industrial Revolution. Were the ancient Chinese and Romans prophesying the downfall of civilization due to overpopulation?
posted by daveliepmann at 8:14 AM on January 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think that's a bit unfair. It's possible to believe that an unceasing increase in global population has worrying implications without buying into the idea that the solution is forced abortion and sterilising the "undesirables".
I can respect that someone might have specific concerns about a resource supply. But it seems like every time such concerns are brought up, a bunch of hardcore Malthusians are driven out of the woodwork, and they ignore the resource supply problem and say that overpopulation is the real issue. Then we're treated to another round of “we need a billion fewer people,” “famines are Mother Earth reasserting herself,” and “human beings are like cancer cells.”

I mean seriously, this is shit that would make Mao Zedong blush. I can't believe that I'm getting set upon by a half-dozen people (most of whom would probably describe themselves as compassionate progressives) when I say that no, human beings are not a cancer which must be eradicated from the planet.
posted by aw_yiss at 8:19 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


The entire world, at the same density rate, would be about the size of Texas.

Yes, but what matters is the amount of resources we use and our impact on the environment, not how much space we take up. Also, if we don't do something soon to lessen this impact, we may find that nature has a solution for us that is decidedly not technological.
posted by orme at 8:22 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't believe that I'm getting set upon by a half-dozen people

I can't believe it either!

No, really, I can't believe it. Could you point out the "hardcore Malthusians" who are "set[ting] upon" you?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:23 AM on January 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I like how there's some bold text that says, "The World's Smartest Website," and right underneath that, there's a list of, like, two hundred people who answered the question... and their names aren't clickable.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:28 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


And given that the solution to climate change is almost certainly going to be technological

This seems to beg the question that there is some sort of magic-bullet "solution" and we don't, you know, stew ourselves or collapse the ecosystem.

Failure is always an option.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:30 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not many worriers remember the near miss we had in 2008. The shipowners refused to leave port without insurance. No shipping equals rotting food and mass starvation.

I sure hope we can bail out the insurance companies next time too.
posted by surplus at 8:32 AM on January 22, 2013


I say that no, human beings are not a cancer which must be eradicated from the planet.

Well, that was true until about 10,000 years ago when we metastazed.

Seriously, hunter gatherers tend to be aware that the land has a finite carrying capacity and conduct themselves accordingly. (This isn't universally true; it was native Americans who drove much of the macrofauna extinct before Europeans arrived. But they tend to get the memo -- hey, no more herds of mammoths to drive over that handy cliff -- before they poison the fuck out of everything.)

Farming created a huge break in this awareness because it became possible to support so many people on so little land that it made the Earth seem infinite by comparison to the awareness of a nomad who knew the fucking forest had an edge. So the people who used farming tended to completely lose awareness that the Earth is finite because when they did use up the landscape there was always plenty more landscape to move on to, and that stayed the case for many generations. Been to what was once called the Fertile Crescent recently? We're the reason it ain't so fertile any more.

Today we are doing to the entire Earth what we once did to the Fertile Crescent, and there are no new frontiers to expand into. (Yeah, yeah, our species might go to space -- maybe -- but very few of us will as individuals.) Most of the Earth's best arable land is under cultivation, and what's left is both very inferior and can only be claimed at the expense of massive species extinction. Maintaining even current production requires some luck in the matter of continued energy production and avoidance of the sweeping diseases that so like the genetic monocultures we're so dependent on.

That is not to say the solution to the problem is to start sterilizing teh otherz. Replacing the disaster with an eternal fascistic nightmare is not particularly an improvement. The solution is for more people to voluntarily do what I did, and just not have kids.

That might sound like moonshine but the fact is we have several clear examples of how to accomplish that -- use the technology and wealth we have, of which we still have enough, to make everyone individually affluent and comfortable. That drives the birth rate down and could solve the real problem. But at the moment our most powerful leaders seem intent on doing exactly the opposite of that.

So that's what I worry about.
posted by localroger at 8:37 AM on January 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Aw_yiss, I infer from your statements that you think a human population of zero is not ideal.

I would propose to you that a human population (on Earth) of 10 trillion would be problematically high. I think any reasonable person would agree.

Therefore there is a number (really, numbers) between zero and 10 trillion that describes the maximum human population.

All we're doing when we talk about overpopulation is trying to fiddle with the dials and figure out which numbers work and which don't. We know there's an upper bound; the Earth is finite. We'd just like to intelligently plan our progress, instead of blindly running into disasters as the human race grows. Considering that the natural stopgaps to population growth--famine, war, and so on--hurt, it's not unreasonable to consider methods that would prevent them.

I, for one, am perfectly capable of noting that maybe seven billion people is too many without advocating or gleefully anticipating a genocide or precipitous population drop.
posted by daveliepmann at 8:42 AM on January 22, 2013 [11 favorites]


The reason the answers aren't pretty universally "climate change" (I think) is that the Edge question cuts off that answer before it's given. The prompt was to share something worrying that isn't on the "popular radar" yet. If I had been writing an essay for Edge, I would have pointed out the crappy pre-supposition and then said, "climate change."
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:45 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's like the people worrying about an aging and shrinking population don't know anyone who's unemployed.
posted by asperity at 8:58 AM on January 22, 2013


I mean seriously, this is shit that would make Mao Zedong blush. I can't believe that I'm getting set upon by a half-dozen people (most of whom would probably describe themselves as compassionate progressives) when I say that no, human beings are not a cancer which must be eradicated from the planet.

No-one is suggesting human beings are a cancer of the planet. At least, I haven't seen those posts.
posted by ambivalentic at 8:58 AM on January 22, 2013


I would propose to you that a human population (on Earth) of 10 trillion would be problematically high. I think any reasonable person would agree.
Now see, I just don't think we're on the road to ten trillion people. Practically all demographic projections say that we've already passed an inflection point, that the world population is going to either steady-out or peak within the next 100 years. That changes the situation: Instead of having to ask what population we want to suport, we instead are challenged to support the few billions we will eventually end up with. And that's a challenge I think we can easily meet.
All we're doing when we talk about overpopulation is trying to fiddle with the dials
When “fiddling with the dials” means eugenics, forced abortion, and denial of disaster relief, I take offense.
posted by aw_yiss at 9:06 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Every time I hear about Nassim Taleb, I think of Talib Kweli and Talal Asad. Less aggravating.
posted by Nomyte at 9:19 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Intellectuals, eh?

Public intellectuals. There's a distinction. (Yes, yes, and a difference.)
posted by jfuller at 9:20 AM on January 22, 2013


The Chinese Eugenics one (terrible one to start the list off with) is not just moronic for the guy's lack of grasp of history, society, politics, culture etc etc. but it's also blatantly self-serving because he's basically arguing for panicked massive spending on huge eugenics programs in the West, which he probably thinks would benefit his research funding, speaking gigs and professional field in general very much.
posted by Bwithh at 9:23 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I would like to read more essays by non-scientists. Not that scientists don't have important viewpoints, but I feel that science alone is not going to recognize, let alone solve, many of the problems our world faces. Because many of them are political problems, not problems of technology or knowledge acquisition.

I liked Eno's essay and I think he makes a great point. Most of my most politically active and aware friends would never become politicians because elected officials are seen as corrupt and ineffectual even when well-intended. Instead the people I know who care most deeply about the world are teachers, activists, social workers, non-profit directors, etc. But I do wish we could elect more good people.
posted by mai at 9:27 AM on January 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


Instead of having to ask what population we want to suport, we instead are challenged to support the few billions we will eventually end up with. And that's a challenge I think we can easily meet.

I think the concern of those who disagree with you is that the population may level off, or it may not. The Earth may be able to support whatever number we arrive at in the next hundred years, or it might not. That number might be supported by a limited quantity of some resource. In that case, the crash could be hard and painful. Wouldn't you rather we investigate the possibility that the number of humans the Earth can support in perpetuity is lower than whatever number we arrive at by accident? There are consequences if your "everything will be fine" prediction is flawed.

I mean, there are clear examples where we should withhold disaster relief, too. If you've built your vacation home on an island that is now getting a disaster-level event on an average of every 3 years, it's reasonable to start talking about battles that aren't worth fighting.
posted by daveliepmann at 9:33 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Instead of having to ask what population we want to suport, we instead are challenged to support the few billions we will eventually end up with. And that's a challenge I think we can easily meet.

More like several billion. The middle UN estimate is 10 billion (and still slowly growing) by 2100.

But, even if the population plateaus (or declines slightly before plateauing), resource consumption will still continue to grow. Billions and billions of people will want to eat more meat, drive cars (or at least take buses and trains), use electric lights, and have access to running water. A static population is cold comfort if many of the individuals in that population start using 10 times as many resources as they used to (e.g. moving from a developing world lifestyle to a North American lifestyle).

The answer is clearly not to deny the developing world access to an improved quality of life, but instead to reduce the population everywhere (primarily through reducing gender and income inequality, not "eugenics, forced abortion, and denial of disaster relief") and reduce consumption everywhere (especially in the developed countries).
posted by jedicus at 9:39 AM on January 22, 2013 [12 favorites]


Me? I like thinking about the question myself more than reading the canned answers. YMMV.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:43 AM on January 22, 2013


Europe and Japan have a severe under-population problem. Unless there's a huge increase in their workforce productivity and/or huge decrease in health care costs, the projected working age population won't be within a country mile of supporting the taxes which will be required to service government debt, pension and old age health care liabilities. There's no obvious solution, either. Importing third world labor is probably break even at best given the high level of social benefits those workers and their children would be entitled to under current law. Capital and professional labor are highly mobile, and sharply higher taxes, even if politically feasible, might simply encounter declining returns. Cutting pensions and quality of health care services is probably not politically feasible.
posted by MattD at 10:02 AM on January 22, 2013


MattD you hit the nail on the head, but it's not the nail you think it is. The trouble arises when we use population growth as a cure for budget deficits.
posted by surplus at 10:07 AM on January 22, 2013


Climate change was deliberately prohibited as an answer to this year's Edge question because if it were not, probably every single response of the 150 would have been about it -- adding nothing new and being terribly boring to read. The challenge was to discuss a worthy worry that your peers did NOT share. That is,not an established worry, like climate change or overpopulation. What are you worried about that your friends are not? (Or what were you no longer worried about?) Either of these are more interesting to consider that "what is the most important worry in the world?"
posted by kk at 10:10 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


As was the case last year, I won't read as many of these as I would have liked to because the format is terrible. I think the ideal would be an ebook with each response as a chapter, but failing that it'd help if they could impose some organization on this collection. Is it too much to hope for categories of responses (political worries, genetics, food, etc) or respondents (tech pundits, bio scientists, military, etc)?

I'm sure that more than one response over the years has repeated the "filters are the new content" mantra, right?
posted by intendedeffect at 10:11 AM on January 22, 2013


OK I read Sapolsky's. He says:

Being a psychiatrically healthy first-order relative of a schizophrenic increases the odds of believing in "metamagical" things like UFOs, extrasensory perception, or literalist interpretations of the Bible.

Is he taking the piss out of us here?
posted by bukvich at 10:24 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The answer is clearly not to deny the developing world access to an improved quality of life, but instead to reduce the population everywhere (primarily through reducing gender and income inequality, not "eugenics, forced abortion, and denial of disaster relief") and reduce consumption everywhere (especially in the developed countries).

Wow. Can't believe you neo-Malthusians are advocating this kind of "overpopulation" theorizing, which sounds a lot like stomping on babies. I for one don't like stomping on babies, and I prefer to believe that the number of humans is just right, without stomping on babies. It makes me ill to read so many people in this thread advocating that we stomp on babies.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:36 AM on January 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


Is he taking the piss out of us here?

Maybe not. Wow.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:39 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I bet at least 50% of the responses are really sub-cases of overpopulation.
posted by DU at 12:16 PM on January 22


You said it, now I don't have to.
posted by Decani at 10:41 AM on January 22, 2013


> But it's hardly unreasonable to suspect that there are too goddamned many of us for this to go on indefinitely.

The fact that this has literally been said in just about every century of recorded human history, and has always been wrong, doesn't give you pause?


Is that true? My impression from the European history I've read is that up to around the 1800s the worry was that we weren't making enough new people, and growing population figures were cited with great pride. Malthus ideas really were new, weren't they?
posted by benito.strauss at 10:45 AM on January 22, 2013


Until I read this thread, I didn't realize that there were people who didn't think overpopulation was a major problem for humanity. My background is in biology and once you study a few animal populations and learn the concept of carrying capacity, it's obvious that:

1) no environment can support an infinite number of a given species, and that
2) the ways in which the populations die off once resources, space, etc. are exhausted are not very friendly to the individual members of the populations.

The idea that the number of people will just magically level out in some way that doesn't hurt, and that the various resources (esp. non-renewables like oil) left at that point will be conveniently the right amount for the remaining folks ... I mean, what?

All I can guess is that people hear "too many people" and then they think "eugenics" or "Holocaust" or "government control" and then use fear of those terrible things to convince themselves that population can and should grow as it wants. But population problems are not the same things as cruel solutions to those problems.

Could we do way more with what we have by eliminating waste, getting rid of conflicts and hoarding that hinder food distribution, etc? Of course. Will that let us support 10 billion? 20? 100? I doubt it.
posted by freecellwizard at 11:12 AM on January 22, 2013 [11 favorites]


The idea that the number of people will just magically level out in some way that doesn't hurt ... I mean, what?
Population growth has slowed throughout the world, and in many countries the population is shrinking. And if you look at the countries with negative growth, there isn't exactly mass disruption and panic in the streets. People have just been having fewer children. This all meshes with the prediction that population will peak out.

So I guess reality (and the projections of trained demographers) conflicts with your intuition from Bio 101.
posted by aw_yiss at 12:03 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


aw_yiss: When “fiddling with the dials” means eugenics, forced abortion, and denial of disaster relief, I take offense.

Given no one here is suggesting that, I'd suggest you are making up shit to support the rather lunatic idea that an ever-increasing population is no problem. I'll explain *my* suggestion to solve overpopulation: better medical care and women's rights. Because when women have total control over their fertility, and the kids that they *do* want don't die early, TFR tends to drop towards or below replacement. Turns out that most women don't want to spend their lives popping out children if they are allowed to do other things with their life! Crazy, huh?

And if population actually drops to the point where it becomes a real problem (which would be a damn long time from now), society can pay for the children it wants instead of freeriding on the unpaid work of parents. Not just a few tens of thousands in baby bonus, but all the costs.
posted by tavella at 12:19 PM on January 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


Population growth has slowed throughout the world, and in many countries the population is shrinking. And if you look at the countries with negative growth, there isn't exactly mass disruption and panic in the streets. People have just been having fewer children. This all meshes with the prediction that population will peak out.
The one-child policy is the population control policy of the People's Republic of China (PRC). It restricts urban couples to only one child, while allowing additional children in several cases, including twins, rural couples, ethnic minorities, and couples who are both only children themselves. In 2007, according to a spokesperson of the Committee on the One-Child Policy, approximately 35.9% of China's population was subject to a one-child restriction.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:23 PM on January 22, 2013


Some of these were disappointing to me. Coronal mass ejections? Nuclear annihilation? These are not unknown, underplayed or emerging threats. And then there's the non-answers like Terry Gilliam's high school level misanthropy, and the swear words guy.

In "what-me worry?", even an individualist cock can agree that vaccinations are vitally important.

I liked "the opinions of search engines".

Personally, I worry about climate change, wealth disparity, corporate control of governments, eroding liberties, the end of cheap energy, and our economic system that depends on unsustainable population growth. People are already talking about most of these things, though.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:28 PM on January 22, 2013


When “fiddling with the dials” means eugenics, forced abortion, and denial of disaster relief, I take offense

As do I. Those are completely immoral responses.

In any case there are no dials that can be fiddled with enough to escape the best-case 10-billion peak. It's built into the inertia.

What's more troubling, and perhaps worth trying to "fiddle dials" on, are nationalist, sexist, religious or otherwise explicitly natalist policies responsible for the non-best-case scenarios, where population doesn't level off at all. Read some projections. Only the low paths actually peak. Lots of countries are paying people to have babies now; and lots of people are doing everything in their power to limit women's access to birth control. Most population surveys show most women wanting fewer babies than they have. These are dials that can be fiddled with a clear conscience.

Let me put this in more personal terms. I got sterilized -- having no children -- for a number of reasons, but not least was concern over population. Now I can see that I might be wrong on the numbers. I hope so! It would be great if population turns out not to be a problem, the peak comes early, everything's hunky-dory. But aside from the fact that it's personally insulting to be categorized as a racist eugenicist for harboring this concern, can you not see how factually random that characterization is? Did I ... what, characterize myself as possessing all the "negative" heritable traits or something?
posted by ead at 12:28 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Practically all demographic projections say that we've already passed an inflection point

At least two out of three of the UN population estimates (high, medium, low) put the inflection point in the future. The only one you can arguably say puts the inflection point in the past is the "low" one, and that one's pretty close.

(For those who want to save a click: the "UN Low" estimate puts the maxima somewhere around 2050 at just over 8B people; the "Medium" estimate puts it somewhere just beyond 2100 at over 10B, and the "High" estimate is a hockey stick continuing upwards and off the chart to more than 16B people by 2100 and counting.)

If we're lucky, the "Low" estimate will turn out to be the correct one. But I don't think that's anything like a fait accompli; the countries that have low birth rates at present are mostly (the exception, off the top of my head, being Russia) very resource-intensive ones on a per capita basis. In other words, we seem to have bought ourselves a solution to the unsustainable population increase issue via unsustainable resource consumption. It remains to be seen if we reduce the amount of resources used per capita, either voluntarily through efficiency and conservation measures or involuntarily because energy just gets more expensive and we get poorer as a result, whether people will start cranking out kids again as they feel less secure.

And of course, that's if we're lucky; if we're unlucky then the "High" estimate turns out to be the case, and not everyone responds to increasing industrialization with decreasing birth rates, and we get the worst of both worlds: more and more people trying to achieve a resource-intensive, industrialized existence but with fewer and fewer resources. This could easily be the case if a significant number of countries decided to (just as an example) enjoy all the fruits of industrialization except for the ones that emancipate women and enable individual reproductive control, or otherwise implement strongly pro-reproductive policies.

And when it comes to racism, it is often the pro-reproductive policies that have more than a whiff of xenophobia to them. France and Russia's "baby subsidy" schemes seem rooted in fears that if white people don't do their duty and start churning out more fair-skinned kids, they'll be overrun by cultural/racial/linguistic/whatever minorities. But for some reason it's not "eugenics", it's just being "pro-family"!
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:40 PM on January 22, 2013


I worry that we don't really understand quantum phenomena. [...] I don't believe quantum mechanics gives a complete description of nature. I strongly believe there is another, truer description, waiting to be discovered.
[...]
I believe there must be a reason why every individual event happens, and that if we understood it we could make a theory to predict in principle when each atom transitions. That is to say, I want a theory of quantum phenomena that goes beyond quantum mechanics.
[...]
I do not believe in this vast expansion of reality. I believe there is only one real world in which there are definite outcomes of experiments, in which only one history is realized of the may possible.
[...]
Several have been invented; one which has been much studied was invented by de Broglie in 1928 and reinvented by David Bohm in the 1950s. This shows its possible, now what we need to do is find the right theory.
[...]
Many physicists accept quantum mechanics as a final theory and attempt to solve the open problems in physics and cosmology, such as unification and quantum gravity, within the existing framework of quantum physics. I worry that this is wrong and cannot succeed, because quantum mechanics itself must be radically deepened and completed to make further progress in our understanding of nature.


I worry that Lee Smolin doesn't really understand the scientific method.
posted by kagredon at 12:49 PM on January 22, 2013


We're all Strongbad, and aw_yiss is Homestar Runner slapping an "Everything is Fine, Nothing is Ruined" Post-It on our computer, er, planet.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:33 PM on January 22, 2013


"Don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today's trouble is enough for today." - Christ

"There is nothing that wastes the body like worry, and one who has any faith in God should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever." - Gandhi

"If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?" - Shantideva
posted by erikvan at 2:44 PM on January 22, 2013


"Don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today's trouble is enough for today." - Christ

This dude got nailed to a big piece of wood though. Poorly-prepared for the future imo
posted by Greg Nog at 3:05 PM on January 22, 2013 [12 favorites]


The prompt was to share something worrying that isn't on the "popular radar" yet. If I had been writing an essay for Edge, I would have pointed out the crappy pre-supposition and then said, "climate change."

Yeah, in that, the "popular radar" response to climate change is so jaw-droppingly, wilfully, destructively, myopic it's not on the popular radar in any meaningful sense. It's on the popular radar in the sense that someone's like "Oh look at that red blob on the radar screen!", not "OMG that red blob is a nuclear missile that is launched and is going to hit us in three seconds!"

I dunno when people, governments, corporations are gonna realise they're staring down the barrel of a gun - and that click wasn't the gun being loaded, but rather the hammer coming down. Soon, I hope.
posted by smoke at 3:19 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


"If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?" - Shantideva

This is a dangerous oversimplification. We can solve things if a significant number of us recognize the problem and work together, or at least stop compounding the problem. Contemplating potential perils in order to avoid them is not "worrying", it's rational planning.

But if you're just reminding everyone to not frazzle our circuits in a worked-up terror, then yes of course I agree.
posted by daveliepmann at 3:24 PM on January 22, 2013


The important part of fatalism is the fatal.
posted by srboisvert at 3:35 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


bukvich: "Is he taking the piss out of us here?"

No. Persistent, stable reality testing is reinforced by protective family behaviours and minimal trauma histories as well as by inheritance of patterns of genes, expression and copy number variation not associated with schizophrenia.
posted by meehawl at 4:15 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's is fabulous. It's about today's kids growing up with so much virtual reality they cease to understand what reality is. (That thing that does not go away when you pretend it ain't there.) Anyway he included:

(Chess, for instance, consists in eliminating and immobilizing the enemy forces consisting of infantry, cavalry, messengers, troops mounted on elephants, and the redoubtable queen (which was actually a misunderstanding: the Persian inventors of the game gave the most important warrior the title of "Vizier", after the designation for the commanders of the Persian army; the French Crusaders who learned the game as they wandered through the Near East thought the piece was called Vierge, after the Virgin Mary; upon their return to Europe the Virgin became the Queen).

1. I never heard of this and am amazed. When I learned to play chess I can recall being confused that the Queen had so much power on a battlefield.

2. The unequal #'s of left and right parentheses are Mihaly's!
posted by bukvich at 5:20 PM on January 22, 2013


Wow, that article makes me really dislike Xeni Jardin. I had no problem with her before but science hasn't brought us any closer to curing cancer in the last 40 years? WHAT?
posted by maryr at 6:10 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Big Think: Edge Big Thinkers Miss A Big Worry
As insightful as many of the responses are, however, none of the EDGE big thinkers mentions an even bigger problem, the failure of many – especially among big thinkers and policy makers - to accept that risk perception is not the purely intellectual objective ‘rational’ process we’d like it to be. We know from decades of research that risk perception – how we worry – is a mix of facts and feelings, reason and gut reaction, intellect and instinct. We know it, but many still refuse to accept it.

That’s something to worry about, because getting risk wrong leads to dangers all by itself, and we will remain vulnerable to these mistakes until we let go of our naïve post-Enlightenment faith in reason and accept that risk perception is inescapably an affective system, not just a matter of rationally figuring out the facts. Only with such acceptance can we then begin to apply our rich understanding of how that system actually operates to the task of “worrying better”. So here’s a worry to add to those raised by the EDGE thinkers. We need to worry about the intellectual arrogance that denies the truth of how cognition about risk really works.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:15 AM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Given that most projections have global population topping out at around 10-12 billion and then beginning to decline by the end of the century, it would be spectacularly bad luck if we have successfully doubled the population 12 times in the last 10,000 years only to discover the final 13th is impossible. I think the Earth could easily sustain us if we were doing it right. But of course, we're not at all doing it right, and the climate stuff is going to get a lot worse than the population itself demands. But 12 billion conservationist hippies living lightly on the land? Quite doable I think -- in theory.
posted by chortly at 7:31 PM on January 23, 2013


That's the funny thing with doubling, though; each one is bigger than the last.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:36 PM on January 23, 2013


it would be spectacularly bad luck if we have successfully doubled the population 12 times in the last 10,000 years only to discover the final 13th is impossible.

Bad luck happens. Look up the gambling term "Martingale."
posted by localroger at 5:38 AM on January 24, 2013


New Yorker: A Collection Of Essays About What We Should Fear
Another theme throughout the collection is what Stanford psychologist Brian Knutson called “metaworry”: the question of whether we are psychologically and politically constituted to worry about what we most need to worry about.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:16 AM on January 25, 2013


« Older For non-anglophones, the English names of worldwid...  |  Dogs Like Socks [slyt]... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments