Episode 7: Alexander Rose
Alexander Rose is the Executive Director of the Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco-based group dedicated to encouraging long-term thinking. He is also the foundation’s Clock Project Manager, overseeing the design and construction of a monument-scale clock that is intended to run for 10,000 years in the desert of west Texas. Our conversation began with the clock, both as a physical object and as a statement about our culture’s obsession with the short term. This naturally opened up a discussion of the present and how long-term thinking has the potential to transform unsolvable issues into solvable ones. This is our second project-based conversation and, as with Peter Warren, the discussion turned to how we can make The Conversation happen, especially between people who have very different time horizons.
Many of your guests have been dancing around the topic but Alexander Rose seems to be the first to get deeper into the conversation about overpopulation. I know it’s not popular to say but most of the world’s problems stem from overpopulation (famine, poverty, spread of disease, lack of clean water, etc.). I am quite baffled by people in the “first world” that still have 5, 6, 7 kids (or pushing that further, even more than 2 as 2 is zero population growth). As Mr. Rose says, people don’t seem to have a long term view of the world to realize this isn’t sustainable. But why aren’t more governments or even charities talking about it? (Businesses probably just care about having more consumers for their products – a very short-term view). Good money is being used as a band-aid to combat poverty, famine, etc. But it is only a band-aid. The deeper, life-threatening cut is overpopulation. There is one dedicated organization that I know of that is working on this issue (Population Connection – http://www.populationconnection.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_us). Maybe a speaker from this organization would be a good addition to The Conversation?
Funny you mention Population Connection, Micah and I have them on our shortlist to contact as the project moves further east.
But I agree, population is one of the biggest issues and, perhaps, the biggest issue when thinking about future scenarios. Lundberg talked vaguely about population and a few other interviewees have mentioned it in passing, but it’s a scary subject to address. Seems like there are a few moving parts here:
At least in the US, our culture seems to have swung far towards venerating individualist thinking over collective thinking (at least rhetorically) and expressing this prioritization through market metaphors. Thus, if people are allowed sufficient individual freedom they will, in a weird emergent way, ultimately find the most efficient state for the collective. Population can certainly be framed in this sort of market language, especially if one views people as commodities. In this mindset, population isn’t a concern because it will self-correct in a far more efficient way than if population was centrally administered. Self-correction could take many forms, I suppose, with people voluntarily deciding to have fewer children because of increasing expenses or, perhaps, with a correction that resembles a market crash. But what does this mean? Alexander makes the excellent point that a voluntary, peaceful, long-term population decline has scary economic implications for a system based on growth but, surely, a sudden drop is even worse. But if one is comfortable giving people the same moral value as other commodities, I suppose these situations could “solve” themselves. This sounds insane to me, but it does line up with a prominent free-market trend in our culture. Speaking against it could be risky, perhaps?
But if self-correction is one option, what is the alternative? Let’s say we decide to collectively regulate population. This extends the long arm of the state into one of our most fundamental personal choices (rights?). Setting aside the fact that this happens all the time, I think there is a real tension between personal liberty and collective good that leaves a lot of people uncomfortable here. Should government really have the power to decide what your family looks like? Moreover, this type of population reduction would presumably lead to the same economic challenges as the financially-motivated population decline mentioned above, assuming it happened in an economic system based on growth.
Both approaches seem problematic and very intertwined with thorny economic questions. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll have to ask future interviewees about how capitalism will deal with sustained population decline. If our economic model demands an increasing population, can population be discussed without talking about economics?
Of course, this doesn’t even get near the question of finite resources, regardless of population…
China is trying government-enforced population control, while some (most?) religions actively encourage people to have as many children as possible. Both seem rather inhumane to me. Forcing people not to have children or abort them goes against all aspects of personal freedom to choose. Yet encouraging people to have many children they cannot afford to take care of also seems fundamentally wrong (as far as basic necessities like food, water, shelter).
Some of our “safety nets,” like social security and pensions, are based on people having more and more offspring/workers to support/fund retirees that are living longer and longer (on the social security side, it also assumes workers will keep getting raises, so higher tax revenues, which isn’t happening much in the business world). It’s obviously a very flawed system as we are seeing. Yet, businesses seem to be going in the opposite direction of using less people (either replaced by machines – like auto/assembly line workers – or simply less people doing more work – “worker productivity is up,” the business news tickers love to scrawl). And with the current unemployment rate (and those who have “stopped looking”), it appears we simply have too many people for too few jobs.
I admit, I have no clue as to what the “solve” is here. But hopefully you get that interview with Population Connection so you can dive deep into this conversation with them.