The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Deep Phobic Memory

Deep Phobic Memory

From time to time I will hear someone complain that this or that group reacts today in response to things that happened decades ago. My difficulty with this attitude is that I simply don't know, and have never known, human beings who do not do this as individuals, or groups.

Yesterday's discussion of the period, a million and a half years ago, when humans almost died out dealt partially with my own suspicion that the meme "reproduce! Reproduce! There is no practical limit to the number of human beings the planet can hold!" relates to this.

I see almost no problem that currently threatens humanity that would not be eased by fewer people. Pollution and energy needs, along with overcrowding are creating a massive resource crunch, and conflict between peoples separated by thousands of miles.

Of the people who are NOT worried about our current population levels, I don't hear any of them say: "X is the actual limit for human beings on this planet. At that point, I would admit there was a problem." They tend to be quite vague about that upper limit, or in many cases actually state that we will always find to work it if they think that we could support ten trillion people. They don't believe that. They CAN'T believe that. What I suspect is that the actual motivation for their believe is perfectly logical from the perspective of "we must survive! We almost died!" but seemingly illogical from the perspective of what we currently understand, or think we understand, about the environment.

Rather interestingly, to me, is the fact that I've found this attitude far more often in people of faith, of whatever religion, than I do in people who consider themselves atheists. "Faith" that we'll work it out might explain this (a person with faith in one thing finds it easiest to have faith in another) but I suspect that most religious traditions have encoded within them instructions for their followers to reproduce, to "be fruitful and multiply" at least partially because all organizations encode instructions within their principles that ensure their own survival. Makes sense.

This isn't about the question of whether the planet can safely handle twice its current population, or whatever. I think that would be a really bad bet, and have some emotion invested in that position, so I cannot be a fair arbiter of this question.

But I want you guys to consider the possibility that old programming: culturally or individually, influences current behavior and perceptual filters. The rules we learn as individuals in childhood are hella difficult to root out in adulthood.

Nations celebrate times of trial in their histories, have times of remembrance and laud their heroes. Events thousands of years old are discussed and storied, we have holidays related to the deaths of ancient heroes or in memory of times of struggle. And the memories affect current political and personal decisions.

Oft times, a group in power, comfortable and oblivious to the amount of cultural mortar that relates to ancient fears, will criticize smaller or weaker groups for referencing things that happened in the past. This of course pushes my buttons when I hear ignorant people wonder why blacks "still complain about something that happened 150 years ago" as if Jim Crow, Segregation, or the Civil Rights movement never happened. I love to ask them when, exactly, they believe the playing field leveled. Maybe...just maybe it leveled a generation or so ago, in the mid-70's. Hardly 150 years.

But for goodness sake: take that same massive majority and splinter it into its component parts, and they complain, accuse, feel threatened, and bleet like wounded sheep just like any "minority" group. And since EVERYONE will, at one time or another in their lives, be a member of a pressured group, this means that I've simply never met a human being who doesn't express fear that has nothing to do with their actual current existence. Gay? Fat? Poor? Rich? Conservative? Liberal? American? Non-American? White? Black? Hispanic? Democrat? Republican?

Female? Male?

In literally every case I've heard fear responses as if depictions in media, dispersal of public funds, economic statistics, or legal status is a matter of absolute life and death. As if extinction was a genuine possibility. And in every case, the groups who don't have that particular label sneer and act as if they, too, don't do the exact same thing.

Recently I had a coaching session with a client in which she was searching for a partner, and was disgusted that people judge others for their bodies, and not their behaviors. This is blindness on a massive level--I asked her to be honest: didn't she judge men on the basis of their behaviors? Weren't there men who simply didn't match her standards? Man, the silence on the phone was deafening. Of COURSE she did that.

But like the rest of us human critters, we want people to ignore OUR wounds, as we dust off our magnifying glasses to judge those of others. I've known only two or three people who didn't do this, to one extent or another.

And what does this mean? Formulating public policy that doesn't take into account that people react to old, ancient pain and remain conveniently in denial about it is insane. We're just people. In my own life, one way this manifests is an automatic rejection of almost ANYONE who believes that their side of an argument contains the only truth. That means anyone who uses the "Those (liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, whites, blacks) are X, while we are Y." I don't care if an individual argument might sound reasonable--I know they will delete information that conflicts with their position. They have to. It fits right into the pattern of dealing with fear and pain that affects every level of human society from individuals to nations to the species as a whole, and apparently doesn't matter whether it happened yesterday or a million and a half years ago.

In other words, you know that someone is asleep if they don't grasp that they do this, or are strongly on "one side" of such political positions, and accuse the "other" side of having no positions or ideas of value (oh, yeah...nail someone with this, and they'll come up with some small, weak example of an idea they don't hate on the "other side"--damning with faint praise. That's like people who believe in differential racial intelligence claiming they are just dealing with little differences in human populations, not vicious racism, because they can admit blacks play better basketball--something that would never be on their list of positive human traits)

Easy. And what if their point is actually good? Frankly, I'll wait until I hear it from someone awake and/or honest. On Facebook, an old friend suggested I should listen to a certain political Shock Jock, and not damn the message because of the messenger. Impossible. I'm simply not going to fact-check everything someone says once they prove to me that they are either asleep or dishonest.

I know that I carry wounds from my childhood, some of which make it, for instance, impossible for me to enjoy movies like "Book of Eli." I would never suggest that the movie is not good (I haven't seen it) merely that the fact that I could predict Denzel wouldn't get laid disgusts me. That's my stuff, and I can't control all of my old wiring. In my mind, the exact same social pressures that create the pattern of black eunuchs also creates differentials in legal sentencing, education, political representation, and violent death statistics. I just can't "enjoy" entertainments that are symptomatic of a lethal problem.

But there simply isn't a group whose individuals, as individuals, cannot point to disadvantages, hurts, horrible histories, near-extinctions, violence, or whatever. And there isn't a group whose members cannot be accused of having perpetrated such outrages, in terms of their memberships in one group or another. I remember a feminist who got in my face once, accusing me of being an oppressor and murderer of women because I was a man. I calmly asked her if she would care to be judged on the negative behaviors of her racial group, and her eyes crossed.

That's the way we are. In my awake moments, I see all of this stuff quite clearly. But then I blink, and fall asleep again. Ah well...I spend more and more of my time awake. Not sure that I can expect more than that of myself. One step at a time.

And try not to wake up the sleeping children. Unless of course, they wish to be awakened.


Marty S said...

Historically when one group of humans has run low on resources they have invaded the territory of other groups of humans in order to obtain more resources for themselves. I hate to be the pessimist, but if we do get to the point where there aren't enough resources to support the world population I fear given today's weapons that we may well end up on the extinct species list.

Steve Perry said...

I'd like to see some more research on the notion that we all carry a species memory running back to the protohuman days. As a theory, it lacks proof.

Much easier to see why an event that happened in great\grandpaw's day might be passed along and inculcated early. If your mother tells you story her father told her, and his father told him, that can sink into the unconscious and the source be forgotten.

That your great-time-fifty grandpaw got et by a sabertooth lion and thus you won't get a house cat hasn't been demonstrated as anything close to valid.

Cram enough rats into a small enough space without enough food and water, you'll see what will eventually happen to us if we don't control our population ...

Anonymous said...

BTW, buy Wifi jammer to jam all spy devices in your room or at work.

Unknown said...

"How many people can we support?" really depends upon the answer "At what level of technology and at what rate of technological advancement?"

The world could _not_ support 10 Billion people at a 1400 level of technology and a 1400 rate of technological advancement.

I could easily see the world supporting 10 billion 2010 first worlders though. The key point in that equation would be instead of 3-5 billion (depending upon you definition) poor people who don't really contribute to the rate of technological advance, you'd have a much larger market and research base to draw upon so the rate of technological advance would be vastly faster than that of today.

Technology _creates_ resources. Let me repeat that gain for emphasis, technology _creates_ resources. Think of the North Sea Oil deposits. Completely undrillable with 1910 technology - so it couldn't really be considered a resource. Today? Major source of oil.

Now think of asteroids or anything else in space. Completly economically unreachable with 2010 tech. But if we can economically mine them with 2110 tech, then we have, in a very real sense, created a new resource.

Anonymous said...

You know, Steve, one of the reasons that I read your blog is that you make an effort to see more than one side of issues and do not leap to demonize those with whom you disagree. Too many blog writers seem to find pleasure at picking at their partisan sores while at the same time attacking others for having blemishes.


Shady_Grady said...

As mentioned the rate of population growth has been declining since the sixties. The fastest growing segment of the world population is the over 65 bracket.

But I think it is really impossible to talk about "overpopulation" independently from the social, economic and technological relations of a society. To do otherwise is to accept some pretty unsavory premises and policy decisions.

To put it bluntly there has never been a time when the "haves" (whether defined by race, class, or education) didn't think that there weren't too many of the "have nots". Marx and Engels wrote rather extensively on this in their condemnation of Malthus' theories, which they showed to be both unhistorical and unsupported by facts. I think the same thing is true of neo-Malthusians today.

The problem of poverty and hunger in the world is not caused by overpopulation. It is a question of social relations. The poorest continent in the world, Africa, is not overpopulated. If anything it is decidedly underpopulated. Many of its issues with food delivery and hunger are caused and worsened by subsidized US and European food exports.

In the US alone, there is enough food produced for everyone to eat 8 full meals a day but there are 40 million Americans that can't put food on the table and are classified as "food insecure".

Hunger has increased over the past 30 years even as growth in food production has exceeded growth in population.

Without talking about both the contradictions in capitalism and the technological advancements which capitalism made possible, we can't really fix issues of "overpopulation" or overfishing, deforestation, global warming, environmental degradation or any number of related topics.

Paul Gibbons said...

Steve, I think you might have something there... but might we also look a little closer to the present to understand what we might do to address this problem of vision?

Alice Miller has been doing some extraordinary work in the field of understanding human behaviour as a result of childhood experiences.

Her work has shown that the destruction of empathy in the child leads to the blindness in our society to the obvious problems we face.

Lloyd deMause, director of The Institute for Psychohistory, has published a massive amount of work on applying the same principles that Alice Miller deals with to a global historical scale.

Two of his articles are referenced below:

Something to wrap one's wits around, no?

Anonymous said...


1. I didn't just claim that we could support 10 billion humans well; I cited detailed arguments for why that might be so. Before claiming that I'm the unwitting psychic pawn of a 100,000-year-old racial phobia, could you please take the trouble to read the arguments I cited, and either agree with them or refute them factually or logically?

2. The reason you won't see me give a hard maximum number of human beings that the Earth can support is that such a number probably doesn't exist as a single constant, the way that the speed of light in a vacuum does. As others have pointed out, with 1400 A.D.-type technology, we couldn't even get past a billion humans, let alone the 6.5 billion we've got today. With the sort of technology we could easily have by 2100 A.D., 10 billion humans might seem downright pastoral and underpopulated. If you doubt that, consider how much room we'd have if seasteading became practical, let alone if manned space travel became as easy as transcontinental air travel -- an impossibility in 1900 A.D. -- is today.

3. I didn't answer earlier because I had two very busy workdays at Caltech. One thing I heard about yesterday morning was a new machine from Illumina that can sequence a human genome fully for something like $20K. This is in comparison to the $100M that the first human genome cost. The price is expected to drop further -- probably to $1K per person -- by 2012 or so.

The world isn't static. Human beings can do vast new things if they set their minds to it. Part of my reason for optimism is that I work, for a living, in the business of doing those new things (on an individually puny scale, admittedly). A bigger reason for my optimism is that I spend all day working with people who are smarter and more productive than I am.

I really don't buy this idea that the world already has too many people and that we're therefore doomed unless we kill off or forcibly sterilize billions of people. I admit that idea's quite popular, and considered "realistic" by some, but I don't find it either rationally or morally persuasive.

--Erich Schwarz

Anonymous said...

For whatever reason, hyperlinks weren't working. So I'll repost my hyperlink yet again, with the URL spelled out to make it Blogger-proof.

Here is the argument by John McCarthy I've tried to cite twice, on the sustainability of human progress:

Please do read it; McCarthy's the inventor of Lisp and a reasonably rational guy.

Another person you might want to argue with personally is Jerry Pournelle. His Step Further Out made the same arguments as McCarthy, decades earlier. It's sad that arguments Pournelle made in the late 1970s still need to be made again now, but so it goes.

Finally, David MacKay, a professor of physics at Cambridge, has written a fine extended argument for the sorts of technological innovations McCarthy advocates.

MacKay does this as a proposed strategy for dealing with global warming, something that McCarthy is less motivated by, but since they're both rational technophiles their arguments noticeably converge in the sections on nuclear power.

--Erich Schwarz

Steven Barnes said...

Steve: I'm not saying we carry that memory in our genes. I'm saying that it seems to be encoded in our stories, especially our religious texts. It isn't a real "theory" at all--totally untested, just a wondering aloud.

Steven Barnes said...

"I really don't buy this idea that the world already has too many people and that we're therefore doomed unless we kill off or forcibly sterilize billions of people."
I didn't say that, Erich, and isn't bringing that into the discussion seems further afield from the actual conversation as me thinking that part of human behavior may be driven by ancient memories of near-extinction. Yes, I am seriously troubled by the fact that those on your side of the argument are willing to accept no upper limits to human population. It doesn't matter what the theoretical discussions are, in that sense. I don't deny that it is POSSIBLE that we could support ten times the current population, or more. I just also think that we do ourselves no conceivable good by heading in that direction, and much historical harm. I'm perfectly aware that things MAY be all right in that process. But there is simply an endless list of potential problems that would be no issue at all if the world population were smaller. And the endless growth image becomes more and more delicate, more and more dependent upon technologies and resources that exist only in the mind, or in labs. And I think of the Rat City experiments, where overcrowded rodents tear out the throats of their young...and just see nothing good at all coming from the thought that we can continue like this indefinitely. I may be wrong--but if I am, what have we lost? If human beings can be motivated to have no more than two children (I'm not suggesting a methodology, just that the discussion may be critical. Awareness motivates action by itself) then we may miss a few Mozarts and Hitlers, but since I don't really believe in the Great Man hypothesis, doesn't seem to matter. If you're wrong, on the other hand, the entire thing could crash. Billions die. Seems to me that the cost-benefit analysis just doesn't justify the belief that we can support an endless population.

Steven Barnes said...

May I also say, Erich, that your attitude (if I'm right about it's origins) saved the human race from extinction? If I wish to question its universal usefulness, it does not mean that those with that belief pattern are broken, stupid, oblivious or anything else. This is a critical discussion to have, affecting the survival of our species, and it must be had with real care and concern for the attitudes of both sides. If in any way you didn't feel that respect from me, allow me to make my respect for your mind and heart crystal-clear.

Anonymous said...


Thank you. I don't feel disrespected by you and never have.

But this is one of my hot-button issues -- as hot a hot-button issue for me as "Sambo Alerts" are for you, I suspect.

Why I react that way would be a long and somewhat autobiographical ramble about my world view, politics, life experiences, etc. But, just as you can be sensitive to racial discrimination in the media and yet have cogent things to so, so, likewise, do I think that it's possible for me to be strongly motivated about this and still have rational arguments why we can not merely survive, but live well, with 10 billion human beings.

Long story short: I think the decision whether we are going to try to have "Survival With Style" (as Jerry Pournelle has put it), or not, is the political decision of our generation, and I think it's one that's going to have vast consequences for the well-being and liberties of humankind. In particular I think it's going to have a huge effect on whether we continue to be a society in which progressive politics have some chance of working in the real world, versus one that becomes ... well, "very reactionary" is the best way of summarizing it.

As Larry Niven put it: "Peasants don't manufacture contraceptives." And people who haven't made a conscious decision to have high levels of economic productivity and growth in spite of having 10 billion human beings are very unlikely to retain more than the vestiges of a free and equal society.

I care about this stuff, a lot, which is why I have Ph.D. in molecular biology and work in a research lab. Think of this as my equivalent of caring about what happens to Blacks in America, and maybe you'll get a sense of how motivated I am. It really is that big a deal for me.

--Erich Schwarz