by Barry Edelson


…and Multiply, and Multiply…

"Malthus believed in artificially limiting population, but found that it could not be done by talking."
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary


The United Nations declared that the seven billionth living human was born last week. Though some (including the U.S. Census Bureau) dispute the exact date of that milestone, there is little doubt that our species has been adding a billion people every dozen years or so since the 1970s. We only reached our first billion around 1804 and the second in 1927. It is difficult to fathom how a century that produced the most horrific wars and campaigns of mass murder the world has ever known also witnessed unprecedented advances in human well-being and security. But here we all are: the proof is in the numbers. There just wouldn't be so many homo sapiens alive today if the vast majority of us weren't able to feed ourselves and raise children safely to adulthood.

This news adds poignance to our general inability to internalize the magnitude of vast numbers. A simple exercise is sometimes employed to teach children the difference between large quantities and exceedingly large quantities. Since innumeracy is a common failing among adults, it never hurts to hear it again. It starts with this question: How long does it take for one million seconds to elapse? An elementary bit of multiplication and division yields the answer: about 11 and a half days. Now, how long does it take for one billion seconds to tick by? Don't even try to guess: an astonishing 31 years and eight and a half months, give or take a few days. Since the denomination of the sovereign debt of many nations is now counted in the trillions, it is instructive to pause and consider that the duration of one trillion seconds is 31,709 years — or roughly half a dozen times the length of all recorded human history.

Those of a romantic or exploitative nature find much to celebrate in an ever-expanding stock of human raw material. When Mozart was alive in the latter half of the 18th century, and the world's population had not even achieved its first billion, being a one-in-a-million prodigy had a far greater caché than it does today. In a sampling of babies now more than seven times as large, imagine how many boy and girl geniuses are awaiting discovery in their bassinets? Never mind that the world's greatest minds are just as likely to arrive in one of the forsaken places on the planet, where their chances of surviving infancy are still depressingly slim, as in a modern metropolis where the music of the original wunderkind is always at hand to inspire the next generation of would-be child stars.

For those whose desires are no more elevated than the prospect of amassing ever-greater wealth from an immensely wider market for goods and services, the population news is also unreservedly positive. Since the surface of the Earth is still far from being so crowded as to make it impossible for the affluent to find places to build secluded enclaves for themselves, there is no reason for the makers of things to feel anything but excited about having more people to peddle them to.

For those of a more pragmatic or cynical bent — who see the world as it is and not as we wish it to be, as per Mr. Bierce — the doubling of humanity in little more than 40 years is a cause for more concern than wonder. Quite apart from the centuries-old worry about being able to feed so many mouths, which kept Malthus up at night for what turned out to be no good reason, the real worry is an intensification of all of the problems that humans have already. With even a cursory knowledge of history, we might have noticed that we tend not to get along all that well with one another. The human family is riven by continual strife and frequent violence. Hence there is enough food for all the world's hungry people but not enough decency and cooperation to deliver it to them. Peaceful coexistence has by far been the exception rather than the rule over the course of the last few thousand years, ever since poets and historians started keeping track of winners and losers, and nations started counting the dead. Keeping the peace requires libraries of law and intrusive state intervention, as we have proven ourselves time and again incapable of the self-control and forbearance required to prevent us from daily leaping at one another's throats. There is no reason to suppose that we will not continue to spawn psychopaths and predators in the same current proportions as musical or mathematical savants. For all of the hope that among the hundreds of millions of newly born there are those who could potentially solve the world's most vexing problems, as many new ills will emerge from the rapaciousness of the animal within.

Even if we were to presuppose, against all evidence, a gradual increase in the sweetness of human nature, we cannot grasp the scale of the problem we face because our numerical aptitude far outstrips our social development. The idea that we live in a "global village" appeals to us because we are, at bottom, tribal creatures. However, sociologists long ago concluded that an individual can have a meaningful personal acquaintance with only a small percentage of the people we pass on the street each day (Facebook notwithstanding), let alone the millions and billions in the world at large. In the tribal societies in which we evolved, the sphere of human interaction was limited to no more than a few hundred people. This is why we respond to a photograph of a single starving child more powerfully than to the news of 5,000 war casualties. This is why successful politicians know that the anecdote is far more effective than the statistic. We cannot even get our heads around the fact that it's only been a few thousand years since every one of our forebears lived in very small groups and in very primitive conditions. We just weren't bred to live in a human society of the current size, or to embrace a network of disparate cultures spread over the entire land area of the planet. Our survival did not depend on our having such an expansive view of the world, and so, for the most part, we don't.

The internet has perpetuated the illusion of the global village, but the concept is largely meaningless and potentially harmful. The number of websites now exceeds all the books ever printed. If we want to get the news from Boise, Buenos Aires and Ulan Bator, and every place in between, we could read it online every day. But we don't, and we can't. It's a physical impossibility to live much beyond the limited mental sphere of our distant ancestors. Our connection to others around the world is a potentiality that can be realized only to a tiny degree. The idea that we have a comprehensive knowledge of world events, a meaningful understanding of other cultures, and a relationship with a representative sampling of all the world's people, depends upon the same delusion that we could all be rich, famous and talented. These false beliefs are based on a fundamental misperception of enormous numbers, and a consequent failure to comprehend that the social world we inhabit, while it may mentally encompass the whole of the Earth and a universe of mathematical theory, is in point of fact infinitesimally small. The more of us there are, the smaller it will seem.

November 12, 2011


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