Are we caught in an inescapable techno-trap?

Revisiting sustainability and the population paradox.

Have you noticed that every problem, whether real, perceived or fabricated, now demands the same solution: more technocracy for the common good of public health and environmental sustainability. Whether it’s digital health passports in the guise of smart apps, universal basic income with social credits, fact-checkers acting as electronic Ministries of Truth, online safety bills, mental health or the endless promotion of alternatives to traditional mother and father families, all trends lead us to greater dependence on the biotech industrial complex.

In the heady years of unparalleled consumer growth, hundreds of millions of us imagined a bright future of ever-expanding horizons with new freedoms and opportunities for the next generation. As inexpensive telecommunication and paved roads spread to regions we once disparagingly called the developing world, for a few short decades, we witnessed the apparent globalisation of the American Dream. While the big multinational brands began to dominate the urban landscape in cities as diverse as Bogotá, Bengaluru, Boston, Berlin, Beijing or Brazzaville, laissez-faire free-market capitalism gave way to public private partnerships that transferred power away from smallholder farmers and local traders to subsidiaries of a global network. Health and safety regulations had once protected local communities and workers against greedy corporations, eager to profit from the exploitation of natural resources and human labour. Now in the age of smart automation, big corporations often lobby governments to introduce tougher environmental regulations to put their leaner and meaner local competitors out of business, leaving only light ancillary services to small businesses. The open highways of 1960s North America have slowly but surely morphed into a corporate control grid with the commoditisation of privacy and unspoilt countryside.

In the years of plenty, opinion leaders successfully swept all talk of overpopulation and eugenics under the carpet. Only maverick academics and stealthy think tanks dared tackle these issues head on. Others only skirted around these controversies with platitudes about sustainability, climate change and resource depletion. Multinationals seemed happy to attract new consumers swarming to the burgeoning metropolises of the misnamed third world. Once they had abandoned their subsistence farms, these new human resources would soon become dependent, whether directly or indirectly, on global banks with NGOs managing their transition to our concept of modernity. Optimists forecast that a blend of technological innovation and lifestyle changes would help us avert resource wars. By the dawn of the 21st century, earlier fears of widescale famines in countries with high birth rates faded as more efficient farming methods with irrigation and fertilisers could easily feed a forecast peak population of ten to eleven billion. Ever since fertility rates have dropped in much in most of Asia. China, Japan, Korea and much of South America now have below-replacement fertility rates. India has now stabilised at around replacement level. Only Sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt and a few Muslim Asian and Middle Eastern countries (Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan) retain a strong preference for large families (with fertility rates > 3.0). However, as millions move to burgeoning towns and cities and abandon their rural lifestyles, we can only expect prolific countries like Nigeria and Tanzania, with fertility rates respectively of 5.3 and 4.8, to follow in the footsteps of South Africa at just 2.4 and declining.

While we can easily feed the world without exploiting more arable land, we should ask if ten billion human beings can drive 5 billion vehicles, requiring a vast expansion of existing road infrastructure. More pertinently, should Europeans and North Americans, expect to keep their high-consumption lifestyle? French President, Emanuel Macron, has warned his people that the age of abundance is over (or fin de l’abondance).

There are certainly dangerous extremes in the population debate. On the one hand, endless expansion of aggregate consumption will require more advanced technology controlled by Big Tech leading to greater dependence on remote organisations with more surveillance and top-down social engineering. On the other, the kind of swift population decline that some power brokers such as Bill Gates, Prince Charles or Yuval Noah Harari would like to see may, depending on its speed, only be achievable through higher death rates and/or strict birth controls with grave consequences for basic human rights. Over the last two decades, Western policy makers have worried that people are living too long placing an unsustainable burden on both the state and private pension funds. Historically, two main methods have brought about rapid depopulation of undesirables, wars and land seizures. The latter is by far the most effective. By simply denying people the means to sustain their families or forcing people to adapt quickly to an alien society with very different rules, colonial powers could engender collective despondency and attribute excess mortality to primitive culture or perceived intellectual inferiority. Today, the whole world lives under the colonial rule of a few big banks and corporations, something we might call the Global Mafia.

We face two divergent propositions. One views most of humanity, unable to contribute to the development of a new eco-friendly technotopia, as pathogens wasting valuable resources, polluting our waterways and denying other species of their natural habitats. It’s easy to see the attractions of a more sparsely populated planet with more wilderness and more space for its surviving inhabitants to thrive. Some would perversely argue that a less populated world would be a freer world. There may well be eight billion people alive today, but only a few million can truly fulfil their dreams. Even if such a panacea were desirable, who would decide who will survive and who will be slowly euthanised?

Today, more than ever, raising the next generation requires a high investment strategy. Future adults need a sense of belonging and purpose that they can only learn through past generations. We are rootless nobodies without cultural connections to our biological ancestors. It may no longer make sense for most women to have four, five or six children, but a future without naturally born offspring would hasten the eclipse of humanity as it has evolved gradually over millennia. It will also mark the end of equal opportunities. Genetic engineering and augmented intelligence will empower a master race to downgrade the rest of humanity to the status of zoo animals. We are at a crossroads. We can either adapt to our natural environment by living more humbly or we can let the technocrats take over and deny us the freedom to shape our future.