David Brooks on the sterilization of half of humanity, hail David Brooks

Today he writes:

Every day, I check a blog called Marginal Revolution, which is famous
for its erudite authors, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, and its
intelligent contributors [TC: that's you!]. Last week, one of those contributors asked a
question that is fantastical but thought-provoking: What would happen
if a freak solar event sterilized the people on the half of the earth
that happened to be facing the sun?

His Burkean answer is here and I very much agree with it.  Excerpt:

Without posterity, there are no grand designs. There are no high
ambitions. Politics becomes insignificant. Even words like justice lose
meaning because everything gets reduced to the narrow qualities of the
here and now.


If millions of immigrants were brought over, they would populate the
buildings but not perpetuate the culture. They wouldn’t be like current
immigrants because they wouldn’t be joining a common project, but
displacing it. There would be no sense of peoplehood, none of the
untaught affections of those who are part of an organic social unit
that shares the same destiny.

Here is the original inspiring MR post.


So Brooks can't read either. The question was what happens if half of the planet (people, animals, etc) is sterilized (i.e. if sexual reproduction collapses), not if half of humanity is sterilized. Type III Error.

Immigration is the painful process of leaving behind one culture and way of living so that your children and children’s children can enjoy a different future. No one would be willing to undertake that traumatic process in order to move from a society that was reproducing to a society that was fading.

Nonsense. Europeans came to the 'new world' clearly not because they wanted to join the indigenous cultures of the Americas but because they believed there was room and opportunity to start over. There are undoubtedly untold millions of people in poor, crowded places who would jump at the chance to move to soon-to-be-empty ('virgin'?) lands rich in land and natural resources (and with infrastructure already in place).

There would also arise a huge boom in international adoptions (such a cataclysmic event would surely sweep away all legal obstacles toward paying for babies). Ultimately the wave of immigration and adoptions would not necessarily have any greater affect on the culture (in the U.S., anyway) than past instances of mass immigration have.

Speaking as a person with no children, I can report that the issue in a life without heirs is: meaning. I wonder whether even wise men and women whose families are a given in their lives can imagine the meaning of their lives without their kids.

Babies would come, at least to the richer countries in the sterile hemisphere. Either through adoption on such a large scale that it would be more appropriate to call it a market for infants, or through technology (e.g. sterile women serving as "surrogates" for their own babies, with donor eggs & sperm). The imported babies would mostly come from relatively poor countries (but not too poor), but if things went the gamete route there would be more variety in country of origin and more ethnicity matching. There would be a lot of abuse and corruption, but also a large influx of wealth to the exporting countries and substantial improvements to women's health (at least if they're exporting babies).

These babies would be a pretty good substitute for having your own offspring, and society in rich sterile countries would go on with fewer changes than you might expect - parents still doting over their kids and planning for the future, culture getting passed on to the next generation. There would be a rise in immigration, but mostly just to replace the lower-skill laborers, as relatively poor people would not be able to acquire as many kids. Many of these immigrants would be sterile people from poorer sterile countries.

The biggest effect would be felt in the poorer countries in the sterile hemisphere. Different countries would take different paths, with large cascade effects. Some would be disastrous: violent uprisings, toppled governments, authoritarian crackdowns, that sort of thing. Some countries could see massive emigration, with citizens mostly leaving for rich sterile countries, and wither away. A few countries could get massive influxes of immigrants, but it might be closer to colonization than to immigration (either an actual planned colonization effort by a populous fertile country or an emergent cultural takeover). Perhaps there would be humanitarian efforts to get babies into some of the poor sterile countries so that their society could continue. These would not start up until several years after the rich countries were acquiring babies, and they would probably be focused on a small number of poor sterile countries that had maintained stability and social order.

(Note: I've assumed, following Brooks, that only the humans were rendered sterile.)

Brooks insults me. My ethic is independent of my intent for the future. If I'm not mistaken Ray Bradbury wrote a short story about a couple the night before the known end of the world. The couple goes to sleep; one hears water dripping from the kitchen faucet and gets up to turn it off.

Brooks and Burke are wrong about what motivates goodness. The American experiment is about whether we the people can deport ourselves so that we are governable without a king or a chairman. Since then we've had to defend ourselves from the naysayers on the left and the right.

Are vasectomized men and sterilized women less ambitious, politically motivated, or interested in justice? Ultimate causes != proximate causes, etc., blah, blah...

David Goldman, writing as Spengler in Asia Times, has written extensively on this issue. Brooks' article is essentially a summary of Spengler's thesis.

One can see a milder form of this event at work today in modern Europe, where the birth rate in many countries is far below the lowest level for sustainability. Many European cultures will all but disappear if not in my lifetime then certainly within the lifespan of my children. Ukraine and Russia will be the first to go, followed by names more familiar to Americans such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

The secular welfare state sows the seeds of destruction of entire cultures, not by war, famine, or sun-spot induced infertility, but by the gradually displacing the elements which drive human reproduction, family, faith, and freedom, with an all encompassing State which provides cradle-to-grave benefits for constituents. To pay for these benefits the state must raise tax rates on the productive elements of society to punitive levels. Raising children expensive and is hard work, and the economics of a welfare state penalizes the raising of children. In the context of a European welfare state, any rational economic animal must ask: "why bother?" And clearly, many Europeans can't be bothered to reproduce, at least in numbers sufficient to perpetuate their culture.

When the history of our time period is written historians will note that many of these cultures were thousands of years old and survived multiple episodes of plagues, war, and famine. But in the end they could not survive the psychology and economics of the secular welfare state, which destroyed these cultures in approximately 150 years--a very efficient killer.

And in the U.S., enter Obama stage left with a massively expanded State offering a national health plan funded by increased taxes on the productive elements of the American economy . . . the seductive siren song of secular socialism.

Hm, I think Brooks' response is extremely distasteful. Surely the last sentence you quote is not only a description of what he thinks might happen, but arguments against current immigration as well: the idea that there is some uniquely American culture that must be preserved against foreign invasion. We essentially have the situation he describes now: millions of people flowing into the US, while US "natural" birth rates drop every year. Does he feel that this is a tragedy?

It's also a shot at people who choose not to have to children. Remember the question wasn't what happened if birthrates declined, it's sterilization -- that means the other half can still have kids. There are already tons of people who can't (or are unlikely to) have biological children. What do they do? They adopt or contact someone who can donate sperm/eggs, or a surrogate mother. This disaster would just make those services much more valuable. As distasteful as some might find it, what would probably happen in freer countries would be that women would start to be paid outrageously high sums of money for their child bearing services. In less free countries, it would probably involve institutionalized rape and forced pregnancies. In the countries with the capacity to do so, there would also become an extreme incentive to develop the technology for artificial wombs. Like all disasters, it would disproportionately affect the poorer parts of the world.

I think overall, it would be less disruptive than people like Brooks think. Remember that in most developed nations, birthrates are very low. It would be a massive, society-shaking disaster, but not something that is impossible to overcome by merely persuading the non-sterilized half of humanity to simply have more children. Remember that a relatively large percentage of people the US are not going to be naturally conceiving children anyway -- but it doesn't seem to cause any big problems.

I think it would be a severe disaster, but one that would be overcome. There would be massive societal differences. Adoption and surrogate mothers would not be unusual, they would be the norm. People would become less attached to their genetic children.

Now, I realize I'm answering the question: "what if a random 50% of humanity were sterilized" while the original was "what if 1/2th of the surface of the earth were sterilized." My response addresses perhaps the countries that would be half exposed. I assume that if just a geographical half of the world were sterilized, the result would be worse, since it is probably much easier to get co-nationals to reproductively assist each other, than for foreign people on the other side of the world.

Honestly, since the original question asked about plants and animals as well, this is actually a far worse problem. Animals can be bought and traded from the non-sterilized side of the world, but no distribution scheme is going to be able to keep up with the mass starvation that would result from 50% of the plants not reproducing. If we go with the "50% of the surface of the earth" scenario, then those societies affected by it are simply going to starve to death before any of them have time to care about not having children. If that half contains the major food production centers, then a lot more people are going to starve too. I think humans being sterile might actually be the least worst part of the problem.

Sterilize: To render free of microorganisms: decontaminate, disinfect, sanitize.

This is what was meant, with macroorganisms included, hence the quotes.

Mark Steyn has written a book about this, with the science fiction scenario replaced by real childbirth statistics among different populations. He too believes that low childbirths in a culture spells doom for the culture.

Ukraine and Russia will be the first to go, followed by names more familiar to Americans such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

The secular welfare state sows the seeds of destruction of entire cultures,

Russia and Ukraine "secular welfare states"????

why half?

pretty soon half the human population is already going to be sterile, effectively -- when the median population goes above 45 or so

A very interesting thought experiment. Stepping back for a moment, seeing life's meaning as defined by a continuity of children can be thought of in the context of the recent Pandalous discussion on painting and the frame ( http://www.pandalous.com/topic/painting_and_playing ). Briefly, painting from the time of the Renaissance is said to derive its meaning from the frame. A frame which both defines the picture itself, but also frames it as part of a bigger picture which is not seen - the forthcoming generations in MR. Brooks' example. The frame is of course our lifetime, which only gets its meaning from the exterior of the frame.

If one takes "sterilize" to mean unable to reproduce, then in many respects, major parts of the earth have been partially sterilized. For example, the use of pesticides in one huge fruit producing region of China wiped out all the pollinators, so all plants that aren't self pollinating or wind pollinated have died out. The solution in this region has been to have human's do the pollinating.

(And that possibility looms in the US and Europe with the problems affecting European honey bees. Crops native to the Americas don't need honey bees, but fruit trees are nearly all imported to the Americas. Many native berries are best pollinated by bumble bees and other insects, but when raised in commercial monocultures, it is necessary to import pollinators and European honey bees are the only domesticated pollinators.)

So, if one takes sterization to mean "made infertile" then the solution is already at hand and merely requires making IVF with egg and sperm donation a public good with the government doing whatever it takes to import the eggs and sperm.

Of course, what would be interesting is the proposition that only the men are sterilize while women remain fertile. And let's extend it to the possibility that residual radiation makes most males born in the region sterile as well.

Thus men become like worker bees, useful only for their labor, with a select few males reservered merely for their sperm and kept around only as long as they produce viable sperm.

Brooks' mistake is definitely in assuming that the only source of new people in the sterilized areas would be from immigrants, which would almost certainly not be the case. Depending on what hemisphere is happened in*, adoption would be present on a wide scale (with trafficking in babies and small children its darker cohort), and if the sterilized women can still bear children (meaning their wombs weren't destroyed in the process), then that opens an even greater route (embryos, eggs, and sperm in that scenario would become extremely valuable).

The real losers would be among the poor (particularly in the Third World), who wouldn't have money for adoptions and possibly not for embryo transplant (assuming it's possible). I could see this scenario leading to a massive collapse in population in the Third World, and particularly in the poor agrarian areas once the labor force becomes too old to farm their lands.

*It depends on what hemisphere because if, say, it was the Western Hemisphere that got sterilized, the situation would be devastating to those societies in the Western Hemisphere, but not wholly destructive and devastating to mankind as a whole (since there would be plenty of immigrants and infants that could be adopted, along with embryos to be purchased).

If the Eastern Hemisphere were sterilized, though, it's a whole different ball game. Even if the Europeans and wealthier Asians and Africans could import infants, small children, and possibly embryos, you'd still have billions of people too poor to replace their own reproduction. I'm guessing there would be a catastrophic population loss for humanity there (numbering in the billions), along with massive societal instability.

Either way, there's going to be an immense black market in embryos, infants, and small children. Think of the problems that China is having right now (theft of small children and infants to be sold to richer couples who need male heirs due to complications of the One Child Policy), only on a much grander scale. People in the Old World and Latin America that weren't affected by an Eastern Hemispheric sterilization would probably want to keep a close eye on their small children.


Not sure I understand your question. Did you miss that whole Communist Marx/Lenin/Stalin thingy that happened during the 20th Century?

I have been working on this short story, where the focus is on how western society would react if they found out that all but the "bottom billion" were going to die within five years. I cynically believe that societally we would grow apathetic to passing on our advanced knowledge and technology to the bottom billion. My protagonist tries to sway society to care; whether he succeeds or not I will leave a mystery.

I suppose my question is do you think that western society would be motivated by the legacy of mankind (David Brooks if your reading this please feel free to answer as well)?

Larry Niven wrote about this in "Inconstant Moon."

A very good short story--essentially, the other effects of the solar flare would wreak economic havoc on the surviving hemisphere, whose inhabitants would then recolonize the dead one.

Isn't that just Japan currently? No reform, ossifying culture, slow decline?

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