The mass sterilization of half of humanity

Bill, a loyal MR reader, asks:

A freak solar event "sterilizes" the half of the planet (people, animals, etc) facing the sun. What happens?

Putting aside, the "which half" question, I would predict the collapse of many fiat currencies and the immediate insolvency of most financial institutions.  Who could meet all those margin calls?  Unemployment would exceed 20 percent and martial law would be declared, food rationing and guys with rifles on street corners.  The affected countries would take in larger numbers of immigrants, especially young immigrants from poorer countries, to keep their societies going and to use and maintain the still-standing capital stock.  Many of those immigrants might be better off in the longer run, especially if they could internalize the norms of the host country by the time the original inhabitants perished.  If you let me "cheat," I'll postulate that genetic engineering is used to perpetuate the genes of the original inhabitants.

If a poor country were hit by this blast the eventual result probably would be mass starvation.  There is a chance that social order would collapse across the entire globe, due mostly to contagion effects, multiple equilibria, and bad expectations.

To some of you these mental exercises may seem silly.  Indeed they are silly.  But what's wrong with silly?  Such questions get at the stability of social order, the sources of that stability, and the general importance of demography and intergenerational relations.  Those are all topics we don't think enough about.  Because we're not silly enough.

Comments

If it sterilizes the female half, the answer is trivial.

"Those are all topics we don't think enough about. Because we're not silly enough."

A very Hansonian observation

What if it is the southern hemisphere?

Tyler wrote:

I would predict the collapse of many fiat currencies and the immediate insolvency of most financial institutions. Who could meet all those margin calls? Unemployment would exceed 20 percent and martial law would be declared, food rationing and guys with rifles on street corners.

I think this is going to happen even with normal solar activity. You're supposed to predict what would change because of the freak event.

Since I'm a prisoner of elite conventional wisdom, I'll say this event is all upside. (I'm assuming that the "sterilization" event doesn't affect vegetation.) There are too many people, and people have too many kids anyway, and this would solve that problem for half of humanity. The environmental benefits are great--fewer people, at least eventually, and fewer people eating meat, at least for awhile. Think of the health benefits. (Can we get the right score from CBO for that?) Unlimited immigration is an unalloyed good for the receiving country, which gets diverse perspectives, etc. It is a partial bad for the rest, because the originating country loses valuable young people despite its investment in them, so some restriction may be necessary. And it's likely that those moving to the receiving country would increase their burdens on the environment. Maybe as part of the regulations restricting emigration we can require them to agree to live poorly in their new countries?

Any effect caused by the sterilization of half the world would come from losing the feeling of implicit in our caring for the future of our children, our country or humanity (even those who do not want to have children hope that their country or humanity will continue to progress and think they are contributing to such progress).

However, I think that we can see some signs of what happens with the loss of faith in the future already. Maybe I am exaggerating, but for what I have read, Russia is a country where people seem not to have much faith in the future. I read that their birth rate has plummeted and alcoholism and other bad habits is causing their death rate to increase dramatically, lowering life expectancy to third world levels. We also find that the trend for political freedom commenced during the 1990s has reversed into an authoritarian regime.

Maybe this is what we would see if half the world becomes sterilized.

I am aware that I may be exaggerating and that correlation does not imply causation. However, now that we are on the topic of silly thoughts...

"Sterilizes" as in "makes sterile", or "sterilizes" as in "kills like bacteria"?

I like the space storm article here:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20127001.300-space-storm-alert-90-seconds-from-catastrophe.html?full=true

It is not silly, and it is based on a study funded by NASA. Now that is something to talk about.

I forgot the animals part! That means a real immediate catastrophe.

"The affected countries would take in larger numbers of immigrants, especially young immigrants from poorer countries, to keep their societies going and to use and maintain the still-standing capital stock..."

You've got to be joking. Copulation trumps capital, every time.

I forgot the animals part!

Yeah, me too.

Two movie notes:

This was more or less the plot of "Children of Men", and much earlier, a great Blofeld scheme to blackmail the world in "On her Majesty's Secret Service".

atheist:

Knowing a little astrophysics, I disregarded the premise that our sun could emit such an unusual burst of energy and then continue to emit normally afterwards. A slightly more plausible cause would be a gamma ray burst from outside the solar system, which could come from any direction. Although a GRB would probably be energetic enough to affect the entire planet, and to cause worse than sterilization. Anyway, I thought the point was to consider consequences, not plausibility.

I interpreted it "sterilize" as in kill all life. In that case, if the atmosphere didn't go all wonky and kill us, it would be a grand adventure of foreign exploration and homesteading ...

If it happens between early Mayish and late Julyish, Sarah Palin is elected President in 2012 because neither of her daughters can get knocked up again.

Read Larry Niven's "Inconstant Moon" for that scenario.

"If a poor country were hit by this blast the eventual result probably would be mass starvation."

As I recall, the Black Death actually raised living standards as the infrastructure already built and land already cultivated had to support fewer people. That over a period of about 15 years. I'm guessing sterilization would have a similar affect -- with a lot less pain.

And Fox news would blame libruls.

To speak with Pynchon, that would be a major fecoventilatory collision.

my question: what would happen TO THIS BLOG should that event occur?

Truthers would insist it was an inside job.

If by "sterilize" we mean "unable to reproduce", and this happened in the Eastern Hemisphere, things would get weird fast. Assuming the quick extinction of whole varieties of bacteria and small life in the area didn't kill everyone in that half of the planet, then you'd have a slow extinction of all the megafauna in the Old World, followed by a dead period, followed by a rapid expansion on the part of fauna moving into the new habitats.

It would seriously suck, though, for humans living in Asia and Africa. For one thing, that means that a decade or two down the line, those societies would have massive labor shortages, rapidly aging populations, and so forth. The only bright side would be that violent crime would probably go down.

Trying to replace them would be a pretty daunting task, since the Western Hemisphere isn't swimming in babies itself (the US and Canadian birth rates are about stable, and birth rates in Latin America have largely been dropping over the past few decades). I would expect demand for adoption to skyrocket, along with research funding for things like cloning (you're already seeing kidnappings of small children in China to be sold to other families as heirs, and that's just with the One Child Policy), and a potentially massive rise in kidnapping in some of the poorer parts of the Western Hemisphere.

Have you MET any demographers? I don't find them in general to be silly human beings. Although, this one prof I had in undergrad couldn't discuss breast feeding without giggling like a five year old. (Notably, however, his PhD was in Econ.)

Seems silly? Yet most likely a freak solar event would kill, not sterilize half the planet, so it really is moot...

You could say it has effectively already happened, at least for countries around the Pacific Rim in the northern hemisphere. Check out the birth rate for Japan, China and Korea, all of which are well below replacement. They are all dying out, even without the solar sterilization event.

Have you MET any demographers? I don't find them in general to be silly human beings. Although, this one prof I had in undergrad couldn't discuss breast feeding without giggling like a five year old.

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A freak solar event "sterilizes" the half of the planet (people, animals, etc) facing the sun. That means a real immediate catastrophe.

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