Languages Magazine

Population Bombs, Or The Rhetoric of the Eschaton

By Sdlong


Rogue academic Nick Land has written a fascinating essay about the Death of Doomsday, i.e., the End of the End.

In the past, he explains, Western society looked forward to some culminating eschaton: the winding down of the calendar: an end game that is “comprehensive, punctual, and climactic.” Of course, all these expected moments have turned out to be busts, and 2012′s Mayan doomsday was no exception. So, says Land, the West is done with Doomsday. We have ceased to look for the end or to expect the arrival of a satisfying, transcendental full stop, after which comes not a New Chapter in the book of human history but a New Book altogether.

No, the West is content to sit in its own filth ad infinitum, waiting for nothing now because it believes there’s nothing to wait for. (Or, as Nick Land would have it, hungering forever for an end that won’t come.) No moment of creative destruction. No great dividing line between Here and Hereafter. No purifying flood. Just a long fading away.

To remix Adam Smith: “There’s a lot of ruin in a species.”

Enter David Attenborough, beating Paul Ehrlich’s old drum, playing the Doomsday prophet all over again, proclaiming humans to be a “plague on the earth” because when we expand we kill fauna, replace flora, and deplete resources, and if we don’t stop we’ll all die and the furry fauna along with us. Attenborough proves himself in this interview to be an interesting relic representing an Old Left eschatological view that has more recently been stuffed down the memory hole, along with all other eschatologies.

In the middle of the 20th century, the Population Bomb was just another eschatological vision, like nuclear winter or St. John’s Revelation, but it was a vision of those who, at the time, considered themselves men and women of the Left. Either humans stop breeding, they said, or we run out of arable land and water; the world ends not with a bang but a series of escalating conflicts over food, drink, and materials.

Unfortunately for this eschatology, two things happened:

1. The Simon-Ehrlich wager proved that, if the Population Bomb was ticking, it was in the process of being defused or had added time onto its red digital readout.

2. It became apparent that the humans doing most of the over-breeding were poor, non-Western, and typically not white.

As the now de-canonized environmentalist Edward Abbey learned, the new, late-2oth century Left could not ultimately tolerate an eschatology that suggested the teeming third world masses (especially the developing teeming third world masses) played a significant role in the environmental degradation of their own lands and of the Western lands into which they had begun to migrate. The cries of “overpopulation!” thus began to subside, even as L.A. sprawled . . .



Inevitable, really. The vision of the Population Bomb was simply a negative reframing of eugenic eschatology, a positive Doomsday culminating in human racial purity, an end-game which had been championed much earlier in the history of the Left but which fell into disrepute after the Germans took it too far. “We need to control humanity’s demographics and characteristics” easily became, post-environmentalism, “we need to control humanity’s growth.” The latter takes care of the former by default, at a statistical level anyway.

But again, as Edward Abbey learned, the new Left wanted to divorce itself from that kind of talk. They wanted to focus on how all human problems, from economic inequality to environmental degradation, stem from racist colonialism and its hand-maiden, capitalism. Utopia was blocked by racist old white men in board rooms, nothing more. The environmentalist eschatology–with its focus on population trends and the peril of furry fauna–didn’t quite mesh and was generally abandoned.

Or was it?

I think we can discover something quite surprising by listening to the two voices in the article linked above.

On one hand, we have the traditional Doomsday rhetoric of David Attenborough: “Humans are a plague . . . Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.” But on the other hand, we have the politically correct rhetoric of one Jerry Karnas, director for some biology center or another. Says Karnas: “What’s needed is not population control but a real emphasis on reproductive rights, women’s empowerment, universal access to birth control and education, so more freedom for folks to make better, more informed family planning choices.”

What’s needed is not population control but a real emphasis on reproductive rights and women’s empowerment . . .

If Karnas is any indication, the preoccupation with Doomsday has not subsided but has merely been given a social justice sheen. Something tells me that Karnas means exactly what Attenborough means. However, Karnas knows that wealthy whites have been limiting their population growth for decades now and Attenborough’s charge is leveled de facto at those with under-privileged phenotypes. So, Karnas shifts focus away from the Population Bomb rhetoric of the mid-20th century and toward the rights and empowerment rhetoric of the contemporary Left.

The outcome, naturally, is the same. Karnas would wonder what went wrong if–after activists had brought feminism, education, and birth control to India, Africa, and South Asia–most of the families there still chose to breed like conservative homeschooling Lutherans. Or maybe I’m being too skeptical? Maybe Karnas wouldn‘t be nonplussed if “a real emphasis on reproductive rights and women’s empowerment” didn’t lead to a decline in population growth?

Perhaps even the concern about global warming is nothing more than a proxy for the old Population Bomb eschatological rhetoric. A moratorium on Western consumption and production could lead nowhere but to a general reduction in population growth and, eventually, lower population levels altogether. (Or possibly to an increase in shanty towns, if production declines but not population. That’s a separate line of thought.)

Back to Reality . . .

I was never entirely convinced by the Population Bomb eschatology, and it seems that it was, like all Doomsday scenarios, destined not to arrive. Moreover, there are plenty of smart people who believe that the high standards of living associated with Western capitalism are absolutely dependent upon a growing population. I’m not sure I’d go that far.

Locally, however, it’s obvious that certain demographic trends have been disastrous to local environments. The recent spilling-over of Mexico was just as detrimental to certain areas of Southern California as the spilling-over of Eastern WASPs was to that land originally. However, I never saw unlimited population growth as a real threat. Sooner or later, corrections kick in, and if some species of flora and furry fauna are lost before they kick in, well . . . that’s not quite the same thing as the last days of humanity, is it?

As far as the rhetoric of Doomsday goes, I do believe that the notion of a calendrical Last Day or its secular equivalent has been generally abandoned in Western thought. Threats of worldwide nuclear or biological apocalypse have been mitigated (a lone terrorist might kill everyone in New York City, but that’s a local problem). Asteroids continue to “just miss” us, but that’s old hat, and we’re confident they’ll continue to miss us until some humans have moved Off World or we’ve built a giant flying nuke to divert any ominous Wormwoods. Global warming has never quite been framed as a Doomsday scenario. And the Population Bomb has apparently been defused.

So why Attenborough’s sudden return to the old Doomsday rhetoric? Why Karnas’s empowerment rhetoric, which is really the same thing in a more socially ethical package?

Maybe they are just concerned about those furry fauna.

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