Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Old Books, Prediction, & Threats (Existential and Otherwise) [8 March 2015]

      I do a lot of reading and a fair amount of writing on line, and there's a good chance you do, too; but I'd like to pause to remind all and sundry that there are a number of advantages in the slow-reading of old and somewhat old books in hard-copy rather than comparable on-line reading, even when nowadays one can highlight on-line text, do very efficient searches, and even make/take notes: plus copy, paste, and link, as (somewhat ironically) I do below.
            First off, there are just matters of format. Except for some brief periods when pulp and "pulpish" books came with internal ads, one can read in books pretty much without commercial breaks and distractions. This is a distinct advantage when even places like the log-in page on my credit union site interrupts demands for complex passwords with slide-over announcements about whatever it might be that a credit union can offer that they think I want. ("Every time you read an ad, the hucksters win.")
            And second off — and last for this blog post — it's useful to get in simple format information relevant for current controversies from sources free from at least specific agendas on those controversies.
            I've been thinking such thoughts after coming across a very simple table and a brief paragraph in a "fix-up" book, bringing together materials from 1967-72, Alfred W. Crosby Jr.'s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, i.e., the 1492 of the voyage of Columbus and not, say, the completion of the Reconquest of Spain by Catholic Christians and the expulsion of "Moors" and Jews and other undesirables. (You can find an updated summary of Exchange on line, here.)
            More exactly, I've been thinking these thoughts while putting The Columbian Exchange in dialog, so to speak, with some brief portions of the 1968 novel by Arthur C. Clarke (and Stanley Kubrick), 2001: A Space Odyssey: portions giving some novelistic introspection by Dr. Heywood Floyd that would've been inappropriate in the Kubrick (and Clarke) film.
            What got me back to this section of 2001 was a minor brouhaha a year or so back on the word "pad" in "iPad." Along with some other SF geeks, I pointed out that the deep background for "pad" probably had little to do with generic Kotex but may've been a conscious or unconscious allusion to 2001: the novel. In the second leg of his mini-odyssey from Earth to the Moon, Dr. Floyd (ch. 9) finds that
          There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.
          [* * *]
          Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man's quest for perfect communications. […] The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.
Now prediction is not the business of science fiction — "a novelist's business is lying," not predicting the future, as Ursula K. Le Guin has insisted — but looking up the quotation did get me thinking about where Clarke in 2001 had been pretty accurate at prediction and where not. With the Newspad, Clarke had been, if anything, too timid, perhaps balancing his wild over-optimism about Artificial Intelligence (HAL 9000), a Moon colony, and space exploration generally.
            But how did Clarke do in more somber areas, on the sort of questions suggested in reading Columbian Exchange?
            On the first leg of his trip to the Moon (in Chapter), Dr. Floyd raises some of the questions central to the thematic and political concerns of 2001.
          Though birth control was cheap, reliable, and endorsed by all the main religions, it had come too late; the population of the world was now six billion - a third of them in the Chinese Empire. Laws had even been passed in some authoritarian societies limiting families to two children, but their enforcement had proved impracticable. As a result, food was short in every country; even the United States had meatless days, and widespread famine was predicted within fifteen years, despite heroic efforts to farm the sea and to develop synthetic foods.
          With the need for international cooperation more urgent than ever, there were still as many frontiers as in any earlier age. In a million years, the human race had lost few of its aggressive instincts; along symbolic lines visible only to politicians, the thirty-eight nuclear powers watched one another with belligerent anxiety. Among them, they possessed sufficient megatonnage to remove the entire surface crust of the planet. Although there had been - miraculously - no use of atomic weapons, this situation could hardly last forever.
            Birth control in the year 2001 was relatively cheap and reliable, among the well-off, but as Clarke makes fairly clear elsewhere — I think it's in Childhood's End, and in any case is the case — truly reliable birth control is for men as well as women, and truly reliable birth control renders users sterile until they make the conscious decision to restore their fertility. That kind of birth control wasn't and isn't available, and the Roman Catholic Church still hasn't endorsed even condoms. .
            The world population in 2001 was indeed some six billion and we passed seven billion on or about 12 March 2012. We do not, however, have massive food shortages, nor do we have thirty-eight nuclear powers, nor, probably "sufficient megatonnage to remove the entire surface crust of the planet." We do, however, as a species, have sufficient megatonnage to bring on nuclear winter and destroy the human species (and many other species) or, short of that, destroy human civilization.
            What Clarke was on to in 1968, and which is too often forgotten post-2001 (in spite of the once-influential Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and my never-influential but frequent kvetching) is just how special atomic weapons are.
            Why Clarke remains correct on atomic weapons, and why he was so wrong on famine, is clarified in a very simple table in Columbian Exchange — or at least it's clarified when combined with a slightly more complex list in Matthew White's "Ranking: The One Hundred Deadliest Multicides" (pp. 529-30). And a short paragraph in Columbian Exchange reminds of us the continuing relevance of the cover-story for Dr. Floyd's trip to the Moon — an epidemic from a new pathogen at the US Moon base — and why Bill Maher should be chided and anti-vaccination activists should be slapped around a bit.
            The table in Columbian Exchange just gives the estimated population of humans in the various large regions of Earth for every half century from 1650 to 1950 (p. 166) and is important in one way for showing the stability of the population of North America between 1650 and 1750, the decrease in population of Latin America between 1650 and 1750, and the decrease in the population of Africa between 1650 and 1900. Since there was an influx of Europeans into the Americas and Africa during these periods, the cause of the stability or decline in populations is collapse in the number of indigenous peoples: from conquest (necessarily including mass murder), exploitation, and enslavement — as should be well known — but largely from disease in the Americas as "virgin" populations of healthy native Americans got exposed to diseases endemic among Europeans and their animals, with later exposure from African slaves.
            (The Africans and a fair number of underclass Europeans are innocent here: they weren't willing immigrants; the Conquistadors et al. were ignorant how virulent they and some of their animals were as disease vectors, but are still guilty as sin [or sins: mostly Greed and Pride and Wrath, with Sloth and Lust coming in later, almost completing the traditional set].)
            The general trend in human population 1650 on, however, was upward, moving from some 5.45 million in 1650 to near 2.5 billion in 1950; as modestly numerous mammalian species go, humans had a population explosion after 1650, and one requiring an explanation.
            For Crosby, the main explanation for the rise in population was the part of the Exchange wherein New World crops were adopted enthusiastically (for the most part) in Europe, Africa, and Asia, providing new sources of nutrition, and a wider variety of crops: allowing cultivation of land unsuitable for Old World wheat or rice.
            American maize and potatoes, primarily, could feed rising populations, so the populations rose. It was a second agricultural revolution, and that revolution has continued, allowing us humans to avoid the great famines Clarke and others feared for 2001.
            It has been one hell of an explosion, and a tribute to human reproductivity.
            In the first fifty years of the twentieth century, the human population boomed from 1.608 billion to 2.454 billion, with increases in every region. This is impressive and important because the first fifty years on the twentieth century were also the time of what Matthew White has called "the Hemoclysm": the deluge of blood. White is referring mostly to World War II, with some 66 million deaths, and its prelude, World War I, with 15 million. But it is also the time of the deaths (in descending order of awfulness) of some twenty million people in Stalin's purges and deportations and intentional famines, ten million people in the "Congo Free State" of King Leopold of Belgium — showing what can be done without fanaticism, but with just greed and "capitalism by other means" — the Russian Civil War (nine million deaths), the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe (2.1 million), and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 at about one million. The figures don't include the Korean War, which started in 1950, nor the non-war related deaths in North Korea starting in 1948 and continuing to … well, continuing to today. And I've omitted the Spanish Civil War and other smaller horrors with body-counts under a million.
            As far as "anthropogenic" deaths from war and massacres go, if the first half of the twentieth century didn't put a dent in human population — if the period showed hardly a slowing down of population increase — well, nothing short of thermonuclear Armageddon will do that.
            But thermonuclear Armageddon will do that, and with six billion human beings around in 2001, and over seven billion human beings around now, many either despairing or looking forward to living far higher off the figurative hog — Dr. Floyd and his creator were right to worry that some (relatively) small but sufficient number of them — some high-power folk among us — will fuck up sufficiently to trigger Armageddon.
            Let's get back, though, to the cover story for Dr. Floyd's trip to Earth's Moon and the USA's Clavius Base: the possibility of "an epidemic on the Moon" (ch. 7), possibly "extraterrestrial" in origins (ch. 9).
            That's not what's happening in 2001: A Space Odyssey; what is really happening is the discovery of evidence that the Earth had been visited by intelligent E.T.'s who have left an artifact "approximately three million years old" (ch. 11), which would be major news. Still, "an epidemic on the Moon" possibly "extraterrestrial" in origins could be bigger.
            World War I and World War II combined killed some 81 million people; the "Spanish" flu pandemic from 1918 through 1920 "infected 500 million people across the world […] and killed 50 to 100 million of them," which works out to "three to five percent of the world's population" of human beings at the time.
            There's another tribute to human reproductivity there, but also a warning. Some "Andromeda Strain" from outer space would be an existential threat to humankind; and if it did something like unravel all forms of DNA and RNA, it could lead to mass extinction on par with thermonuclear war or super-volcanoes or Earth's getting smacked with another asteroid or comet. The Pathogen From Outer Space!!!, however, is unlikely, but the basic point gets us back from science fiction and matters as far back as 1918 and into my lifetime, and yours, and a simple, stark paragraph in The Columbian Exchange.
The Columbian exchange continues [in the 1970s] and will continue. The men of the Old World continue to enjoy the benefits of biological warfare as American Indians continue to die of Old World diseases. Between 1871 and 1947, the total number of natives of Tierra del Fuego dropped from between 7,000 and 9,000 to 150, many of them victims of a malady which is even now one of the chief killers of the aborigines of the [Gran] Chaco [in South America]: measles.
            Bill Maher was sixteen when Columbian Exchange was published, and sixteen was Vladimir Putin's age when 2001: a Space Odyssey was released and the novel 2001 published. In 1968, Barack Obama was seven, and few of the people were born who today decide whether or not to get their kids inoculated against measles and other communicable diseases — and not many more were around who today make decisions on US and Russian nuclear policies.
            Crosby and Clarke had agendas all right, and so does Matthew White; but Crosby and Clarke could not have had in mind specific leaders in 2015, or parents in fancy enclaves in California. In simple prose and with simple tables — without website glitz and distractions — they told stories, laid out arguments, and gave information with continuing relevance.
            The human species can survive very great losses; it's unlikely we'll survive a nuclear cataclysm. The human species has survived epidemics and pandemics and endemic (childhood) diseases; but only fools and/or the irresponsible or immoral invite communicable disease — and responsible parents and societies try to protect children from unnecessary suffering, even when that suffering is far from lethal.

            Long-range trade in crops and products, animals and ideas, has brought wealth and abundance of people. It has also brought death and misery. Global exchange and globalization will do the same and do it disastrously unless we take long-standing advice and literally and figuratively move and trade with caution. 

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