Despite all that, let’s save the world – ok, but why?

Review of Stephen Hawking’s “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” - Part 4

“Will we survive on earth?”, Hawking asks in the title to the 7th chapter of his book. Which begs the question, which he never attempts to answer in his book, why we should be worried about the survival of “parasites” such as humans. Let us however sincerely assume that Hawking hoped that we would survive. After all, he left children and grandchildren behind, and hoped to be remembered by them as a great dad and granddad. (247)

The dangers to our survival, according to Hawking, are these: Climate change and other environmental problems such as deforestation, disease, famine, and lack of water. These are all caused, he says, by over-population: “The Earth is becoming too small for us.” The reason for this claim is that “[o]ur physical resources are being drained at an alarming rate.” (147). This is a contestable claim, as the prices for raw materials have decreased over many decades. It is only incontestable considering the finite size of our planet: There is a finite amount of natural resources that make up the planet earth, because the earth is a finite sphere.

However, economics is contradicting this statement insofar as we are talking about available resources: They are getting cheaper, and have been getting cheaper for centuries. This is because technological advances allow us to access more and more resources. We are already even thinking of mining the Moon and the Asteroids. But let us, for the sake of argument, accept that we are running out of resources. What does Hawking suggest we should do? After all, he claims these problems “are all solvable but so far have not been solved.” He is optimistic: “We have the technology” to solve the problems. “We just need the political will.” (149)

I’m not sure where he gets this optimism from. After all, he did say that our behaviour throughout history has been pretty stupid (see previous part of the review). How is “political will” suddenly going to be “clever”? Or did he say the earlier statement just to score a cheap point? A standard joke one tells when talking about intelligence being possibly elsewhere in the universe, but not here on Earth? Maybe he wouldn’t have included it had he had a last say on the final editing of the book. Another reason for his optimism, despite his less than complimentary view of his fellow human beings’ thinking and reasoning faculties, is his hope that we could be improved. (160) He doesn’t exactly advocate genetic engineering, but says “that it is likely to happen in the next millennium, whether we want it or not.” (160) Indeed, he thinks it is inevitable: “[T]he human race needs to improve its mental and physical qualities if it is to deal with the increasingly complex world around it and meet new challenges like space travel.” (161)

What Hawking overlooks here is this fundamental problem: How can a species with a track record of “stupid history” ever hope to “improve” itself without messing up that job in a major way? The other way Hawking expects us to “improve” is the evolutionary jump to artificial intelligence. I’ll deal with that later.

For the moment, let’s remain with the concept of improvement. Is it at all possible? And if yes, what would be the standard? Living for a longer time, with good quality of life, might be a good place to start. Being cleverer another. Maybe the two are mutually dependent. This is not just speculation within the realm of science-fiction. A significantly longer life expectancy than even today, in this world, is part of a biblical prophecy. Looking ahead to a time when the trials and tribulations of his people would be over, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “Never again will there be in [the city of Jerusalem] an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” (Isaiah 65, 20, NIV, my emphasis)

This is not a one-off. We find the commandment to “progress” and “improve” in this world in many places in the Bible. Indeed, one might even say that the whole idea of worldly progress stems from the Old Testament. Take, for example: “God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2, 15, NIV) “To work it” can only mean “to improve it”, or at least “to prevent it from falling into disrepair”, as at the time it was already perfect. It is a necessary and logical complement to this earlier “progressive” commandment: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1, 28, NIV)

Or how about: “The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12, 1-2, NIV) There is a promise of abundance and a good life, so much so that Abram will be “a blessing” even to others – if he leaves his familiar surroundings and his comfort zone and goes out into the world. And finally: The whole Exodus story.

The reason for the idea of progress in the Bible is of course the idea of progressing towards something. Towards a promised land, a better world. Provided for by God.

In Hawking’s and the materialists’ case, we can only “progress” by being just as exploitative as before. Mining other planets for example. Just so we can “eat, drink and be merry” for a few (thousand, million, or billion) years longer. Let’s enjoy the show or the ride for as long as possible before the Big Crunch or the Big Freeze, “for tomorrow we die”. As long as environmentalists do not tackle this fundamental, spiritual problem, they won’t get anywhere.

Previously, Hawking had tried to conceal the spiritual emptiness of his outlook with a joke. Here, he tries heroic language instead, but fails to fill the spiritual void again. For example: “And whenever we make a great new leap, such as the Moon landings, we elevate humanity, bring people and nations together, usher in new discoveries and new technologies.” (151)

Regarding world population growth, Hawking writes: “But the present rate of growth cannot continue for the next millennium. By the year 2600 the world’s population would be standing shoulder to shoulder and the electricity consumption would make the Earth glow red hot.” Even if we are to take this as a joke, this statement reveals a remarkable level of ignorance from a learned man about what was already visible for years before his death: The growth rate was, and is, slowing down: According to the website Our World in Data, “[p]eak population growth was reached in 1968 with an annual growth of 2.1%.” The growth rate has been falling steadily since about 1980, from about 1.8 percent to about 1.1 percent in 2018. This downward trend shows no sign of abating, so that by 2100, when the number of human beings alive is likely to be around 11 billion, population growth will have come to a standstill.

The reason for this is given in lectures by Swedish statistician Hans Rosling: As real per capita wealth increases, more children survive into adulthood. After about a generation of this happening in any geographical region, people there realise that they do not need to have so many children in order to secure their provision in old age. As child-bearing and raising is onerous, and birth-control measures are readily available, the number of births go down quickly. However, it is unlikely to go below the average of two: an heir and a spare. Therefore, unless tyrannical measures are put in place, such as for a while in China, or a natural or man-made disaster of global dimensions were to happen, there is no way the population will be less than 10 or 11 billion by 2100. Thereafter it might shrink slowly.

As with the limited resources, there is of course at any given time a limit to the number of people this planet can support. However, it’s not as simple as it seems to calculate a fixed limit. Two known but unpredictable factors come into play. They both make a higher population number possible, and they are closely interlinked: These are technological progress on the one hand and specialisation and trade on the other.

Humans have an inbuilt drive to improve their situation. The Austrian School of Economics treats this statement, correctly in my mind, as an irrefutable axiom. Be that as it may, even experience tells us that everyone regularly strives to better their situation. It is this integral feature of humanity that drives technological progress (provided humans are free to pursue such aims). Certain external conditions had to be in place before this drive could unfold its full potential. This did not happen until the late 18th century in Western Europe, in particular Great Britain, and in North America. Technological progress not only allows for greater chances of survival, it also drives a trend of miniaturization, which in turn contributes to a reduction in resource depletion. This in turn means that even more people can enjoy the fruits of technological progress, because the costs and therefore the prices of things in real terms decrease. The ubiquity of smartphones around the world, including the developing world, is a powerful testament to that.

Interlinked with, and causal to, technological progress is specialisation and trade. If we didn’t specialise, we would have to make and provide for everything necessary for our survival ourselves: Food, water, clothing, heat, shelter. We would live in caves, if at all. Many animals co-operate amongst themselves, i.e. they specialise and trade. However, one thing that distinguishes human beings from other animals is their ability to take advantage of the benefits of specialisation and trade beyond the limits of their tribe. (I learnt this from reading Matt Ridley’s book, “The Origins of Virtue”.)

Now, the more humans there are, the more we can specialise and trade, the more productive and efficient we become and the faster technological progress will be. In that way, population growth is actually a blessing for humanity. However, it might still be possible that the population grows to a level higher than the earth can support in the long term. Although that is unlikely, let’s assume that will happen.  Resources would get scarce, more difficult to acquire, thus more expensive. It would become more expensive to have a family. More people than before would decide not to have any children. The absolute population number would go down. Demand for resources would decrease, prices would decrease.  

However, some people, including Hawking, are worried that this natural reaction would come too slowly. They fear the necessary correction would happen not as an ordered, gradual adjustment, but in form of a catastrophe, with ecological disasters, a fast-decreasing human population, with the survivors left struggling in a heavily depleted and polluted world. The problem is: They fear that, but they don’t know. Another condition of humanity is that our knowledge is far more limited than we would like.   However, some people ignore this uncertainty and boldly claim to know better, actively promoting birth control with no regard for the local conditions people are living under. They are playing God, which is never a good idea.

Next part of the review: Let’s colonise space – but for what reason?