Like a front line of untuned and misshapen trumpets, a chorus of discordant pessimism blares negativity about humanity’s future. David Attenborough, through his recent article for the UK’s Telegraph, has taken first chair, but competition is fierce. From spit valves to sweat glands, the choir of discord drips with guilt and disdain, and an alarming solo of frenetic alarm. The triumphant ballads of inspirational conquest and the will of the human spirit – national anthems and missives of wartime endurance – have long since given way. Their replacement: a dark, somber, and out-of-tune grunge spiked with soaring notes of self-loathing arrogance that hammer reminders that we’re polluting the skies, changing the climate, and ruining the planet.
The lyrics of their music could hardly be clearer: no longer advocates for how to make society better, the chorus has given up on society’s potential for good. They no longer believe in themselves, much less the unwashed “us” to improve our lot through innovation, and they’re replaced the one-time optimism of politicians around the world with a somber pessimism that the best way to make things better is to “reduce” ourselves. To them, the once-verboten idea of mandatory population control is no longer a Modest Proposal.
The message of population control could not be more repugnant. Journalists who author such pieces have an obligation to justify not only why future humans should be sacrificed, but also why they themselves are so superior as to deserve to continue living when future generations should not. What arrogance must an author hold who believes the contributions of billions of future humans are less valuable than those that will result from keeping himself alive? “We” may be the problem, but “we” is “us”, not somebody else.
More than it is morally repugnant, however, the message of the population control chorus is stupid and defeatist. That this sudden spike in pessimism coincides with the greatest ever spike in human potential is an odd contradiction: I’d like to hear from David Attenborough the justification that his idea for solving the world’s problems (offing people) is better than the best that might come from the billions of future humans whose futures he does not believe in. Then, we might see his true arrogance.
Mr. Attenborough could be excused on the grounds that he is human, and that humans have always believed that humanity’s goodness would peak with them. What’s so startlingly alarming about this assertion now, however, is how astoundingly it misaligns with what the numbers tell us. Consider, for instance, the emergence of the “innovation population”.
The “innovation population” is the radical concept that humans who aren’t grappling with the day-to-day challenge of staying alive might better be able to contribute novel ideas to the collective human sum of knowledge that aggregates beyond themselves and solves great challenges on behalf of humanity and the universe. Believing in its power requires believing both that humans can do better by being alive than by being dead, and that there’s value in doing so for both ourselves and for the planet.
For most of human history, the “innovation population” has been a futile dream: a privilege for a select few who had the luxury of thinking worldly thoughts beyond the day-to-day need to feed, house, and clothe ourselves. Our modest lifespans have limited us, and so too has the gargantuan effort to produce the massive resources it takes merely to sustain us. Thanks to these hurdles, for most of history most humans have been forced to commit most of their efforts merely to not dying. Through the efforts of the others, we’ve harnessed fire, built societies, and eradicated diseases.
The notion that large volumes of the population could be dedicated to tasks beyond their own survival is a relatively modern concept. Until 1800, no more than 2 percent of the world’s population had ever lived at a level rising above the contemporary definition for absolute poverty. Of a global population in 1800 of around 1 billion, no more than 20 million people – two metro Chicagos – were living at a level to be able to so much think about ideas beyond their day-to-day sustenance. This explains why so little human innovation had happened to that point. Even so, we’d managed to do a lot.
By 1850 the “innovation population” had risen to around 50 million – around five metro Chicagos – and through their contributions the 19th century brought more innovation than any previous century in all of human history. While it wasn’t great for the environment, it was undeniably good for humanity, as lifespans started to rise and poverty started to plummet.
By 1970, the innovations of the 19th and early 20th centuries had fueled the emergence of a global economy, a shared western capitalism, and the tools that together were eradicating global poverty. By 1970, roughly a third of the world lived above absolute poverty. The “innovation population” had skyrocketed 20-fold and for the first time it passed a billion people. In 70 years human lifespans had doubled.
When it comes to innovation, the 50 years since 1970 have been the most profound in human history. Over this half century, the world has changed into something that was once unrecognizable. While many are quick to note the doubling of the world’s population in that period, that is far from the most remarkable statistic. More impressive is the fact that in the ensuring 50 years, the population of those living in absolute poverty has dropped from 70% to less than 10%, while the “innovation population” living outside of poverty has risen from 30% to 90%, a record tripling on percentage grounds. In raw numbers, the “innovation population” has grown from 1 billion to 7 billion, and stands today a full 150 times greater than the “innovation population” that drove the Industrial Revolution a century and a half ago, thousands of times greater than in most of the generations harkened as golden ages of human development.
What are the compounding effects of 150 concurrent industrial revolutions? Sewn together by the impenetrably thick cables of global economies and instantaneous telecommunication, this new “innovation population” is not only a moral triumph – I’ll never grasp the mental gymnastics of those who’d prefer to tear down modern civilization on moral grounds than to celebrate its unprecedented triumph of dropping the global poverty rate from 70% to 10% - but it’s also a labor force of innovative creators whose exponential potential would seem to have limitless bounds. If we created our remarkable world on the backs of less than 1 percent of the innovative horsepower that we have available today, can we even begin to imagine what we’re capable of with an engine today that’s 150 horses stronger?
Those 150 new horses are the population that Attenborough wants to eliminate before we even give this new era a chance to save the planet. How absurd is it? It’s discontent that a housecat might not be able to fly met with the blinding rage to outlaw 757s. It’s the belief that one human’s labor – and his ideas – are more worthy than those of an entire town’s. It’s an arrogance that would leave a yeoman farmer self-sufficient on the outskirts of a major city supercharged by the division of labor, and believing that the former (North Korea) might outpace the advancement of an integrated global economy. In no other instance has this ever been a good bet. Why David Attenborough believes that at 1% we’ve reached the pinnacle, and that 150 new horses aimed in the right direction can’t burrow their way out of the barn better than he can reeks an awful stench of arrogant disdain that belongs in a museum of the most awful, anti-human sentiments that have ever been conceived. Humanity, unequivocally, is better than that. In field after field where we’ve devoted the resources we’ve proven so, turning impossible tasks into accomplished ones (the Moon landing), finite resources into effectively infinite supplies (there were 10 years left of oil, remember, in 1950).
That Mr. Attenborough is not ashamed to hold his viewpoint in the contemporary political and media marketplace – nor that he’s more ferociously challenged on it – is a commentary less on him and more on the reality that our current elites are awful stewards of the reigns of power. Why do we have individuals leading “us” who believe more in “not us” than “us”? With Us x 150, what’s the harm in giving us a chance? Why must we always deflate demand, rather than letting humanity pursue greater supply?
The mega-band that will result when the Innovation Population takes the field will dwarf the reeking trumpetline of the self-loathing chorus. It’s up to us – the audience – to endure the discord while our hearts palpitate, longing for the entrance of the new era. Hopefully they’ll hurry up before the Attenboroughs of the world blow our eardrums with their putrid, immoral, and indefensible ideas.
“Perhaps if we dig hard enough, we can reach within ourselves to rediscover our passion, our soul, and our common belief that together we can save the world.”