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A Modest Mathematical Proposal

By Peter Goodchild

06 October, 2010

Back in the 1970s and 1980s there were several books, such as Catton’s “Overshoot” and the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth,” which pointed out that humanity was about to face a gigantic crisis due to the imbalance between population and natural resources. It really didn’t require high-level mathematics to see that it would be necessary to go from (approximately) 7 billion people to 1 billion over a period of 50 years. (Even those numbers were unrealistically optimistic.) Basic math told us that there would have to be a decline in population of about 5 percent annually. It was obvious that no global program of birth control, either voluntary or mandatory, could produce results anywhere near that 5 percent. The only way that the decline from 7 to 1 billion could take place was through the “natural” process of famine.

In the days since the 70s and 80s, quite a large number of books have been published on the issues of “things to come.” The present consensus, however, is different. We are now meant to believe that the future will basically rosy. We will all fly around in our solar-powered whatevers, and nobody will go hungry.

There is still the embarrassing problem of the numbers mentioned above. What I am proposing, therefore, is that we simply change the laws of mathematics, and indeed the laws of basic arithmetic. Just as Einstein said that the laws of Newtonian physics must be modified when dealing with very large amounts of space, so we can now say that the laws of demographics must be changed when dealing with very large numbers of people.

In those earlier decades, the predictions of catastrophe led some to suggest that emergency procedures be put in place, so that it would at least be possible to ensure the survival of somewhere between 1 and 10 percent of humanity. Now that, in the more-enlightened 21st century, we no longer believe that there is anything to worry about, might to our less-than-blissful extinction. That, however, is a minor detail, and I am still working on it.

(Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal” for the Irish potato famine was that Irish babies be used as human food. His bitter humor will be lost when his proposal is actually adopted.)

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is odonatus {at} live.com.