Bill, a loyal MR reader, asks:
A freak solar event “sterilizes” the half of the planet (people, animals, etc) facing the sun. What happens?
Putting aside, the “which half” question, I would predict the collapse of many fiat currencies and the immediate insolvency of most financial institutions. Who could meet all those margin calls? Unemployment would exceed 20 percent and martial law would be declared, food rationing and guys with rifles on street corners. The affected countries would take in larger numbers of immigrants, especially young immigrants from poorer countries, to keep their societies going and to use and maintain the still-standing capital stock. Many of those immigrants might be better off in the longer run, especially if they could internalize the norms of the host country by the time the original inhabitants perished. If you let me “cheat,” I’ll postulate that genetic engineering is used to perpetuate the genes of the original inhabitants.
David Brooks in today’s NYT:
Every day, I check a blog called Marginal Revolution, which is famous for its erudite authors, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, and its intelligent contributors. Last week, one of those contributors asked a question that is fantastical but thought-provoking: What would happen if a freak solar event sterilized the people on the half of the earth that happened to be facing the sun?
[…]If, say, the Western Hemisphere were sterilized, there would soon be a cataclysmic spiritual crisis. Both Judaism and Christianity are promise-centered faiths. They are based on narratives that lead from Genesis through progressive revelation to a glorious culmination.
Believers’ lives have significance because they and their kind are part of this glorious unfolding. Their faith is suffused with expectation and hope. If they were to learn that they were simply a dead end, they would feel that God had forsaken them, that life was without meaning and purpose.
The secular world would be shattered, too. Anything worth doing is the work of generations — ending racism, promoting freedom or building a nation. America’s founders, for example, felt the eyes of their descendants upon them. Alexander Hamilton felt that he was helping to create a great empire. Noah Webster composed his dictionary anticipating that America would someday have 300 million inhabitants, even though at the time it only had 6 million.
These people undertook their grand projects because they were building for their descendants. They were motivated — as ambitious leaders, writers and artists are — by their hunger for immortal fame.
Without posterity, there are no grand designs. There are no high ambitions. Politics becomes insignificant. Even words like justice lose meaning because everything gets reduced to the narrow qualities of the here and now.
Most posts today are not looking at the original question, but Brooks.
Bobo has been reading blogs. Bobo has been pondering great questions. Bobo has produced “The Power of Posterity,” in which he opines that without a next generation, there would be no grand designs or high ambitions. Even words like justice would lose meaning because everything would get reduced to the narrow qualities of the here and now. Bobo should not read any blog that coos approvingly about Megan McArdle.
My pet theory is that Brooks has a cache of photos, acquired by nefarious and clandestine means, showing New York Times publisher Pinch Sulzberger in compromising situations with someone who is not Mrs. Sulzberger.
Casting no direct aspersions upon Tyler Cowen and the gang at Marginal Revolution — it’s certainly not their fault Brooks reads their blog — theirs is hardly the most “thought-provoking” hypothetical ever entertained on a blog:
Swear to God, if they ever want a Gentile prime minister, my first order . . .Just a thought experiment, you see. Whatever follows such a fantastical “if” is no more to be taken seriously than that Marginal Revolution question was to be considered a hopeful wish that half the earth’s population would be sterilized.
Furthermore, if one is going to write a column on such a theme, the diffident, philosophical approach taken by Brooks is the least interesting way to go about it.
Freak solar events, craters where cities used to be, bellicose civilizations hurling objects at the speed of light, what is it with wingers and apocalyptic fantasies?
UPDATE: Kerry Howley:
Social anxiety over the “death of the West” is usually bad news for those of us with the capacity to create small Westerners; reproductive freedom and natalism do not sit well together. Brooks, who doesn’t seem to notice that most transnational immigration is currently from high-fertility to “fading” low-fertility societies, is arguing that we will only work, save, and suffer for the benefit of “our own.” Only those we view as our natural inheritors can imbue our lives with meaning.
You can buy this, or not. Brooks takes it to be so obvious as to require no defense. Without trying to predict what would happen if the West went sterile, I’ll just say that Brooks’ dystopian projection takes an unwarrantedly fixed view of national identity. In arguing that we’ll only work for our own, he ignores how quickly the definition of “our own” can change—how rapidly the boundaries of inclusion can and do shift. Who counts as a member of an in-group changes over time, sometimes very quickly, which is why nations with relatively little genetic relatedness among their citizens—such as the U.S. and Singapore—are as stable as any ethnic enclave. Within a generation, national public schooling taught French children to replace their local identities with a national one; their parents might have been from any given province, but they were French. I don’t know any Americans who refuse to accept the American-ness of Hawaiians or Alaskans, despite their relatively recent addition to the map.//
Brooks has a thing for bold dichotomy-making, so he declares that immigrants must choose between “joining” or “displacing” a common project. No one actually believes the choice to be this stark; the common project itself is a moving target. Language and norms change in response to myriad factors, just one of them being the composition of the non-native population. And you have to have a fantastically static definition of “community” to believe that if Americans went collectively sterile tomorrow and 100 million fertile Chinese moved in, American adolescents would see no reason at all to go on living, working, and improving the world.
Material conditions would be radically and immediately altered by a mass sterilization event. You don’t need to believe any outlandish claims about the efficiency of financial markets to note that markets would very quickly adjust the price of a whole range of things in light of the drastic alteration of demographic trends. How’s the already depressed housing market looking? The stock of companies that make baby food and other stuff for infants? Kindergarden teachers won’t be out of work for a few years, but the smart ones will start looking for new jobs immediately. And then there would, of course, be massive uncertainty in both hemispheres about the future of immigration policy. That would unsettle expectations, disrupt investment decisions, etc.
You’d probably have a very severe financial crisis with quite real consequences. A “huge collapse” scenario doesn’t strike me as at all implausible. But the mechanism is as material as anything else you like.