Friday, February 1, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, End of the First Period

Bertrand Russell tells us at the beginning of New Hopes for a Changing World that he intends to keep hope alive, though not by succumbing to foolish, unmoored optimism. Progress is not foreordained – but it can be achieved. Russell will recognize our constraints, indicate our predicament, and chart a path ahead.

The conflict between Man and Nature forms the subject matter for the first part of New Hopes for a Changing World. Science and technology have altered the terms of the conflict in recent centuries, but not eliminated it, nor will they do so in the future. (Industrialization not only alters the man/nature nexus, it simultaneously destabilizes inter- and intra-human conflicts.) Economic and technical progress alone cannot ensure higher living standards, given population increases and the deterioration of our environmental and natural resource capital stocks. Much of the world already is overpopulated, yet religious moralists refuse to provide access to information about contraception – they prefer to see population growth checked by higher death rates, not lower birth rates. Even though one might guess from human actions that people apparently want to leave a multitude of descendants, with access to contraception and an end to moralizing against it, population growth can be stemmed without coercion.

Russell’s alarm about population growth appears a little dated now. Population has increased much faster than Russell envisioned, and in many places, much misery did indeed accompany the growth. Nonetheless, living standards around most of the world have gone up, often substantially, even in places like India that Russell singled out as particularly overpopulated. Japan, another country whose population was a concern to Bertie, saw negative population growth during 2008-2010.

Of course, the moral and legal attack on contraception has diminished since New Hopes for a Changing World was written. Access to contraception received constitutional protection in the United States in 1965, and the AIDS crisis spurred the promotion of safer sex practices that also would lead to fewer unwanted pregnancies. (The recent upswell of anti-contraception political positions in the US has not succeeded in reversing this trend, I believe.) In the US, though Catholic leaders still adhere to an anti-contraception line, most practicing Catholics do not share those views.

In Chapter V, Russell noted Condorcet’s optimistic stance on population. This led me to look into Condorcet’s “Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind,” which bears many similarities to New Hopes for a Changing World. (Condorcet does seem to have a little more unmoored optimism than does Russell; but then, Russell was privy to Condorcet’s fate.) Need we fear that increasing mastery over nature will prove self-defeating, that the induced increase in population will eventually so press against available resources that people will die in misery? According to Condorcet,
...there would result from it [the induced increase in population] nothing alarming, either to the happiness of the human race, or its indefinite perfectibility; if we consider, that prior to this period the progress of reason will have walked hand in hand with that of the sciences; that the absurd prejudices of superstition will have ceased to infuse into morality a harshness that corrupts and degrades, instead of purifying and exalting it; that men will then know, that the duties they may be under relative to propagation will consist not in the question of giving existence to a greater number of beings, but happiness; will have for their object, the general welfare of the human species; of the society in which they live; of the family to which they are attached; and not the puerile idea of encumbering the earth with useless and wretched mortals. Accordingly, there might then be a limit to the possible mass of provision, and of consequence to the greatest possible population, without that premature destruction, so contrary to nature and to social prosperity, of a portion of the beings who may have received life, being the result of those limits.
Like Russell, Condorcet contemplates man as being in the infancy of his freedom, and supposes that maturity will bring wonders beyond what currently can be foreseen.

Nature having been handled, it’s on to Man and Man…