When we talk about what could put an end to civilization today, we usually talk about climate change. The frightening scientific research behind that phenomenon has, apart from providing a seemingly infinite source of fuel for the blaze of countless political debates, also inspired a variety of dystopian visions, credible and otherwise, of no small number of science-fiction writers. One wonders what a science-fictional mind of, say, Isaac Asimov's caliber would make of it. Asimov died in 1992, a few years before climate change attained the presence in the zeitgeist it has today, but we can still get a sense of his approach to thinking about these kinds of literally existential questions from his 1978 talk above.
When people talked about what could put an end to civilization in 1978, they talked about overpopulation. A decade earlier, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, whose early editions opened with these words: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." With these and other grim pronouncements lodged in their minds, the bestselling book's many readers saw humanity faced with a stark choice: let that death rate increase, or proactively lower the birth rate.
A decade later, Asimov frames the situation in the same basic terms, though he shows more optimism — or at least inventiveness — in addressing it, supported by the workings of his powerful imagination. This isn't to say that the images he throws out are exactly utopian: he sees humanity, growing at then-current rates, ultimately housed in "one world-girdling skyscraper, partially apartment houses, partially factories, partially all kinds of things — schools, colleges — and the entire ocean taken out of its bed and placed on the roof, and growing algae or something like that. Because all those people will have to be fed, and the only way they can be fed is to allow no waste whatever."
This necessity will be the mother of such inventions as "thick conduits leading down into the ocean water from which you take out the algae and all the other plankton, or whatever the heck it is, and you pound it and you separate it and you flavor it and you cook it, and finally you have your pseudo-steak and your mock veal and your healthful sub-vegetables and so on." Where to get the nutrients to fertilize the growth of more algae? "Only from chopped-up corpses and human wastes." It would probably interest Asimov, and certainly amuse him, to see how much research into algae-based food goes on here in the 21st century (let alone the popularity of an algae-utilizing meal replacement beverage called Soylent). But however delicious all those become, humanity will need more to live: energy, space, and yes, a comfortable ambient temperature.
Asimov's suite of proposed solutions, the explanation of which he spins into high and often prescient entertainment, includes birth control, solar power, lunar mining, and the repurposing of some of the immense budget spent on "war machines." The volume of applause in the room shows how heartily some agreed with him then, and perspectives like Asimov's have drawn more adherents in the more than 40 years since, about a decade after Asimov confidently predicted that the world would run out of oil, a time when an increasing number of developed countries have begun to worry about their falling birthrates. But then, Asimov also imagined that Mount Everest was unconquerable because Martians lived on top of it in a story published a seven months after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made it up there — a fact he made a rule of cheerfully admitting whenever he started with the predictions.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.