Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future of Civilization–and Recommends Ways to Ensure That It Survives (1978)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1964, Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts What the World Will Look Like Today: Self-Dri­ving Cars, Video Calls, Fake Meats & More

Isaac Asi­mov Laments the “Cult of Igno­rance” in the Unit­ed States: A Short, Scathing Essay from 1980

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts in 1983 What the World Will Look Like in 2019: Com­put­er­i­za­tion, Glob­al Co-oper­a­tion, Leisure Time & Moon Min­ing

Isaac Asimov’s Favorite Sto­ry “The Last Ques­tion” Read by Isaac Asi­mov— and by Leonard Nimoy

Isaac Asi­mov Explains His Three Laws of Robots

Free: Isaac Asimov’s Epic Foun­da­tion Tril­o­gy Dra­ma­tized in Clas­sic Audio

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.

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