Bryan Caplan  

Mass Sterilization, Reconsidered

I'm on Vacation... For Business, Against Capitali...
Last week Tyler entertained this hypothetical: "A freak solar event 'sterilizes' the half of the planet (people, animals, etc) facing the sun. What happens?"  His answer:
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. 
A couple days later, David Brooks took up the challenge:
Within weeks, in other words, everything would break down and society would be unrecognizable. The scenario is unrelievedly grim. An individual who does not have children still contributes fully to the future of society. But when a society doesn't reproduce there is nothing left to contribute to.
Given my current book project, you might think I'd be even more pessimistic.  But I'm not.  Cowen and Brooks vastly underestimate the power of inertia, adaptation, and hope:

1. Inertia.  Suppose you suddenly found out you were sterile.  Would you still go to work today?  Probably.  What else are you supposed to do?  Even when you face a big change, it's easier to just go about your business and pretend like everything is normal.   So in the sterilization hypothetical, I predict that almost everyone would be back to work within a week.

You could object on the basis of group dynamics.  Maybe a big group of sterile people acts differently than an isolated sterile individual.  That's probably true, but it cements my case.  If just one person is sterile, he feels alone in his tragedy.  If everyone around you is affected, you'd want to signal solidarity with those around you by showing up for work and putting on a good face.

2. Adaptation.  When bad stuff happens, not only do people get over it; they get over it far sooner than you'd think.  That's the deep truth of hedonic adaptation.  Most people would feel an emptiness in their lives if they knew they couldn't have children.  A few would never get over it.  But most would, especially if no one else around them had it any better.

3. Hope.  What would Obama do the day scientists confirmed the mass sterilization?  Mr. Hope would give an audacious national speech proposing a Genesis Program to cure mankind's problem.  The nation would rally around the crusade, and we'd spend a Paulson Plan's worth of money on R&D.  Then we'd cross our fingers, get on with our lives, and wait.  People would gradually give up hope, but there'd be no focal point for despair, no identifiable moment where the incurability of the problem became common knowledge.  Even if a later president openly admitted defeat, a couple decades of accumulated inertia and adaptation would easily prevent social collapse.  Affected nations would go extinct not with a bang, but a whimper.

The sterilization of half mankind would still be a horrible tragedy of epic proportions.  But we wouldn't be losing the society we've got.  We'd just be losing the society we could have had: Millions of new creative geniuses, and billions of additional people who'd enjoy being alive.  If human beings were built differently, we might inconsolably miss the descendents we never had.  For most of us, though, it's "out of sight, out of mind."  We miss people we knew and lost a thousand times more than people who were never conceived.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (25 to date)
E. Barandiaran writes:

Bryan, you have not taken into account the possibility that the sterile people's demand for raising children becomes an incentive for the other half of mankind to have more children. As you know to an extent this is already happening. I'm sure children's price will increase high enough to motivate the other half to meet a large part of the new demand.

Gen Buck Turgeson writes:

Wouldn't this require the abandonment of the so-called monogamous sexual relationship?

Tyler Cowen writes:

#3 gets ruled out by definition, since we're assuming common knowledge to start with. The rest of the catastrophe is transmitted through falling asset prices and that would happen right away; Matt Yglesias blogged a good outline of how the catastrophe would run.

Hume writes:


What is (are) the definitive free market health care book(s)? Thanks for any recommendations.

Chris writes:

I'm with Bryan on this one - I don't see how mass sterilization changes much of anything. Why do asset prices fall? For that matter, how does everyone find out immediately that they are sterile?

There is a significant portion of the population that already had kids or never planned on having kids. Why do they start acting differently?

My assumption is that sexual norms change dramatically, but mass hysteria seems outrageous to me.

Tom Tobin writes:

As someone who has no children and wants none (i.e., I'm "childfree"), I find this mental exercise amusing. I've held for some time that children are externalities that are ignored in much political thought about rights and responsibilities; considering how society would deal with the (gradual, as remaining children aged to adulthood) removal of those externalities is interesting. If only 50% of the world's population was hit, I doubt civilization would collapse; we'd simply have a huge uptick in immigration and adoption in the affected areas. There might be a significant increase of interest in transhumanist technology: living longer for real, as opposed to "living on" in one's children. (I'm largely ignoring the sterilization of non-human life here; if all forms of life were affected — plants, animals, bacteria, and whatnot — we'd easily face a biosphere collapse on the sterilized side of the planet.)

tom writes:

Has anyone mentioned Leisure World?

Dan Weber writes:

There's a science fiction story "Seventy Years of Decpop" in which some 99% of humanity is sterilized. It reads mostly as porn for the anti-natalist (which I'm not), but it's interesting nonetheless.

Strawman writes:

I'm with Bryan on this one. Science fiction raises us on pretty grim post-apocolyptic fare, but it's not as if societies haven't collapsed before. And in almost every case I can think of - the Greenland Norse, Easter Islanders, the old Southwest Native Americans - nothing happened.

In fact, when people talk about seeing the remains of these civilizations, it's the eerieness that strikes them, not the remnants of violence. In most cases society and tribal structure continued to persist, among scattered individuals, right to the very end.

Face it. We're a social people - we can't function without others, and language itself is an evolutionary adaptation that demands group-functioning. We're pretty much set up NOT to implode.

PaulB writes:

Over the long run the event would be viewed as an amazing boon to the world economy. Those on the unaffected side of the world would have the choice to become well compensated surrogates for the sterilized half. However, since it would become very costly to have children, the sterilized on the upper end of the income distribution would be raising a greater proportion of the children which the literature suggests would lead to better socio-economic outcomes. Thus resulting in significant generational increases in economic growth and decreases in absolute poverty.

Further gains could come from sterilized parents selecting surrogates with desirable traits. This one may be a stretch though as it assumes the sterilized population would choose the "smart and productive" surrogates over the "pretty but dumb" surrogates.

Steve Sailer writes:

Brooks is using this gimmick as a metaphor for the Muslim demographic takeover of Europe through immigration and higher fertility. I got an advanced copy in the mail of Christopher Caldwell's important new book "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West," so I'm sure Brooks did too.

Mark Bahner writes:

My comments on Matthew Yglesias' blog (with typo corrected):


To people who think this would be some sort of society-destroying problem, I say, “Take some engineering courses. Read some Robert Heinlein (i.e., science fiction that looks positively on engineering and technology).”

Half the world becomes sterile? Presumably, this would be because of destroyed sperm and eggs. The solution is simply to import sperm and eggs from the other half of the world. This is not some sort of unsolvable problem.

And if for some bizzare reason, even wombs were rendered unfit, one potential solution is for the other half of the world to have twice as many children, and to either give them (through charity) or sell them to the other half of the world.

Or if that didn’t happen, within a decade or two, the sterile half of the world would have perfected reproductive cloning, with birth of the clones in artificial uteri:

Homo sapiens are problem solvers…the greatest problems solvers earth has ever seen (to this point). Put your thinking caps on, people! There’s a problem to solve. (And not even a very big one.)

P.S. And stop whining!

Dr. T writes:

Most of you are missing the big picture. The solar flare sterilizes half the world, not half the people. No chicks, calves, piglets, lambs, or fish eggs. None of the crops will produce seeds. No insect larvae, earthworms, bugs, spiders, etc. after the current adults die. Without insects or worms, soil becomes dense and infertile, dead creatures remain putrid for months, and birds and small mammals die of starvation.

At the present time, half the world cannot feed all the world. If North America were exposed to the solar flare, there would be world-wide famines. This would be a disaster on a scale with nuclear winter. You can't just shrug this off by planning to adopt kids from the other side of the world: you'll probably be dead of starvation or murder within a year.

Patri Friedman writes:

I bet many, perhaps most sterile people would redirect their "descendant" impulses to their non-sterile relatives, helping their siblings produce more nieces and nephews. That's assuming random distribution. If it happens to a hemisphere...that would be weird, and worse. Bid to import non-sterile women from the other half?

Foobarista writes:

How about artificial womb tech? I suspect that if it became a national imperative, it would be figured out pretty quickly.

I suspect the Japanese (most likely) or Russians will figure out this tech fairly soon anyway as they'll need it.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

I understand that if everything on one side of the planet is sterilized, then we are talking about a truly cataclysmic event; but I'm assuming that what you're really interested in is the way human beings would react in this given situation.

Something that would survive would be all the embryos, eggs, and sperm that are currently being preserved. I think it would be safe to say that there would be a moratorium on embryonic stem cell research.

I am also curious as to how some religions would react to various practices that they currently frown on; i.e. in vitro.

Finally, as much as the sale of sperm/eggs could become big business; I believe that charitable organizations would be created that would accept donations of eggs/sperm and distribute them.

botogol writes:

Wouldn't we see mass migrations from the popluated to the unpopulated halves?

Then I think it would make quite a difference *which* half of the planet was irradiated: At current (if unrestricted) birth rates how many years would it take the chinese and indian nations to repopulate the Americas? Not many. If it was the other way around, though..

Tracy W writes:

Dr T - import from the non-sterilised half of the world.

Drop a few non-sterilised bugs in all those dead creatures and they'll multiply expontentially.
Hell, people are moving around all the time anyway, about a few seconds after the mass sterilisation new bacteria will be introduced to at least the fringes, with the actions of ocean currents, intercontinetal ships, planes, trains and automobiles.

As for animals, well rabbits breed like rabbits. Existing crops will still presumably continue growing, plenty of time to restock with fertile seeds from the non-fertilised areas. Restocking longer-term cropping plants like apple trees or vineyards and restocking sheep and cattle populations would take longer, so diets would undergo a massive change, eg much less milk, but it's hardly a permanent problem.

The ecology of areas would be drastically changed, depending on what species were introduced, but it would still be going.

Bill Woolsey writes:

I don't understand.

Is the economic problem supposedly driven by the end of the bequest motivation for saving (including not dissaving until all wealth is gone at death?)

I was surprised about the claims regarding fiat currencies. As the population ages and there are no more native young workers, the result would be immigration from the other half of the world. The population of the sterile half may fall, and the demand for money may fall, and so either the monetary authorities must decrease the quantity of the fiat currency, or else the value will fall. That isn't a drop to zero.

Assuming that this more open immigration approach still reduces population, the "pay as you go" social insurance programs would have more problems, which generates more saving now, not less.

The national debt will be less bearable with a smaller population and less income. But I think that the explicit national debt could be 10 times higher and still supportable in the U.S. While the per capita tax burden would be worse for the immigrants, that doesn't mean zero immigration.

Already, a large proportion of the population saves for retirement and not for bequests. Bequests are just an afterthought. It is what happens to the cushion of assets that were really there in case of an unexpectedly long lifespan that doesn't materialize.

While the wealthy whose plan is to continue some dynasty of the independently wealthy decendants would have an incentive to consume more, it isn't obvious that they would just piddle everything away. How much time do they have left, and what kind of grandiose consumption schemes can they develop? Many such people leave their wealth to foundations and the like.

Anyway, I just can't imagine that the only reason I have for living is my hope for grandchildren.

I just don't get it.

As for the behavioral differences--well, the sterile people I know don't seem to behave that differently. They still go to work, buy homes, get groceries and so on. (They do seem to spend a lot of time and money on trying to adopt.)

Eric Hammer writes:

Another odd assumption (perhaps dictated by the author) is that the Western Hemisphere (or at least the West) is affected, as opposed to say the Asian sphere. I think the results of India, China and eastern Russia being sterilized would be rather different from Europe or North America. Less developed countries would not only have difficulty replacing labor for manufacturing and farming, economies more dependant on agriculture would suffer serious problems replacing crops and livestock to a degree much greater than more developed nations. The influx of rural refugees from their hinterlands into their city centers would quite possibly cause quite a strain.

Very interesting, and disturbingly plausible enough, idea :)

Monte writes:

A freak solar event 'sterilizes’ the half of the planet (people, animals, etc) facing the sun. What happens?

The ethical issues surrounding reproductive cloning will be greatly mollified and clear the way for medical science to fully elaborate the technique for improving all species of plant and animal. Genetic engineers, at the behest of anxious young parents, will create a new product line of upgraded newborns. This increasing population of super humans will bring about a cognitive revolution, where religion, politics, war, and advertising will ultimately give way to a world governed by pure reason.

All of this hinges critically, of course, on whether or not Texas is facing the sun when the freak solar event occurs.

Joshua Sharf writes:

Nevil Shute would probably agree with Bryan.

I think Strawman's not quite right about the Anasazi. What strikes me is the fortress-like quality of their dwellings, in the absence of any external enemy. It's hard to escape the conclusion that they turned on themselves.

Colin K writes:

My response would be to ask why this would look so different from what has happened in Japan or China, where fertility rates have dropped precipitously due to changes in policy and preference. Fertility is also nearing 1 child per woman in many parts of the US and Europe.

Given that, I think the most dramatic and immediate effects would be the rise in the price of meat and dairy products. It will take decades for the practical effect of a loss of human fertility to show up. Chickens and hogs can be measured in weeks.

OTOH, there is an interesting question of adverse impact here. Fertility rates are not at all uniform across SES and ethnic lines, in the world or in the US. It stands to reason that the social impact would be a lot larger in a place like Egypt (~3 births/woman) than San Francisco (1ish?)

Troy Camplin writes:

One wonders what would be the effect of the nonsterilized population moving into the lands of the sterilized population as the older members of that population die off. Reduced fertility dues to "breeding" with the native, sterilized population? It seems to me that you would have a few waves. The first one being the half of the population that is literally sterilized from the incident. Then there would be the second wave of people who are practically sterilized by it because is population mixing. The result would be not half the population not reproducing, but probably closer to two-thirds.

Paul writes:

Assuming it's just humans, the real question is what would this do to the birth control industry? Trojan and Durex would take a real hit, I'd say.

Also, what would it do to the abortion debate? I am not sure I could live in a world without an abortion debate.

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