Sci-Fi About Overpopulation Was Way Off

In his new book One Billion Americans, political reporter Matthew Yglesias paints an optimistic picture of a future in which America has revitalized itself by tripling its population. He argues that a bigger, younger America would be more competitive on the world stage and more capable of tackling economic and environmental challenges.

“I think that Americans should believe in ourselves,” Yglesias says in Episode 465 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “We should believe in our country and aspire to greatness—and to a more inclusive, more humane vision of ourselves, but also to a patriotic spirit of wanting to remain the leading country in the world.”

This vision stands in stark contrast to sci-fi books and movies such as Soylent Green and The Caves of Steel, which present population growth as a recipe for disaster. Yglesias says that the grim futures depicted in these stories are not based in reality.

“The whole theme of the robot novels is that there are these incredibly low living standards on Earth, which [Asimov] describes, if I’m remembering it correctly, as having a population of 8 billion people,” he says. “And they’re all for some reason living in underground cities and eating algae at almost the population that we have today.”

Dystopian scenarios may make for exciting stories, but often their predictions are so dire that they inspire hopelessness rather than resolve. “I think that there is a view that if something is bad, if it’s a real problem, that the best thing to do is state the problem in the bleakest possible terms, because that will motivate people to go take action,” Yglesias says. “I don’t think that that’s right as a theory of human motivation. People take action to avoid small harms all the time.”

Instead he thinks that we should take a cue from Star Trek, and work toward a future in which humanity’s problems are slowly, steadily overcome with the aid of technology. “If technology keeps improving, you still end up better off, even as there are some downsides, and that’s the actual trajectory that we see in our planet,” he says. “There’s more people, the people are better off, living standards are higher. The problems are very much manageable.”

Listen to the complete interview with Matthew Yglesias in Episode 465 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Matthew Yglesias on Spock and Data:

“They are the most memorable, original creations of the show, because in an interesting way they’re kind of audience surrogate characters. But they’re not typical audience surrogate characters—they’re audience surrogate characters for nerds. You’re somebody who thinks maybe you’re a little bit more logical than most of the people you know, but maybe you don’t really get emotion and social interaction all that well. And there are these [characters] who are making important contributions to the crew, and other people like and respect them. They sometimes will joke around with Spock, but they don’t tease him. He’s not bullied in the way that a person who acted like that in a real-world situation would be.”

Matthew Yglesias on Superman:

“I think a lot about the storyline DC did a while ago where Lex Luthor becomes president of the United States. … A big part of what Superman wrestles with there is that there’s this villainous person in the White House, and he’s doing bad things, but you can’t just fly to the White House, drill into the Oval Office, and use heat vision on the president of the United States. It would completely unravel the legitimacy of the hero in society, the stability of the American government, all of these kinds of things. And so he’s faced with these problems that his superpowers don’t solve. He has the ability to do lots of stuff that a normal person wouldn’t, but that then constantly poses him with the question, ‘What should I do? What are my obligations as this super man?’”

Matthew Yglesias on Spider-Man:

“I can’t think of any time in my life when I could have helped somebody if I had spider powers, but due to my lack of spider powers I was not able to be useful. And if I want to think of situations that come close, it’s actually really petty things. Like, I could help friends move much more easily. A friend asks four buddies to come help her move, and I could say, ‘Forget it, I can do it single-handedly. I’ve got super strength, I’ve got these webs. It’s fine.’ … I mean, I live in a city where there’s a decent amount of crime—in Washington DC—but I’ve never witnessed it. It’s never been that someone was murdering somebody right in front of my eyes, and if I’d had a web shooter I could have stopped him but since I didn’t have a web shooter I couldn’t do anything.”

Matthew Yglesias on book publishing:

“It’s not going to be viable for the book publishing and media industries to so strictly reflect the political beliefs of the kinds of people who like to live in New York City. … Politics has become much more polarized along lines of population density and educational attainment, so if you get a bunch of college graduates who live in a big city, there’s nothing wrong with college graduates living in a big city, but their consensus political opinions are going to be way to the left of the national center—which is fine, but just as a business proposition, you can’t run a book publishing house that way. It doesn’t make sense commercially, nor does it really make sense intellectually. There are a lot of conservative people in America. They’re going to write and buy books. There’s no sense in trying to stop them.”

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