During the 1960s and 70s, ethologist John B. Calhoun conducted a number of infamous social experiments on rats and mice. These experiments attempted to determine how the rodents would behave in crowded, but resource abundant environments. In one particular experiment, dubbed "Universe 25", he allowed it to last 600 days, out of morbid curiosity perhaps... Despite having all they need material-wise for survival, the rodent population nose-dived towards extinction following a collapse of the family unit that had previously enabled successful mating, breeding, and the nurturing of the young. The rise and fall of Universe 25's population is eerily similar to current human population growth projections, which are estimated to level off at around 11 billion according to a news report by the United Nations due to declining birth rates.
Near the end of the experiment, mothers abandoned and frequently cannibalized their babies, roaming gangs of males indiscriminately mated with each other, and last, but not least, a segment of the population opted-out of socialization altogether (the "Beautiful Ones"). All of this despite utopian environmental conditions, designed to maximize the longevity of the rodent population inside.
A fascinating experiment. One that would be no doubt condemned by animal rights groups today. Not to digress, but there is an irony in the condemnation of past researchers. While Calhoun's experiments may have questionable long-term worth, humans of today arguably owe their lives to the medical innovations brought by experiments on animals. The horrible pain, tumorous growths, born to die in a cold clinical cage of plastic — all that horror resulting in the culmination of countless new human generations that will be spared from the past diseases that plagued so many. Unless of course, their parents toss out their own brains and forgo vaccination.
I digress no further.
We are in the midst of a massive social experiment ourselves: the seemingly cancerous invasion of technology in every aspect of our lives. I, myself, have only had a mobile phone for the past year or so, maybe two years by now. Not out of choice either, but out of necessity to navigate the urbanized infrastructure, of which a great deal is obstructed or inaccessible without a mobile device. Without this device, I am as if I am blind, without an essential sense to traverse the sprawling maze.
I imagine the future shock one must experience having been born just after the Second World War. To look back on the past... How different it was. Better maybe in some ways, objectively terrible in others. Quality of life aside, to look back upon the technological development that has since occurred must be surreal.
It is understandable that some look upon the past in "rose-coloured glasses", ignoring the many pandemic social issues of the times, but remembering the elegance of a simpler life. A more isolated life. Now the world follows you, everywhere.
Maybe future generations will look upon this age as an age of simplicity. Mobile phones may become a piece of nostalgia, a reminiscent artifact of a simpler time. The first word newborns will learn won't be "daddy" or "mommy". The first word they will learn will be Google.
Perhaps children won't be raised by a mommy or daddy at all. I can envisage the future of reproduction being a network of sperm banks and surrogate mothers, sponsored by numerous megacorporations. In exchange for funding your incubation and subsequent birth, you would pay a lifelong tax to your sponsor, maybe multiple sponsors. Future generations could thus be traded on the public market like companies. Fetuses could become investments and people could hold stock in them.
Most men of course in this reality would be secluded from these banks, as will the eggs of most women. Why after all invest in someone who will not bring about the greatest investment return? It will be eugenics by supply and demand. It will be evolution by capital selection.
The genetically blessed will become the elites of society, living off the dividends of their countless thousands of infants. The poor, but few sober women will be the incubators of the genetically elite men and women. Human genetic engineering will be kept out of reach from most people lest the elite lose their special status. This will be justified as not wanting to "corrupt nature" or some other pseudoreligious argument.
One may wonder, wouldn't the genetic quality of people inevitably improve over time with this system, along with a decline in genetic diversity? The latter for sure, but the former? Not so much. The market does not necessarily desire what is best for the long-term survival of the species. It will simply favour what will bring the greatest capital return, and quickly so, or at least within the span of the investor's life.
Rich countries of today appear successful and many have excellent well-maintained ecosystems, but who is producing their goods? Poor (per capita) countries with corrupt governments and horribly exploited environments. This economic system has caused, simultaneously, massive improvements to human quality of life (globally), but also mass extinction and irreparable loss of biodiversity.
The modern and globalized market economy has proven its capacity in rapidly procuring and developing wealth, yet the same cannot be said for sustainability. And since we cannot survive without an environment that will continue to yield the materials we absolutely need, the system will fail. It's not a question of if, but only when. At the very least, significant reforms will be required for the sake of existential longevity.
If we are to look at human societies as if they are organisms, then the poor countries of today are the surrogate mothers of rich nations. They make the vast majority of their goods, chop their forests down for them, deplete their mineral resources, clean their houses, and even raise their kids. Their sacrifices benefit mostly their corrupt leaders and the multinational companies that deal with them.
Imagine you are a god and you give a community every single possible resource it could need. You give it metals, stone, freshwater, lush forests, and a diverse number of fauna. Yet they squander all of it. They extract the metals and stone, use it to create disposable products, ship it outside their borders, and then import the very same product once its use has expired. Freshwater? Forget it. They urinate and defecate in it (or toss their rotting dead in it), industrial waste is pumped into it, and the little that remains is bottled up and sold overseas. Lush forests? Cut down and used for coconut oil by boomers with old-fashioned popcorn makers. Diverse fauna? Mostly butchered to extinction before they even got electricity to automate the process.
You look down upon them and what was previously a gleaming paradise of flourishing abundance is now a toxic wasteland of discarded plastics, bones, and human suffering. One wonders why a hell is even necessary. In Monty Python's Life of Brian, a blasphemer is about to be stoned to death and is warned not to "make it worse" for himself, which he aptly responds, "How could it get any worse?"
Today, the most developed and wealthiest places in the world are suffering from a common ailment: loneliness. They have all the materials they could possibly need, yet, are missing the most important thing that matters: genuine intimate human connection. Some of course are incapable of achieving such a connection, either due to physical, mental, or some other issue.
Instead of raising families, people in developed nations are increasingly opting-out of mating altogether. In nations where there is a very unequal sex ratio, a relatively high rate of single people is to be expected. However, the decline in birth rates seen across the developed world is not due to there being not enough men or women. Rather it is because of a number of factors, some of which may not yet be known, specifically because of the rather apathetic response society has given to the epidemic.
The known reasons can vary, but I've noticed two common main causes:
What these two causes have in common is that they both increase the level of social and or otherwise mental stimulation in a population. As demonstrated in the animal experiments of Calhoun, the "Beautiful Ones" were rodents that were likely overstimulated and thus defensively sought escapism from it.
I don't think it is likely that we're going to be seeing human mothers cannibalize their young any time soon as seen in the animal experiments, nor are rodents the same as people. However I think it is reasonable to accept that overstimulation is something that negatively affects all animals. And that animals tend to respond in two different ways: their level of aggression increases or they "shut down" and emotionally withdraw. Both can be caused by people becoming overwhelmed.
Other factors in the rise of human social isolation could be related to overstimulation from technology, being overwhelmed with mating choices, social media distorting reality and spreading unrealistic expectations, disillusionment with humanity, and or the various mental illnesses that overstimulation can worsen.
Looking at the fact that we have plenty of people already, and the prospect of having billions of even more people is terrifying, the trend of loneliness and childlessness may not on the surface look like a bad thing.
That's if you ignore the extreme burden an aging population has on social services, the skyrocketing suicide rates, and just the fact that... People are miserable feeling alone.
If child subsidies, marriage tax credits, and other incentives are not solving the problem, then what is it we are left with? There's no simple answer, but we can begin by addressing the causes of the contributing factors to loneliness. If the youth are finding it difficult to move out and find affordable housing, then we ought to make housing more affordable. If the demands of education are too much, and if the demands of the workplace are exceeding that of normal human capacity, then that is also an area that requires correction.
Technology marches on and automation seeks to replace virtually all forms of unskilled (and even some skilled) labour, we will be left with a segment of the population that simply cannot be trained upwards. Not everyone is cut out for higher education. If we are to face a future of significant portions of the population in perpetual unemployment, then we must look at alternatives to how our current economic system functions.
Looking at social media... It presents a supposed reality of hypersexuality, of glossed superficial perfection... So much so many are given the false perception that the youth of today are more promiscuous than ever. The use of social media has been correlated with depression. It is important to remember that correlation does not imply causation. The direct reasons why this correlation exists is not clear cut and dry.
A report by the Royal Society for Public Health found that some social media platforms do indeed cause harm to psychological well-being, at least among the youth. Not all popular social media platforms came out as equally harmful. YouTube and Instagram were rated for instance as the most positive and most negative respectively. That isn't surprising given YouTube is more of an entertainment platform, whereas Instagram is more a place where one can share and compare their lives with others.
As more research is done on the impacts of social media on society and if that research predominantly finds that impact is negative, then governments may need to intervene in the interests of public health. That of course can be a problem in itself. If a government is not accountable to the public interest, it cannot be trusted to make decisions that are in the public's best interest. Very few examples of questionably "benevolent" authoritarianism can be found throughout history, but as a whole when democratic institutions are weakened and power is concentrated, it doesn't tend to end well.
Back to relationships: climate change has become such a threat to global stability that a declining birth rate may not be a bad thing (provided immigration takes up the slack in areas facing aging populations), but childlessness aside, the decline in relationships is a troubling trend. People have increasingly turned to software to find their match and cure their loneliness, but software intended to profit from people's desperation may not be an adequate solution. Especially software designed to facilitate superficial flings rather than meaningful committed relationships, the kind that marriages and families are made from. Nothing is more exploitable than the promise of connection, be it platonic or otherwise.
The focus on quantity as opposed to quality in connections between people is not a recipe for happiness. Even if a person can hypothetically connect on a meaningful level with a vast number of people, there's only so much time in the day, there's only so many days in the week, ...etc. Time spent on one connection is time away from another. Prioritization requires the abandonment of plenty. And what value is to be offered in a shallow sea of fleeting relations?
There's a certain absurd irony in the present reality where people are more likely to kill themselves than be a victim of homicide. In 2017 in the United States, there was a recorded 47,173 suicides, more than twice the amount of the recorded 19,510 homicides. What one you wager receives more attention by government and media groups? Not even automobile deaths are higher than suicides.
Until society fully acknowledges and responds to the mental health crisis at the same level of intensity at least to that of the fears of violent crime, misery will only continue to prosper. And most of all, we shouldn't pretend that most people can be happy in the long-term alone. Intimacy and meaningful connection are pretty much universal human needs. Leaving it up the individual and markets alone isn't solving the problem.
Singapore, a city-state in Southeast Asia, has one of the lowest birth rates in the world (not as low as Japan). It is also one of the most expensive places to live. In such a competitive nation, is it no surprise that the youth, especially students, do not prioritize finding love? Of course relationships will not take priority because people must make ends meet first before seeking to solve their social needs.
With the cost of living rising and the education requirements also rising to get a job that pays well enough to meet those expenses, people simply do not have enough time for anything else other than getting good grades and building a career. And once they do have enough time, they are nearing an age that the older generations may have considered close to retirement. Older generations, facing a much different economic reality, had the privilege of allocating time to family. The youth have inherited a system of massive wealth inequality and hyper-competitiveness. Their lack of focus on getting married and having kids should come at no surprise. There has not been enough time between these generations for this change of behaviour to be explained by genetics.
The birth and marriage rate is low and getting lower because the relative cost of both has rapidly increased.