kill our children
It’s tempting to see the murder of 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty on April 16 as a horrible anomaly perpetrated by an exceptionally insane person with access to guns. Period. End of discussion. We know how to handle this (although, somehow, we fail to do so). Before falling into a comfortable stupor of believing that the authorities took care of everything, some of us might take a moment to reflect that the “land of opportunity” hasn’t really described America for at least a hundred years.
In 1900 or so, when the last frontiers of the world faded away, they took with them the option to flee and start anew. It affects some more than others, but the disappearance of borders and the events at Virginia Tech, Columbine High, the World Trade Center and other icons of terror are related by an inexorable logic that we have not yet grasped.
In that regard, here are two questions to consider:
Computer users know that operating systems require periodic reboots, or the computer does strange and destructive things, in a way perhaps analogous to dysfunctional human social systems. So how do you reset a society?
In the wild, animals that challenge the dominant male in a group become outcasts. Expulsion, or voluntary departure, is the expected result. The rejected individual starts over from scratch. But what if geographic limitations make expulsion impossible?
We take the second question first: What if there is no way for an individual to escape from a desperately bad situation?
The late Dr. John C. Calhoun, an ecologist of some note, was interested in the social behavior of confined rodent populations. His research began at Johns Hopkins in 1946 and continued through the 1960s, when Calhoun, then a research psychologist at the National Institutes of Mental Health, published a report in Scientific American (among other places). What fascinated students and readers of this research, then and now, is that the rats in Calhoun’s experiments developed social pathologies similar to the behavior of humans trapped in cities. Among men, behavioral disorders included sexual deviation and sudden and gratuitous violence. Even the most normal males in the group would occasionally go berserk, attacking less dominant males, females, and juveniles. The failures in the reproductive function of the females – the rat equivalence of neglect, abuse and danger – were so severe that the colonies would have eventually become extinct, had they been allowed to continue.
Before proceeding, it is especially important to be clear on this point: none of Calhoun’s experiments started with crowds. All his populations started small, with superabundant resources, and grew after many generations in a state of what is called overcrowding (80% of nest boxes occupied). And that’s why we tend to think of the rodent problem as one of population density. It is common to challenge the extension of Calhoun’s experimental results with animals to human populations on the grounds of an “infinitely adaptable” humanity. Many Asian cities are said to have high population densities without having the social problems characteristic of closed rat colonies. (But those populations largely consist of agrarian workers who move in and out of the city at will on boats.) Actually, the problem is not overcrowding. It is one of containment, or “enclosure”, according to an old English system of abusive laws of the same name.
Fittingly, Calhoun called his confinements “universes,” since the animals inside them knew nothing of an outside. The rats of the early days required entire rooms as universes. This, and the fact that mad rats are notoriously difficult to care for, is what must have changed Calhoun’s affection towards mice in later experiments. The full details of Universe 25 appear in a 1970 article titled “The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population.”
Some highlights from the document:
* The mice of Universe 25 developed a social system with a fixed number of places. In nature, excess population migrates to what, in human terms, would be a border. But in Calhoun’s rodent Shangri-La, the possibility of emigration is ruled out because ecologists define emigration as a “mortality factor.” Therefore, it is not utopian. The rejected males would gather in “pools” on the floor of the universe, where they would frequently fight. Females not accepted into the social structure retreated to less preferred nesting boxes in the higher reaches of the universe.
* Dealing with a large number of mature competitors put too many demands on the territorial males. In response to invasion of nesting sites by intruders, females became aggressive, taking over some of the defensive functions of males. This aggression was generalized to their young. A sharp rise in pre-weaning mortality marked the end of social structure in Universe 25.
* With the end of successful reproductive activity, the population plummeted exponentially and the age distribution shifted to senescence. The population was expected to recover after declining to a few remnant groups. It did not. Furthermore, the healthy young people of Universe 25, transplanted into an empty universe of their own, failed to develop a social structure or participate in reproductive activities.
Human behavior is complex, not infinitely adaptable, and not necessarily different from that of Calhoun’s rats. For example, by locking themselves up, people create causes to justify their violence. Religious causes have been the favorites, especially recently, as we have a global venue and there are a wide variety of religions in the world to fight for. Economic disparities are perhaps more famous.
The most pronounced episode of enclosure in England, which almost led to the genocide of farm workers in the country’s southern farming districts, produced spectacular concentrations of wealth accompanied by dramatic poverty, unemployment and underemployment. The catchphrase “surplus population” (a favorite of Ebenezer Scrooge) became popular in 1834, when English manufacturers proposed to the Poor Law Commissioners that they send the surplus population north so that “manufacturers might absorb and exhaust it”. This strategy, coming from the lockdown, produced the abuses that led to the creation of communism as a response to capitalism, and the need for a kind of welfare system, not to prevent people from starving, but to prevent them from expressing their resentment of conspicuous wealth through violence. Richard Rubenstein of the Florida State University Humanities Institute put it more succinctly in his 1983 book |The Age of Triage: Fear and Hope in an Overpopulated World|.
“The oldest motive for the relief of the poor in England was not charity, but public order… Had it not been for the safety valve of emigration, in all probability, the history of Great Britain in the nineteenth century XIX would have been much bloodier than it was. .”
What prevented that violence was the relocation of a quarter of the population of the British Isles to the Great Frontier (mainly North America and Australia) between 1840 and 1880. Today, with emerging global enclosure problems that are similar to those of England in the 19th century, there is no such escape valve.
The attack on Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho, 23, the son of immigrants who work at a dry cleaners in suburban Washington, appears to have been motivated by economic envy, as indicated by his videotaped tirade about rich. brats” and their “hedonistic needs”. This echoes other terrorist acts such as those in December 2000 by high school age activists espousing ELF’s extremist environmentalist ideology. The children burned several luxury homes in Long Island, N.Y. Messages spray-painted on the charred remains said not “save the forests” but “burn the rich.”
Some of us thrive mightily. Global (as well as US) sales of private jets are on the rise. So is yacht production, to the point where the 70 or so largest yacht builders in the world are overworked. There are far more billionaires than there used to be, and far more unemployed or underemployed workers than there used to be. The latter cannot emigrate to another country for work. It can be argued that those who have wealth have acquired it at the expense of others. “Burn the rich”, in fact. So how rich do you have to be to be resentful? Ron Kohl, former editor of “Machine Design” magazine, an engineering magazine, once made an estimate. Kohl was famous for his incendiary editorials on things only marginally related to machine design. However, they generated a lot of mail and helped immerse a generation of engineers in their social environment, which is a pretty good thing. The estimate came out to be around $200,000 per year. A typical CEO (which is not important) earns that much.
Take another quick look at the English response to the Great Frontier in the 19th century, circa 1860. Because of the frontier, wages increased, the government provided more legislation to correct labor abuses, parents took better care of their children y Due to the multiplier effect, not all the poor had to leave England. Due to the border, the British company did a reset to avoid further loss of labor.
Making a border is how to restore a society.
As for the alternative, it doesn’t take big rocks from space to finish us off. Global warming is superfluous.
If a border is truly impossible, the violence (call it terrorism, to use today’s political parlance) escalates until the cost of controlling it exceeds the sum of economic output. It rises until the reproductive damage to the locked-down society becomes an extinction level event. I mean, you kill your children.
Turner, Frederick Jackson, |The Frontier in American History|, ISBN 0-88275-347-9 (1920)
Webb, Walter Prescott, |The Great Frontier|, no ISBN (1952)
O’Neill, Gerard K., |The High Frontier|, ISBN 0-688-03133-1 (1977)
Heppenheimer, T.A., Colonies in Space |, ISBN 0-8117-0397-5
Rubenstein, Richard L., |The Age of Triage: Fear and Hope in an Overpopulated World|, ISBN 0-8070-4376-1 (1983)
Organizing principle for duration:
The world needs a way out.
The only way out is up.