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Bill Moyers Rewind: Isaac Asimov (1988)

In 1988, Bill Moyers interviewed author Isaac Asimov for WORLD OF IDEAS. Incredibly prolific in various genres beyond the science fiction for which he was best known, Asimov wrote well over 400 books on topics ranging from sci-fi to the Bible before his death in 1992. In one thread of his wide-ranging interview, Asimov shared his thoughts on overpopulation:

"Right now most of the world is living under appalling conditions. We can't possibly improve the conditions of everyone. We can't raise the entire world to the average standard of living in the United States because we don't have the resources and the ability to distribute well enough for that. So right now as it is, we have condemned most of the world to a miserable, starvation level of existence. And it will just get worse as the population continues to go up... Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies. The more people there are, the less one individual matters."

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I think that we should pull back are troops from the war in Afganistan.

Having spent the first 6 weeks of 2008 touring India,I have to agree.The population is still exploding. The place is a mess.

By his failure, or inability, to directly address 9/11 issues, the extraction game called derivatives, the manipulated scarcity of food commodities or the secret government making all this possible Bill Moyers has now remained a hostage for 81 days. A heart attack and a DUI arrest are no excuse for abandoning the honesty he communicated in his 1987 piece "The Secret Government." The secret or covert government is both stronger and more obvious now than then, and though it has exhibited great continuity of personnel and consistency of policy, it is only now securing the complete hegemony it has always sought. Bill, just let out one little scream before the door closes forever.

David Eddy: If you watched the Congo food delivery presentation this week you may begin to understand that our economy is involuntarily global. So if we raise the minimum wage and the basics go up (ex: rent,food and gas) then what's the point. You describe the symptoms well (ex: consumption mania from advetising) but you seem to have such faith in the system ("our way of life") that you can't believe everything we depend on could crumble. People in the U,S, are as helpless as wildlife populations, but we shouldn't be that way. You are in denial. Imagine you are a goldfish and a Wall Street speculator is tapping at the glass of your aquarium because he wants the trinkets in your sand. (You'll never spawn with the salmon like on that PBS commercial: That is fantasy, just like our government and economy.)
I will stop here David. I enjoyed the conversation.Did you check out the Fresh Air clip?

Grady Lee Howard,
Economics is a theory not a law written in stone. There are many possible economic systems that can regulate the flow of goods and services. Money is both the root of all evil and the means to an equitable distribution of goods and services. It is necessary to have an economic system that promotes equity and minimizes greed. It should be the intent of government to maintain justice and equity through legal justification. People trained in the art of social science and law should have the jurisdiction to correct injustice and inequity. Citizens should be trained to support their society with honest work and skilled labor. The minimum wage should be above the cost of living and increase according to the education and skill required to do the job. This is the basis of social contract.
The present system of economics is capable of maintaining wages that provide quality lifestyles.
The problem is wages that are below the cost of living and profits far beyond reasonable return for investment. Advertisement has created unreasonable expectations and the proliferation of throw away and meaningless trash. People are wasting their lives on counter productive foolishness. The government has lost its moral compass and is supporting the greedy instead of the needy. It should be the government’s prime objective to maintain equity and justice. Instead of statesmen we have bought off politicians because of the corrupting influence of lobbyists.
Maybe we need another tea party and tax the excessive profits of the oil companies. Then we can use their money to support the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. We should also tax the Christian Zionists who support the war. Then we can actually deal with the terrorist threat instead of having to deal with lunatic war mongers. We especially need to tax the war profiteers.
Loving dispositions has nothing to do with our present dilemma. There are plenty of practical reasons to resolve our fiscal, moral, and social problems. I say, if we do not fix our problems; we will not survive our self-destruct tendencies.

My friend Jack Martin below observes how Isaac Asimov points out the danger of "phony economic knowledge" to Bill Moyers in this interview.
David Eddy, et al, please realize that the thing heartless wealthy people will do to put us all in debt peonage is described perfectly on Fresh Air of April 3, 2008
(available in archive at Freash Air WHYY). Terry Gross interviews former financial regulator Michael Greenberger, (now a professor at Univ. of Maryland) in which he describes the dangers of the dark economy, OTC derivatives, liability trading and the fashioning of this extraction mechanism by Wall Street lawyers writing Congressional legislation. Congress members are too ignorant to understand the implications, and quick to take quid pro quo through a revolving door into the hidden financial universe. Phil Graham is cited as a typical example.
Greenberg suspects the subprime mortgage crisis is just beginning with credit card defaults, student loans, auto loans and unsupported corporate leveraging and carry trade (currency transaction) shortfalls yet to come. He says lobbyists and media are preventing the American people from being informed about these dangers while executives, boards and speculators continue to scoop the cash out of the real tangible economy. Bailouts and guarantees mean we the taxpayers are expected to stand good for all these outlays in addition to the 11 trillion dollar national debt and the 3 trillion dollar West Asian (Iraq and Afganistan) occupation.
I can't help but think McCain (or even Hillary or Barack) is gonna pop up with some preacher who reads the Bible to say slavery is OK and debtors are not human; we (the former working and middle classes) being the tax debtors. Since our social security and medicare deductions are budgeted in and we are also paying for a war most oppose I believe the proper word is TRIBUTE, not taxes. A sweet heart and a loving disposition won't solve this one David Eddy et al. SO THERE GO ALL OUR HOPES FOR TEACHING PEACE AND EATING ORGANIC. What sez you?

Grady Lee Howard:
The last time I checked it out; I was still here though sometimes I think I might have died and gone to hell the way things are going lately.
It is my contention that programs like Bill Moyer’s Journal are a light in the darkness whereas much of the communications and entertainment today is corrupted by corporate greed and dangerous propaganda. This situation is undermining our moral compass, our capability to respond to crises and our quality of life not to mention getting a whole lot of people killed.
Not only do we have poverty of body; we have poverty of mind making it difficult to surmount our problems. The lack of human compassion and people placing little value on human life is the reason for no one concerned about the quality of human consumption or the quality of human life. Life is for life’s sake and it is a gift of God. It is a rare commodity in every universe.

David Eddy:
Thanks for your hopeful response. I think my underlying point was that it is useless to lecture individuals about ethics, morality and responsibility when the institutions controlling their lives are flawed and corrupt. It would be better to mobilize them to change these maladaptive limitations. It is hard for our minds to jump from personal problems to structural problems or to realize psychology will not solve institutional mistakes. This planet may be capable of sustaining up to 4 billion humans over time at a technological level below what we enjoy now. Allowances must be made for the natural systems which maintain life systems. We will never possess the energy inputs or complex knowledge to replace nature. Space travel and the Eco-dome experiment in Arizona are a good illustration.
This is not to advocate death camps or self-suicide, but only "one child" families which tend to halve population each generation if adhered to.(I am childless.) I may live 20 more years at most and it is comforting to me my planet and people will go on.
Food (as opposed to faux food and Frankenfood) is a big consideration, David, if you are to have your quality people. Being good and useful is easier when one feels well and is healthy. I think our food stream contributes to dementia, diabetes, and new maladies. I want good responsive government agencies filtering my food, except for that I grow myself.
Are you still there, Dave?

Grady Lee Howard: Right; Malthus is the man. I agree that population growth should be an important issue. It is up to government to provide the incentive for birth control. Paying people to have illegitimate children has got to be a population management problem. It is not a race issue it is a common sense issue. It is necessary to educate young people as to the importance of family management.
My concern is that the proper use of technology provides people a quality life in a quality environment. I agree that we cannot cement over the fertile land thereby leaving no land for growing food. The problem is that we need to go the extra mile to protect our sources of food, water and air. There are plenty of spaces for urban sprawl and manufacturing complexes. It is important to impress people with the idea that freedom is a by-product of cooperation and efficient organization. Our present dilapidated state of affairs is self-destructive and will lead to our extinction. Frankenfood will be the least of our problems. If we do not learn to do what is right and good instead of wrong and No No, Bad Bad, shame shame; extinction will solve our over population problem.

David Eddy: I think you mean Rev. David Malthus, not Adam Smith who thought population would outstrip food production. It can be a racist strategy to focus on population pressures. "Them Hispanyos is havin' too many babies," I hear among the ignorant. It is true that birth control is available if people could afford it and used it properly, but that is a rational choice.
Your faith in techhnology may be misplaced. Bad choices, like ethanol from corn, are not the whole picture. Global warmed climate change means that we consumed more grain than we produced eight of the last nine years. Water is scarcer and desertification is spreading in crop growing regions. Seattle is wet but the West is in a massive and persistent drought. Lakes Mead and Powell are half empty and New Mexico was under a statewide red alert for forest fires when I was there last month.
Did you really see Arizona David, or just travel its vast space. How would one survive in Phoenix without pools and AC ?

Your thoughts about "quality people" and ideal organization are beautiful, but are not being realized because of greed, hate, and yes, overpopulation. China today might be Hellish had it not been for "one-child family." They are already importing food because of absolute shortages. Dave, the next time you see farmland stripped for condos or McMansions understand that it is a one way trip.
Some of us are growing backyard food and shopping the farmer's market, but we are a tiny minority compared to the "window food" crowd staining their car upholstery. It is carrying capacity we must consider, not wide open spaces. Quality food is one you can add to your idealized list, because Frankenfood kills. Technology may have now hit a wall, because most fertilizer comes from petroleum. And there are hazards: a wheat rust UG99 was recently released in Yemen and is rapidly spreading. It will reach India this summer. It is an engineered fungus from the U.S. defense arsenal. It will take at least ten years to get resistant wheat into production. There are many similar threats about.
Will you be fruitful and multiply, or live long and prosper? Be a polygamist ho-daddy or don that profilactic? Tell me David.

Ho Boy! I do not think we have a problem with too many people. We have a problem with wrong priorities, greed, avarice, moral depravity, inhumanity, corruption, inequity and injustice.
I traveled from Seattle to California then to Arizona then back to Seattle. There was plenty of space for more people. All that was required is the application of progressive economics, efficient organization, efficient use of our technology and the efficient use of human resouces and natural resources.
Adam Smith thought we would all starve to death a long time ago. Low and behold, as the population grows; the availability of food increases due to better methods of production. Better methods of social organization can support population growth as well as improve the quality of life for everyone. Quality people are our most important resource as well as who we need to be.
We need to be all that we can be; not self-destructive fools.

This interview is prolific in its tendency to accurately predict what has become, twenty years later, science fact. Bill Moyers and Isaac Asimov hauntingly allude to the inventions of the internet, showing Asimov's adept ability to predict the future. Yet something false short of his grandiose vision of education privatized for everyone, is that even though it exists, humanity has not taken advantage of the marvel of the internet to learn. Instead we see a humanity wallowing in the renewed fervor of religious and national zealotry. Instead of an expansion in education we see a contraction in levels of consciousness and reason. The early 21st century has become an age of irrationality. I only now wish to see part 1 of this awe inspiring interview.


Anthropology teachers always told me women (unless otherwise indoctrinated)took a strong interest in limiting the number of children they had once they got a little education and saw themselves as potential wage earners with self-determination. It was the farmers without a socialized state who needed many off-spring for gang labor and old age support.
Under high mortality many children were needed to insure some would survive to adulthood. This was reflected in demographic statistics. See how affluent Japan has a rising median age?
mlapaz: Why do you think Christian "right to life" women would contradict a rational mentality? I think it is because they live in an anachronistic value system of patriarchal domination and bygone ideals. Sure, they enjoy the sadistic power of controlling other people's bodies and consider their racial stock superior in a xenophobic way, but it is the inappropriate Old Testament recipe appropriated from a dead pastoral culture that makes them seem so deluded. Notice how this mentality often accompanies an unrealistic and unworkable libertarian politic.
And then poor little precious Jesus comes into the mix, a helpless accomplice along for the ride. Although his myth lived 2000 years ago he never advocated rampant reproduction. The Christ cult instructed followers not to even marry (in many scriptures), but to live a spiritual existence waiting for the next world. It's like the CD skipped on these nuts and they are back in the Egypt herding sheep.
They can't even catch up with Rev. Huckabee who reminded us to care for the living and born as well as embryoes and fetuses. (Are we to become the planet of the preemies?) So you're doomed to Hell for abortion even if grandpa rapes you, in mortal sin for using birth control and finally guilty as sin if you give up a chance to get pregnant. If Earth is preparation and practice for the afterlife I guess Heaven must be overpopulated and miserable with crying babies hungry for a breast. I sure don't want to go there. Let me sleep in peace in this wide endless scientific universe.

Comments reading the highlighted text:
It is only scientific fact based on solid research decades ago, that overpopulation will easily beome our demise including scarcity of resources, unmanagable increases in violence and the cheapening of all values frameworks regarding human life.
Asimov speaks to deaf ears in America regarding population control with the rhetoric espoused of the "Christian Nation" and the hidden agenda of the "Right to Life Movement" which, it seems clear, is to control and ban all forms of birth control and birth control options from the average American woman. Who ever could of conceived in the '70s that anyone would ever of heard of pharmacists refusing to fill orders for birth control pills?! ("Right to Life", indeed, when most committed membership supports the death penalty!)
In my own small town America, joining a food-buying club (in order to keep prices closer to wholesale) meant discovering a large group of "Born Again" evangelical Christian women. What an eye opener! I heard otherwise intelligent-looking women iterate repeatedly (and yes, I quote accurately), "Jesus will decide the size of my family." With basic reproductive facts at the ready, I cannot imagine, logistically, what Jesus has to do with it........
Only ones with eyes blinded by religious dogma and related zeal are unable to see the all too true connections Asimov makes here between overpopulation and the increasingly impotent ability of Americans to institute and embed any truly high values for our citizenry or for humanity as a whole.
WE ARE LIVING IT, NOW. Sad but true. What can we do to effectively open those eyes so blinded??

This is Moyers' contribution to the collective conversation he is having with his correspondents on the Journal blog. Much of his discourse is constrained by the political campaign and by reactionary forces at a time of crisis. Thanks for another channel, another opportunity to think and exchange ideas and analysis.

I think Moyers and I have waited many years hoping for enough rational people to empower a tipping point toward pragmatic fairness and rational planning. This conversation with Asimov examines education as a means toward this end.

I see the conversation as Phenomenological rather than rational; that Moyers and Asimov both assume physical reality can spring materially from rational thought. I think their neglect of economics (substantive realities and limitations rather than finances) was conspicuous in their conceptions. And in a way, such neglect is as much of a con game as mysticism. They skirt it: Moyers observes that poorer children have less educational opportunity and Isaac responds that we'll provide them the best computers we can. Moyers says interaction with computers is dehumanizing and Isaac says that they'll still attend school for math, reading and interaction. It's nice to look back, phenomenologically, because now we can see we've made a mess of the opportunity they identified. What is more like an oppressive factory than "No Child Left Behind" education? And when we turn to the computer (Internet) there is hyper-commerce, fraud, exploitation, violent and clinical pornography, mindless repetitive games and gambling; a complete focus on fantasy with a concomitant unhealthy isolation. I don't deny that what Bill and Isaac saw in 1988 was possible, but the concrete steps to make it happen were never taken.

They were living and analyzing by "the code of the past" even then, seeming all the more archaic now. The space race and the production of a nationalistic scientific cadre betrayed a faith in our system that proved unjustified. The most pertinent observation by Asimov proved to be that our "decent economic system” would not sustain us when we quit doing anything. When it comes to material production America truly isn't doing anything and that will be our demise. Think about it: Greenspan types assumed we could all live from stock market investments. The food, the electricity, the shoes and clean underwear would all come out a hole in the wall like on Star Trek. It's pretty hard to convince rational people debt has real value and that one is worthy of perpetual support because of paper instruments. Asimov touched on this idea, that economic knowledge could be phony. No wonder he cared little for commercial economics after a time of stagflation and Savings and Loan fraud.

So now how do we go on hoping when we and our country are broke and broken, education over-priced and poisoned like scarce natural resources? I think it's self-indulgent to study baseball statistics like Greenspan (or anything else hermeneutic) when there are so many urgencies to be solved. I believe education always involves the body and is most meaningful if recognized as struggle. The best form may be voluntary, practical and politically loaded collective education continuing lifelong. Most of us know things in this system are not right and that life on this planet is in jeopardy. We know rational and radical changes are in order. Our isolation by fear and panic are the primary barrier to cooperation. But Saul Bellow was correct:” People are dying for the lack of something real at the end of the day." That longing provides hope.

It always disturbed me the 60ish Establishment nature of the people on the Moon shuttle in "2001." It was as if the corporate business mentality was the only enduring reality in the face of intergalactic contact. It is not only 30 years at a machine that dulls the imagination. Six weeks regimented at a computer terminal in a cubicle has the same effect. Will we be humans with a little leisure to pursue our own bent after the necessary chores are done or microcephelacks in the chicken house of heartless financial elite. Decide rationally now.

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