Friday, August 26, 2011


A classic science fiction movie from 1973 is Soylent Green, set in overpopulated and resource-depleted New York City in the year 2022. The movie is based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! What brings the film to mind is a recent report from the UN that earth’s population in 2011 is 7 billion. The population of the world in the novel is – you guessed it – 7 billion. The US population in Make Room! Make Room! is announced on a Times Square screen as 344 million. The actual 2011 US population is 312 million; at the current rate of increase, 344 million is just about right for 2022. The UN projects world population will reach 9 billion by 2050, though that estimate assumes a decline in the birth rate in non-Western countries; it may be conservative by a billion or more.

Ironically, the low fertility rates in advanced Western countries have been much in the news lately, and, it is true, in parts of the West, the birth rate actually has dropped below replacement level. Policymakers worry about a dearth of new taxpayers to pay for all the entitlements we have voted ourselves. A smaller tax base may indeed require adjustments in expectations by older generations, but perhaps our own public benefits should not be our only concern. In any event, the West is not the world, and in Europe and (especially) North America immigration in fact keeps all but a few populations rising.

Alarm ran high in the 1960s that global environmental and economic resources in coming decades would be insufficient to support the projected populations at any more than subsistence levels. One of the most popular doomsday books of the time was1968’s The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, who warned of rapidly approaching famine and impoverishment. The goal of Zero Population Growth (ZPG) was promulgated by many (including Ehrlich) in the 1960s environmental movement.

The scale of population growth in recent times truly is staggering. For thousands of years, the number of humans rose and fell according to the spread of disease and the fate of empires. The last big die-back was the Black Death in the 14th century. Afterward, population rose slowly worldwide, reaching 1 billion for the first time probably in the early 19th century. Thanks to the industrial revolution and improved living conditions, growth accelerated. By 1911 there were 1.75 billion of us. What happened next is just astonishing: the population quadrupled in a single century. Centenarians are few, but there are many people alive today who have seen the world population triple in their own lifetimes. The rate of increase in the 21st century is at last slowing, but in absolute numbers we still will add substantially more people in the next 30 years than were alive on earth in 1911.

The rapid economic gains of the past two decades in the world’s developing nations, most notably China and India, seem to mock the 1960s gurus. For this reason, we don’t hear much about ZPG these days; the whole notion seems rather quaint. The doomsayers clearly underestimated future economic productivity, especially the Green Revolution which vastly increased food production. That they were premature in dating the onset of crisis, however, doesn’t mean they were fundamentally wrong in the longer term. Are there limits to wealth? Is a Western lifestyle really possible for 9 billion people? Is it for 7 billion? It is hard to imagine 9 billion people cruising freeways and living the high life, however much the prospect pleases OPEC.

Every single one of the environmental issues which dog us today is, at bottom, a population issue: greenhouse gasses, habitat loss, water pollution, sea stock depletion, and so on. Just as one example, any expected improvement in auto mileage in the next decade will be utterly overwhelmed by the increased numbers of drivers and cars in the same period: oil consumption therefore will rise. Every single environmental issue would be addressed far better by population decline than by any possible conservation measure. Also, despite the aforementioned tax concerns, fewer people for the same resources would mean greater wealth per person.

In truth, ZPG is no longer radical enough. There already are too many of us. We need Negative Population Growth. Whenever I make this point, someone inevitably asks, “So, are you volunteering to go, then?” No. I don’t have to volunteer. Neither do you. The sad fact is, we’re going, like it or not, as we all do, and all too soon. The question is whether we all should be replaced, and I’m arguing we shouldn’t be. The global birth rate is declining, which is at least a trend in the right direction, but far too slowly. Current estimates are that world population will peak at 14 billion before stabilizing – that’s a doubling of the 2011 number. It’s another whole earth. The trouble is, we don’t have another earth.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Victoria’s Indiscretion

The impending demise of marriage has been proclaimed for more than 150 years. Many radical thinkers of the 19th century announced it was only a matter of time before Free Love replaced the chains of matrimony. Victoria Woodhull, just as one example, was a stockbroker who by 1870 had made a fortune in the market; Cornelius Vanderbilt, a confidante of her sister Tennessee Woodhull, had provided the initial seed money. Her business success helped finance the activities for which she is better known: feminist publishing and her run for the Presidency in 1872. (Though just a handful of voting districts allowed women the vote in 1872, the only Constitutional requirements to be President were, and are, to be over 35 and a natural born citizen – there never were any gender restrictions.) Free Love was part of Victoria’s campaign platform: "Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, Constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere." In 1872 this wasn’t a vote-winner, but she and her supporters thought that the times they were a-changin’.

They had a long wait. In fact, Victoria’s generation died with all the numbers pointed the other way. For nearly a century after 1870 throughout the West not only did the marriage rate rise, but the median age of first marriage dropped: in the US the age dropped from 26 for men/22 for women in 1890 to 23 for men/20 for women in 1960. In the 1960s 80% of adults under 35 were married. Yet, the Free Lovers' predictions were not so much wrong-headed as longer term than expected. Since the 1960s marriage rates have plummeted and median age of first marriage risen. In the US the median age of first marriage is 29 for men and 27 for women, an all time high; in 2011 the majority of adults under 35 are unmarried, and well over half of those never have been married. The US is lagging behind Europe in the trend. The Nordic countries are the most advanced along the path. In Sweden marriage is so unimportant that 54% of births are out of wedlock – in the US the number is 39% and rising. Americans are a more religious bunch than Europeans, which probably accounts for much of the difference, but this only slows the shift a little.

Conservative culture warriors – it is worth noting, by the way, that not all matrimonial conservatives are political conservatives – decry the change, but whether or not their dire warnings hold any merit doesn’t really matter. They are howling at the wind, which pays no attention; the change continues regardless. Only gays seem to show any increased enthusiasm for marriage, and that has more to do with the principle of legal equality than with anything else.

Why is the shift happening now? The economic and educational rise of women (along with a corresponding decline of men, not just relatively but absolutely) is an obvious and oft-cited reason. There is no need for a woman to look for economic support from a man; also, the common female preference for hypergamy (marrying up) is stymied by the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of “up” out there. Less often mentioned, but surely part of the equation, is a growing hesitancy among men, not least because divorce remains financially and personally devastating, and there is a 50-50 chance of that.

There are more positive reasons for the change, too. Some of the hopes of the 19th century Free Lovers finally are being fulfilled. Freedom to follow one’s heart without legal and social encumbrances was what they were after. It seems their time has arrived.

Jingle, Jangle, Jingle – recorded by Kay Kyser in 1942

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Chic Sheik

Having noted the ongoing reign of Marilyn Monroe as filmdom’s Aphrodite 49 years after her death, I would be remiss not to take note of Eros as well. Next week is the 85th anniversary of Rudolph Valentino’s death on August 23, 1926, just two months after Marilyn was born. Hardly anyone remembers 1926 anymore. I meet few people other than classic film buffs who ever have seen a Valentino movie. Yet, we still know what it means to call someone a Valentino. His symbolic power still survives somehow. He was the first true pop-culture superstar, though the term had not yet been coined.

Rudolph arrived in the U.S. in 1913 at age at 18 with ambitions to perform on stage as a dancer. Instead, he took odd jobs in order to get by. A few miles from where I live is a Gilded Age mansion where he worked as gardener. He washed dishes in restaurants and worked as a taxi dancer in Maxim’s in New York. Following a scandal with a married Chilean heiress, he headed west. In Los Angeles he tested for the movies and won a few small parts. His big break was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921, which was a huge hit. Female audiences took especial notice of him; they flocked to The Sheik, released later in 1921, and his legend was made.

He became a symbol for the post-Victorian liberated sexuality of 1920s women; one rather articulate interviewee, cornered by a reporter on the street in 1922, remarked that Valentino “puts the love-making of the average husband or sweetheart into discard as tame, flat, and unimpassioned.” Men often were hostile to Valentino, yet many in the ‘20s copied his look anyway. One editorialist in a 1926 issue of the Chicago Tribune didn’t like this at all. He charged that Valentino’s influence was “feminizing” the American male. The editorial annoyed Valentino so much that called on H.L. Mencken, of all people, to grumble about it. Mencken urged him to shrug it off as a “farce.” Rudolph agreed in principle but obviously was still bothered by it; a part of him was still the dishwasher yearning for respect.

Valentino’s death was prosaic (peritonitis), poetic, and garishly theatrical all at once. There were more than 100,000 attendees at his funeral in New York City. A riot broke out. There was a rash of suicides around the world. Jean Acker, his first wife, penned the song There’s a New Star in Heaven which became a best-selling record.

In 1926, no one had seen anything like it before. 85 years later, we’re all too familiar with this sort of over-the-top reaction to the death of a pop-culture icon. We expect it. At bottom, we have changed little in the decades since then. We turn otherwise ordinary people who have a flair for entertainment or public presentation into symbols of our own desires and fears; we then revel in the presence of those symbols and mourn their inevitable loss. People always have done this, but the movies and other mass media (what we now call virtual entertainment) changed the scale of everything. Valentino was the first on the new scale, and “first” always counts for something.

To anyone who never has seen a Valentino film, by the way, I suggest passing on his trademark The Sheik (1921), which frankly is a bit of a bore. Try the 1926 sequel The Son of the Sheik which has action, romance, and campy humor. It’s also Valentino’s last movie; he died while on a promotion tour for it.

The Funeral

Friday, August 12, 2011

Barbara's August

The approach of the Ides of August stirred up a thought of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, an excellent and readable history of the opening month of the Great War. It was a best seller in 1962. One of the readers was JFK, and, just maybe, the lessons in it encouraged him to step back from the brink at the last minute during the October Missile Crisis of 1962; if so, Tuchman did us all a service. My mom was another one of her customers; the book is still on my shelf. I didn’t read it then (I was 9) but got around to it in time.

There were many underlying reasons for the powers of Europe to have been aligned against each other the way they were in1914. Had you asked European leaders in July of that year if any of those reasons was worth a general war, however, not one would have said yes. War came anyway in the first few days of August. The whole thing has the look of a colossal accident. One country after another was drawn in. From the beginning, the slaughter on every front was unexpectedly appalling. In the initial abortive Russian campaign in East Prussia the casualties of the Russians and Germans together totaled 190,000. In the failed German drive on Paris, the British, French, and Germans suffered half a million. Yet it was just the beginning.

That it was such a bloody beginning was the biggest obstacle to putting a stop to it. After such losses, the governments of all the combatant nations wanted something to show for them – certainly none wanted to cede anything. So the war continued year after year and the losses on all sides escalated, eventually by official count exceeding 9,700,000 killed and nearly 17,000,000 wounded (both figures surely are undercounts). Additionally, civilian deaths are reckoned at close to 7,000,000. President Wilson’s proposal in January 1917 for “peace without victory” (basically status quo ante) went nowhere; instead, the US soon joined the fighting. The Allies won their “victory” in November 1918, but there was more than a little justice to the sour joke common in the 1930s that the war had made the world “safe for fascism.”

The truth was that the victors were almost as shattered by the 1914-18 war as the losers. No one really won; there were just losers and bigger losers. Two of the combatants thought they had won, but they didn’t. Japan and the United States had relatively light losses (in the case of the US, a “mere” 117,000 killed), and were the only two nations to come out of the war stronger than they went into it. However, this bred in both an over-confidence (and pugnacity toward each other) that a little over two decades later would prove deadlier than either in 1918 could have imagined.

Since 1945 – probably thanks to nuclear deterrence rather than to greater wisdom – our wars have been limited affairs with far lower casualties. Still, they are just as hard on the people in the middle of them, and many seem to drag on forever. Historians often point to 1914 as a warning against stumbling into a conflict no one wants. Perhaps just as important, though, is the risk it demonstrates of using casualties (“to ensure they did not die in vain”) as the reason for extending a conflict that otherwise is ill-considered. Everyone, including the eventual “victors” would have been far better off in December 1914 to have called off the war as a bad job and gone home.

Tiny Tim’s 1968 rendition of Down Below, written by Irving Berlin in 1914

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Babylonian Girls Gone Wild

People have been boozing for as far back as anyone can discover. Traces of alcoholic beverages are present on the oldest shards of pottery that have been found. Many historians argue that agriculture, the prerequisite of civilization, was invented not for food (hunter-gatherers eat better than primitive farmers, and for less labor) but to guarantee a steady supply of grains for beer.

The human liver is specifically adapted to metabolizing ethanol, utilizing the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which is not much good for anything else. This suggests people tippled before, strictly speaking, they were people. Dr. Robert Dudley of UC Berkeley thinks so; he has proposed the “Drunken Monkey Hypothesis.” He notes that fruits in the wild, especially in tropical environments, ferment on their own without intervention. The juice of overripe fruit can be as much as 5% alcohol, about as strong as beer. The diet of wild chimpanzees, the closest living human relatives, consists mostly of fruit, and they love the spiked kind. Isn’t drunkenness a potential danger for critters that swing through the trees? Yes, but Dudley argues this is more than outweighed by the health benefits of mildly fermented fruit. Among monkeys, apes, and humans, moderate drinkers are healthier than teetotalers, and outlive them; counter-intuitively, even hardcore drunks outlive teetotalers, though they do worse than moderate drinkers – see a study by Charles Holahan in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Though it is possible to drink oneself to death, this requires more dedication than most heavy drinkers have – at least without a large admixture of other drugs. The damage suffered by and inflicted by drunks more typically is to quality of life rather than quantity. (Disclosure: I’m not quite a teetotaler, but near enough to one to be at hazard.)

Alcohol was intimately associated with the rise of civilization. Brewing was one of the first chemical industries – perhaps it was the very first. Taverns were among the first retail establishments, often run by women in ancient times. Hammurabi’s Code (c. 1780 BC) contains regulations about them:

108. If a tavern-keeper does not accept grain according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the grain, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.
109. If conspirators meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the tavern-keeper shall be put to death.
110. If a sister of a god [sic] open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.
111. If an inn-keeper furnish 60 ka of usakani-drink to [illegible] she shall receive 50 ka of grain at the harvest.

The Babylonians obviously wanted to pay for their drinks in grain – gold and silver must have been hard to come by. Well, they still are. The concern about conspirators was not paranoia. Boozing and conspiracies always have gone together. Virginian leaders, for example, stirred themselves up in Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern early in the American Revolution. I guess sisters of gods had to sneak their drinks. I don’t know what usakani was  –  possibly mead  or beer laced with some additive  – but I’d like to know who deserved 60 ka of it. It wasn't a hard liquor because spirits were not distilled until Medieval times. It isn't clear why. The ancients distilled fresh water from salt, so they were familiar with the idea; it just doesn't seem to have occurred to them to try it with alcohol. The Code nowhere mentions drunkenness as an offense, so apparently Babylon was the place to go for Spring Break.

Nearly four thousand years later, our affection for ethyl shows no sign of diminishing. With all the pharmacopeia available to modern folk, alcohol by far remains our prime drug of choice. Eliot Ness never stood a chance.

[ Note: a short story of mine involving stone age drinking is at ]

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Nowadays, we are pretty accustomed to celebrities with drug and alcohol problems meeting untimely ends. Amy Winehouse is just the latest. We are also accustomed to hearing conspiracy theories about the deaths. There was once a more innocent time, however, when untimely deaths caught us by surprise, even though they were no less frequent then than now. Tomorrow is the anniversary of one of those surprises.

Given the human predilection for multiples of ten, the anniversary is likely to get only passing mention. I expect more fuss next year when the number is an even 50. Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962. Officially, it was a “probable suicide,” though an accidental overdose of Nembutal and chloral hydrate was not ruled out. Not everyone who examined the death agreed, most notably Jack Clemmons, the first LAPD officer to arrive on the scene. He suspected murder. There are enough peculiarities in the evidence for his suspicion to be not unreasonable, but there is nothing conclusive or, for most investigators of the case, convincing.

As if there weren’t enough conspiracy theories involving Kennedys, a few writers make much of the point that Marilyn's last phone call apparently was one she placed to the White House several hours before her death, and that Robert F. Kennedy was in California that night. They ask, “Did she threaten to reveal her dalliance with the President?” I’m not a big fan of either JFK or RFK, but I don't find the notion of any involvement by either in her death remotely credible. I don't know exactly what happened that night. It's doubtful anyone does. I do remember, however, that when the news of her death was reported on TV my dad instantly said, “She’s 36”. For whatever reason, he always was aware that he and Marilyn were the same age. It was a major news story for a month.

For a decade prior to 1962, Marilyn had been the American sex symbol. Not “a,” but “the.” The odd thing is the extent to which she still is, 49 years later. In 2011 I frequently meet people (mostly under 40) who never once have seen a Marilyn Monroe movie from start to finish. I nonetheless still frequently hear young and old men alike describe an attractive woman by saying something like, “Well, she’s not Marilyn Monroe, but she is pretty.” Female pulchritude is still on the Monroe standard. She has spawned and continues to spawn endless articles, film tributes, and books. She turns up in unlikely places. If there are any two Andy Warhol artworks everyone remembers, they are the soup can and the Marilyn portrait. It is hard to find more divergent authors than Norman Mailer and Gloria Steinem, yet both published books about Marilyn.

I think she has kept her throne largely because she remains a pretty good symbol for America’s bipolar sexuality: exaggerated and repressed, artificial and substantive, passionate and frosty, promiscuous and prudish, joyful and depressed, meek and pugnacious, free-spirited and self-imprisoned, wholesome and deeply corrupted by alcohol and drugs. Who else embodies those contradictions as well as Marilyn?

As for her movies, I like the majority of them, but I’ll leave it at that. They have been reviewed enough elsewhere.

It is easy to lose sight of the person beneath the personality. Perhaps the best glimpse of the real young woman is the photo below, taken in 1945 for Yank magazine by a photographer touring an aircraft factory; she was just Norma Jeane, defense worker. The ultimately fatal fragility is as visible as the youthful health. The Yank photographer urged her to take up modeling. She did, soon becoming Miss California Artichoke Queen.

The video clip below is from Ladies of the Chorus (1948) when she was still relatively unknown. What a difference three years can make.

If Freud is right that the libido and the death instinct are our deepest drives, Marilyn is a double whammy. Life is fleeting, and anniversaries such as this one bring the fact home. Yet, she survives after a fashion, more robustly than most of us will survive. We all try to beat the reaper by leaving something of ourselves behind, and she left a lot.