News you can abuse from the New York Times

Annoyed New York Times readers are asking why the Gray Lady recently deigned to publish an advice piece on avoiding interpersonal and legal troubles with one’s household staff. I can answer this:

1) A paper must cater to the demographic that actually buys the obscenely overpriced, and roundly obscene, items that it advertises, instead of just staring in amazement that such things exist. The Times’ gleaming new office building across from the Port Authority ain’t paying for itself, now.

You probably are not part of that demographic. When I’m cooking my own quesadillas and potato-onion stirfries in a housekeeping motel in Springfield, Oregon, I most certainly am not.

2) It is excellent click bait and a good business practice to regularly troll the poors.

My main topic tonight, however, is this week’s book review of a new Malthusian work, Countdown, arguing that the world population is overshooting its carrying capacity and nearing a crash.

I definitely find some of the alleged threats in question quite concerning, in particular the brittleness of modern crop monocultures (the Ug99 wheat stem rust is partially contained so far, but it’s no joke) and the depletion of the world’s fisheries. It’s worth noting that that’s why Somalia has so many pirates these days. Somalia has gone a generation without a coast guard. As a result, it has practically no fishery left, foreign trawlers having effectively strip-mined it in the absence of any functioning sovereign government, but as Captain Philips could tell you, it is a nation (if that) lately renowned for its fishers of men. Notice, too, that Iceland, settled by Vikings, does not have pirates or an extremist sectarian militia but does have a coast guard that opens live fire on poaching vessels within its territorial waters. These things are related.

The author, Alan Weisman, starts with a buzzkill for those who love them some Biblical living. According to the review, “Because of agricultural irrigation, the Jordan River is now a ‘fetid ditch’; pilgrims who attempt to bathe at the spot where Jesus is said to have been baptized will develop a rash and, if they swallow the water, will most likely vomit.”

Actually, Ecclesiastes was right: there’s nothing new under the sun, at least not in Holocene times. Check out this foreign army commander bitching to Elisha’s messenger in 2 Kings 5:12 about the skankiness of the Jordan, presumably not knowing its coming longue durée: “‘Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage.”

Dude eventually listened to the obscurantists, took his dip, and was cured. These days, the Jordan will more likely give a man leprosy, but it isn’t so much different as merely worse: thousands of years ago, rational people were scared to swim in that shit.

That said, things can get really unstable as they’re scaled up. A few tens of thousands of people watering their riverside farms from the same glorified creek may be sustainable. Several million people trying to water major cities and industrial monocultures from the same glorified creek is not sustainable at all.

The inevitable result is war. What, all sides swear that they’re holy peoples living in the Holy Land? Tough titty: they’ve still got war. In fact, they’ve got even more of it, since they’re not just desperate for resources but also inflamed by sectarian passions, the two aspects of their anger feeding one another.

As an institution, it’s good for a lot more than Edwin Starr ever wanted to contemplate. The Nazi expansion into Eastern Europe was about the glory of the Deutsche Volk, but it was also about the oil fields of Ploiesti. Hitler was a megalomaniac, but he wasn’t a total fool. Japan had an even starker motivation for its invasions of Korea (coal) and Indochina (oil, lumber, rubber): it was a heavily populated archipelago devoid of many important natural resources and, starting in 1941, under American embargo at a time when the US was the world’s top oil producer.

In a moral sense, though, Starr was right. War is a travesty. One has to be a bit dense or a lot immoral and atavistic not to recognize this. (These are great traits for government “service,” by the way.) A huge portion of the restiveness in the world can be straightforwardly explained by blatant resource shortages in times of growing population. It’s a total buzzkill for the nationalist and the End Times aficionado (similar personality types, and often the very same people, no?) but it’s true. Surely there must be an alternative to this madness.

There is. Brace yourselves.

Japan.

[T]he fertility rate is so low–1.4 children per female–that the population has been declining since 2006. This might make Japan something of a best-case situation, but an aging population means there are too many senior citizens, and not enough young people to take care of them. Already Japan has a shortage of geriatric nurses. Weisman visits Nagoya Science Park, where Japan’s oldest scientific firm has built RIBA II, a robotic white bear designed to carry elderly people around the house. It has large, widely-spaced black eyes, cute little ears and a painted smile.

“I will do my best,” says the bear, as it approaches a man who is lying on a hospital bed. “I will carry you as though you were a princess.”

RIBA II slides one paw under the patient’s knees, the other beneath his back. The robot cradles the man in its arms. It carries the man across the room, and lowers him tenderly into a wheelchair.

“I’m finished,” announces RIBA II, and it’s hard not to wonder whether the robot speaks for us all.

That bear won’t be finished with me until it can respond to my follow-up command: “Fuck you. Bring me a White Russian.”

Even if you’re familiar with Hello Kitty, you’ve probably been mercifully ignorant of Fukuppy. No more. He (she? it? ooh, goody: “indeterminate gender”) is like the Maytag Man, but actually a smiling Humpty-Dumpty with angel’s wings. Don’t blame me; I’m not the one using that imagery to market refrigeration equipment.

Why do I get the vague sense that there’s something off about modern Japan’s zeitgeist that isn’t all about raw demographics? Hello Kitty, Fukuppy, girls’ shopping getaways to Vegas, the hikikomori and the dame-ren, virtual girlfriends, a popular magazine imploring young people to start having sex again, a robotic bear that promises to carry old geezers like princesses: this isn’t just a skilled nursing shortage. If the papers aren’t reporting about how similar demographic changes play out in, say, Russia, it’s probably because the results aren’t weird enough. Babushka hoeing her cabbage patch again while her grandkids shoot smack behind a disused asbestos factory, or shut-ins who only leave the house to go on “honeymoons” with pixellated “girlfriends” while bedridden grandpa is romanced by ElderBear: which would you rather read?

There is, however, a bit of good news about Japan’s demographic profile. Rod Serling would approve.

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