The Hypothesis of Collective Imprudence and Underpopulated “Overpopulated” Worlds in SF
John Derbyshire has recently formulated the Hypothesis of Collective Imprudence:
The HCI says that no large collectivity of human beings (nation-state or larger) will ever act to avert an obvious calamity until that calamity begins to cause really major, dramatic, unignorable damage. Examples abound: WW2, 9/11, etc.
On the other hand, there are instances of Collective Excessive Prudence, which a collective tries to avert an event that turns out to be harmless:
A few years ago, some real-estate developers wanted to build a new shopping center and movie theater a mile or two from my house. Some of my neighbors went into anti-American mode and opposed it. (Apparently the riff-raff were about to move in and ruin the supposed character of the neighborhood and cause The End of the Neighborhood as We Know It. They even got their eight-year-olds to stand up a public meetings to claim they were worried … except they managed to sound like children reading from teleprompters. Even despite local opposition, a court (run by someone similar to Judge Naragansett) said that the developers could build on their own property. The neighborhood is still there, oddly enough.
A few centuries ago, the British planted a forest to ensure a steady supply of ship masts. By the time the trees matured, sailing ships were obsolete.
After the Haitian revolution, white southerners stopped treating slavery as something that would disappear and started making last ditch efforts to preserve it. As far as I can tell, they thought any relaxation would produce a revolution similar to Haiti. Since then, blacks have been given legal rights and somehow the feared anti-white revolt never happened.
In the early 20th century, there were immigration restrictions, partly based on the assumption the United States was full. The United States has a far larger population now without being overpopulated.
When the VCR was invented, media companies went to great lengths to stop it on the grounds the VCR meant the end of their business model. Those efforts didn't work and we can now see the entire struggle was pointless.
Meanwhile, let's look at another effect of a belief in Collective Imprudence. James Nicoll has recently posted that may of the supposedly overpopulated worlds in science fiction aren't that crowded. This may be due to a belief in Collective Imprudence. The Malthusians tried to raise an alarm about overpopulation. Since people continued to reproduce (at least for longer than expected), they blamed the continued increase on stupidity. When techophiliacs told them there are technical fixes, they said those technical fixes won't be applied because people are imprudent. Worlds without technical fixes will be overpopulated at quite modest populations.
A belief in Collective Imprudence is, of course, convenient for anybody who disagrees with the mainstream. If you believe in Collective Imprudence, you not only get to believe in your own superiority, you even get to ignore anybody who tries telling you otherwise.
Addendum: John Derbyshire now has a corollary:
My Hypothesis of Collective Imprudence may have an unhappy corollary: When the human race (or some largish subset of it) really does get its collective act together to avert a foreseen evil, the evil is likely imaginary. This is the Corollary of Misplaced Collective Prudence.He cites the Y2K scare as an example.