Role Playing

The other day I found myself reading this study about overpopulation.  Well, the study was supposedly about overpopulation, at least.  I’m talking about Calhoun’s study on rats in a cage, rats who were supplied with every possible resource and yet, supposedly, when the population went above a certain density, found themselves exhibiting various pathologies, some of which will sound eerily familiar: a period of oversexuality leads rapidly to a period where the rats can’t connect with each other for sex or anything else.  There’s cannibalism, violence, apathy and a general falling apart of rat society.  Population falls precipitously.  Those rats that are left behind are too… socially inept to rebuild.

I can’t remember how I got to the study.  I was sure it was through Instapundit, but a quick search doesn’t show me the link.  Perhaps I’m missing it?  At any rate, the link I followed and the article I landed on said that the author of the study was upset about how his study was used, to create the idea of finite resources and the horrors of overpopulation.  I read the article first with that idea – the idea that the man somehow got clobbered by the anti-human-wave, those who think that any humans are too many.

But as I read it I became aware of something that seemed to have got lost in both the interpretations of the people who took this as the model for an overpopulated human society and even in the interpretation of the researcher himself (unless I missed something.) *

He talks about the point at which population outstrips the roles available to rats.  When rats don’t have a role in society, they disconnect from it.

This made me pause and sit back, because – as you guys probably know – I’m convinced we’re nowhere close to overpopulated, even as we’re displaying many of the rats’ symptoms.  Of course it could be a matter of our brain thinking we’re overpopulated (there is the perception we know more people than we know, due to TV and other media) or even of our being too densely packed together in some areas…

It could be a matter of that, except that another explanation is much, much more likely.

I’ve been talking about the falling apart – no, the tearing apart, the deconstruction – of Western Society since WWI.  And what hit me was this – human society doesn’t depend on population or even on population density to create roles.  Humans can create – or destroy – roles for themselves more or less at random.

The whole talk of the anomy and purposelessness of modern life has been with us since at least WWI and possibly before.  It is in a way a risk of affluent societies – when you no longer have to fight for every meal, you, being human, have time to sit back and ask yourself stuff like “Why am I alive?  What does it all mean?”

But the other part of it has nothing to do with affluence, but with the deliberate ripping down of roles.

No?  Ask yourself: if you’d asked pretty much anyone on the street in the 1910s what it meant to be a mother, or to be married, or to be an employee, you were likely to meet with a set of beliefs that, in them, comprised those roles.

No, I’m not saying that everyone in those days lived according to those roles, or even that uniformity in roles is desirable.  I’m just saying that there was a certain unanimity in the culture about what those roles were supposed to be.  People would then define themselves within the role, within the role but with a twist, or against the role.  (Perhaps the number was smaller, but I’m fairly sure there were any number of CONSCIOUSLY bad mothers, even back then.)

Now imagine going out on the street and asking anyone what those roles mean.  You’re not likely to come up with even a coherent minority view of any significance on what those roles mean.  The roles have, in fact, disintegrated.  Fallen apart.

Which means, humans being social animals, that people simply don’t know who they’re SUPPOSED to be.  They don’t even know what they’re rebelling against, because there’s nothing concrete there to push against.

This solved for me, at a glance, various things that had puzzled me for a long time: such as why people who consider themselves rebels are rebelling against a norm that hasn’t been a “norm” for almost a hundred years.  They don’t seem to realize it’s not there, because they need a role, even if it’s the role of rebel against something.  Finding themselves adrift is far more terrifying that trying to fit a model.

Or why the first thing I noticed about American was how much happier they were than Europeans, because, at least back in the early eighties, Americans were involved on a volunteer level with organizations in their communities, at a much higher level than Europeans.  (I wonder to what extent the fact that we now all have to work way to much and that local volunteer communities are falling apart is responsible for the Europeanization of our society.)

Or why science fiction people – particularly those involved in the field as either small gods of fandom, con goers, participants in some science fiction book club, or “just” costumers – are in general less prone to the pathologies of the time.  Yes, yes, we are weird, but we are not a “falling apart” kind of weird.  It’s because, by gum, your role might be secretary of the local SF readers’ club, but you care passionately about it, discuss meetings, prepare food for parties, and are in fact someone fulfilling a role.

Yes, I know, several of you are going to prescribe religion as giving meaning to life – and that is true as far as it goes for those who believe.  For those who don’t believe, unless all of you really want to create a club of passionate heretics and church-haters, it’s best if we don’t consider that route.

However, it also explained to me why people join cults and why educated Western women choose to convert to Islam.  It gives them a role, you see, and a fairly clear role, which is important if you are a person of not particularly passionate beliefs.

Human life must always – yes, even for me – be balanced between wanting freedom and fitting into a role, because that part of us that is animal is a social animal and needs to know where they fit in a hierarchy. Any hierarchy.

The good news is that, without binding prescriptive rules for roles, we can give people guidelines that allow them to find their own roles.  We can define “Adult human being” (the line between adult and child is now being blurred) as “someone who takes care of himself and those who depend on him.”  We can define “good” as a person who lives up to his obligations.  We can define “self-supporting” as a goal to aim for.  We can even define well informed and well adjusted as a minimum of things people should know.

The bad news is that to do it we’ll have to fight against people for whom there is no sin except “judging” – people so emotionally confused they fight against the idea of defining even things like “A common language of trade.”

People who are, in fact, engaged in tearing down the very idea of social roles, and who, then, can’t understand why they can’t engage with anything or why everyone is so lost and without purpose.

They, of course, blame capitalism.  This is handy as, taken to its extreme, it allows totalitarians to build a society in which roles – mostly master and serf – are once more tightly defined.  Perhaps they sense this.  Perhaps it is what drives them towards results they – objectively – claim to not want.

But we know better.  If we want to preserve freedom, prosperity and hope for the future – in a word, civilization — we need to start redefining society in terms not so prescriptive that those of us who are odds or very odds are pushed out of the polity, (I’m a libertarian chick.  I’m going to err on the side of freedom) but not so loose that no one knows what he’s supposed to be or where it matters.

Let’s start by affirming that humanity matters; that the future of humanity matters; that “overpopulation” (also known as “the danger of too many humans”) is a bogus fear.  Each human born brings with him uniqueness and the possibility of innovation.

Let’s start by saying the most important role for any adult, free individual is to support himself, to look after those who depend on him, to keep his promise and honor his contracts.

And that humanity, such as it is, neither ape nor angel, is yet worthwhile.  Let’s establish it is worth it to work so that the future is always better than the past – and to dream of new worlds, of new universes, and of wonders yet undiscovered.

We might not live to see it, but it is the duty of every human being to work so our descendants will.

Enough of this rat cage.  It’s time to own infinity.

* Some of these ideas came from a discussion with my friend Bill Reader, and at this point I don’t know which of us came up with what.  He has promised to write his own take on this as soon as work lets up a little.

*I have a post on Selling Your Soul In Installments, over at Mad Genius Club.*

81 thoughts on “Role Playing

  1. Let’s start by saying the most important role for any adult, free individual is to support himself, to look after those who depend on him, to keep his promise and honor his contracts.

    I am going to politely suggest one slight revision: change “support himself” to “contribute to his own support” — for some human beings supporting themselves is not an option, but the ability to at least contribute to that support is essential to the concept of human dignity.

    1. Well, how about “unimpaired” adult human being. And the role is something to aspire to. Of course sometimes (er, me for ten years) you’ll fall short. BUT I tried to do things like clean and cook, that at least HELPED.

      1. The calculation is different for married couples*. You’re not supporting yourself, you’re supporting your family. Whether that’s by going out and making money so the family can put food on the table, or by staying home and making sure the house is clean and the kids grow up safe and sane, either way you’re making vital contributions to the support of the family, and thus ultimately to the future of civilization. (Ref: the “kids growing up sane” part.) Having a purely economic focus on the “supporting oneself” misses something important.

        * Also for cohabiting couples to some extent, but they usually don’t share a bank account the way married couples usually do — there’s not the same level of commitment as in a marriage — so the effect is lessened. Plus, couples cohabiting without marriage tend to be much less likely to have kids, for various reasons — so again, the effect is lessened.

          1. Well at least functional. Would that be functionally sane, or functionally insane? Or insanely functional?

          2. Do they suffer from repressed childhood trauma? No?

            Are they able to cope with the necessary daily tasks of life: keeping oneself fed, finding useful stuff to do? Yes?

            There you go. Sane. Conforming to social norms is overrated, anyway. 😛

    1. Years back, a John Stossel special examined the question of “What is happiness?” and determined that it flowed from helping others, from participating in purposeful group efforts, most especially volunteer work. He was still at ABC then, so finding the data he based the show on would probably be difficult, but my own experience and observation supports the thesis.

      Certainly, miserable people tend to avoid such associations, and are disruptive influences when they do participate.

    2. I have the time, just not the capacity.

      Skinner was another of the doom-n-gloom “wizards” of the 1960’s. He had several experiments using rats in overcrowded cages, and the same ‘overpopulation’ beliefs. I think it was something much simpler, and yet more complex at the same time. First, rats aren’t thinking, reasoning creatures — humans are supposed to be. Comparing a non-thinking creature to a thinking one and expecting a true relationship between their behavior seriously detracts from one’s perceived “greatness”. Humans are also highly adaptable (so are wild rats — not so much domesticated ones). The one thing that ALL people need, however, is a little “down” time. We need some time to ourselves, and enough of it to make a difference. For some a 30-minute walk in a park with a thousand other people will do it. For others, it may take a couple of days so far from civilization you can’t even see the lights (and good luck on finding that!). That was one of the primary selling points of the suburbs — you could “get away from it all” in your own back yard.

      As for having a “role to play”, I would have to agree, Sarah. I also think that one of the greatest sources of misery today is being unhappy with the role one has chosen, or have had thrust upon one. Most people don’t have the courage to change roles on their own — they have to be pushed. One of the major causes of confusion in today’s world is that one group has some very definite ideas about what a certain role constitutes, yet a small minority is constantly trying to destroy those ideas.

      1. I once had to read about those studies and the interesting thing is that the real conclusion is not Malthusian. The real issue is access to resources. It was immediately apparent that the original study made no sense because cities are by nature overpopulated in comparison to the agricultural sector. It is the very fact that they can be well stocked with easy access to food that they are possible. Put those same rats in the same cage with localized and plentiful food sources and the rats are quite happy and peaceful.

        Rats are also good substitutes for people. They are thinking and adaptable creatures and can survive against a hostile environment (especially in the face of humans that hate them). The other issue is that the individual human is a thinking creature but society is well……prone to stupidity, panic, shortsightedness and politicians.

        1. Yes– I had to disagree with Mike about rats being non-thinking. They have a brain (we have a brain). They have instincts (we have instincts). They are good at adapting to their environments (we are also good at it). They might not think in philosophical terms, but we don’t really know that since none of us can speak rat. I mean in Pavlov’s time, the scientist believed that animals couldn’t feel pain. We now Know that that was NOT TRUE.

          In a real case of rat overcrowding, many of the young males would leave (or travel) to other sources of food. So the experiment imho was another one of those experiments where scientists are looking for one outcome so they control every variable until they get what they want. (I have been around a few biology scientists in my day and they left their fields for that reason–)

          1. That’s one reason why space travel is key, though. If you prevent people from leaving a bad situation to find better fortunes elsewhere, you do force these types of collapsing societal structures…

              1. That’s a potentially very interesting situation to explore for a (historical/AU) novel to investigate… What would have happened if, say, Great Britain had clamped down on emigration and had prevented people from leaving the country to seek a better fortune in the colonies, and later, the US?

                1. Henry VIII and Elizabeth II did clamp down on emigration. Unless you were given special permission, you couldn’t leave the UK or Ireland. If you did leave and they found out, your family was subject to severe penalties. If you came back and they found out, you were subject to severe penalties.

                  Of course, the English government was mostly concerned with political and religious dissent, but it had to have been annoying for businessmen and women also. After all, if every passenger had to be cleared as not a recusant and every cargo had to be searched, coming and going, it had to have been bad for profit.

                  1. So they created the ‘wild geese’, Irishmen who went abroad secretly to earn their ‘fortune’ and support their family. Or at least earn enough to interest the girl they hoped to support as family 😉

                    One more example of how government regulations usually only succeed in producing a thriving black market, in this case in mercenaries and migrant workers.

          1. Yes and no. He controlled access to the resources and defined the breakdown as one of roles within the rat community not poor delivery by a fame seeking scientist but if you put plenty of feeding stations around with easy access his conclusions don’t work. If you were to make one massive grocery store in a city and that was your only access to food you would get the same result with humans. Rat society didn’t breakdown it was destroyed from above. Even the most coldhearted farmer would never do this to their animals considering they would naturally want to prevent stress.

            You can of course argue about the breakdown of roles but this study was not a scientifically realistic way of studying it. A better one would be a study that showed how rats would voluntarily give up their roles in a perfectly functioning environment but rats won’t do that….humans though……..

            1. Do you remember where you read that there was one feeding station? The article Sarah references only talks about “abundant” food not how it was delivered.

              1. “Food and water were plentiful, but space was tight, capable of supporting a maximum of forty-eight rats”.— Ok. I missed out on the setup- it is not well explained but it seems that the stations are per nest. It is still a delivery problem. The food is there but they can’t get it due to excess population above and beyond what the environment could reasonably support. Yes, he is talking about a rotten way of life (hey i know all about NYC life. It sucks,) but as science it is still limited and the article makes clear he anthromorphized far more than most scientists. There is no shortage of food or food delivery in NYC. If you are talking about breakdown of social roles this study is irrelevant. Food is not the problem. Yes I know you want to talk about social roles but a scientific experiment solves a specific and reproducible problem. In this case it was access to food (not a problem in big American cities).

                I think Libertarians have to avoid the mistakes liberals make. We worry about a citizenry that can’t assume the means to be citizens and they worry about big bad capitalism destroying the planet but you have to be careful about your source material. They have all kinds of scientific studies supporting man-made global warming but none specifically showing a definite and irrefutable chemical process. This experiment shows a breakdown among mice and what happened next but that is secondary observation, not one that has a scientific relevance. There was a breakdown in roles but the poor bastards were stressed and starving. Calhoun’s work can stimulate discussion which is great but its not science and not a proof of anything.

            2. Consider what happens when inclement weather, such as a snow storm, is predicted in an area not commonly subject to such weather: suddenly, all the milk, eggs, bread & such disappear from grocery stores which were perfectly adequate at supplying population demands in ordinary times. Our systems are designed for one level of demand and when events spike demand the systems fail like a blown fuse.

              And, like a blown fuse, the appropriate solution rarely requires drastic overhaul of the system.

              1. .. suddenly, all the milk, eggs, bread & such disappear from grocery stores…

                Yes, sometimes referred to as the “French Toast of the Apocalypse” scenario.

                1. Wayne,
                  Any problem with me using that line as a novel tag-line. I see it now…..In the Future There Will Be No French Toast……and the sequel….In Space No One Can Hear You Order Coffee

              2. I have never understood the urge to get bread and eggs. I get things that do not have to be heated or (depending on the time of year) kept cool. And if you do not eat bread that often, why stock up? Or is this just another bit of evidence that I’m an Odd?

                And apropos of nothing, the story that RES inspired should be up at Amazon later today or tomorrow. No, not the one about the ninja kangaroo who single-pawedly out-debated the entire College of Cardinals, but the other one.

                1. Yes, I always thought things like canned soup would make much more sense. Yes it is better hot, but it is perfectly safe and just as nutritious to eat cold, requires no preperation, and can be kept virtually indefinitely (several years) simply sitting on a shelf with no refrigeration.

                  1. Bah. I’ve got canned stuff out the wazoo. When the hurricanes take aim at Houston, I shop for fresh fruit and a couple of gallons of milk to freeze. I really missed apples and oranges after Rita. NEVER AGAIN!!!!!

                    And if I still had kids, I can see freezing a loaf of bread and some cold cuts for sandwiches.

                    1. Well so do I, but I was assuming those who made a run on the grocery store weren’t prepared with enough food to last out the storm. I’m also assuming you must have a generator, otherwise freezing milk will only last a few days (which is probably as long as a couple gallons will last anyways, now that I think about it) but it is something that needs kept cool after it is unfroze. Bread and eggs will last several days at room temperature without going bad, as will fresh fruit.

                    2. To an extent it is a classic instance of self-fulfilling prophecy: after a time or two finding the stores stripped before a storm, you get conditioned to “run to the store and buy the stuff that the idiots are going to stock up on.” Because it takes a while for stores to fully restock, the transient demand spike creates expectations of shortages which expectations cause a spike in the demand.

                    3. I have used eggs which were month or two past their ‘best before’ date, and they were fine. On the other hand I usually keep eggs in the fridge. On the third hand I think I once read about somebody having kept eggs in a normal room temperature long enough that the insides were more or less dried up, yet a laboratory supposedly didn’t find any significant amounts of harmful microbes in them (Unfortunately I don’t remember enough to be able to do a successful google search for that).

                      But anyway, I can understand eggs, at least if we are talking about a time and an area with cooler temperatures, not something like a summer heatwave combined with the possibility of losing your electricity. They last long and are cheap.

  2. One element of the forces tearing Western Civilization apart is the attack on the definition of roles, reduction to basic elements in a way that erodes their interaction. As you suggested, knowing somebody is another person’s “wife” or “husband” no longer conveys much actual data. You cannot tell whether they are male, female or even actually married. Teachers under modern pedagogy have relinquished the act of teaching to take the role of facilitator – a facile term for somebody who doesn’t actually do much.

    And yet, role identification and recognition is a process of such fundamental function in humankind that it is one of the first processes undertaken as a child’s intellect expands to absorb the concept of “society.” Such role confusion abandons us to uncertainty and confusion, leaving us disoriented and asking fundamental existential questions, such as these:

    1. They expect fiction to fill the gap. This is why they whine about “girls need role models” and are heavy handed in their prescriptions for it. (Boys, of course, can starve in the gutter for all they care.)

      Ah, well, there is an opening there. Raoul Wallenberg’s favorite story was The Scarlet Pimpernel. Human-Wave role-models.

      There’s a good essay on the need here

    2. On the occasions that I venture over to the Fifty-Shaded part of the ‘Net, I’m always amazed by the amount of time and electrons spent on tearing down traditional and customary (and to an extent biological) roles and then tucking people into other roles. And complaining because outsiders look at them/don’t look at them/mistake them for something else/call them sir or ma’am. Note that none of these individuals, couples, or groups, appear to have children, to want children, or to know many children, or participate in what used to be considered a traditional religion. Some of them do volunteer with domestic abuse or public health charities, though.

      1. Bet you a number of them volunteer there as “social change.”

        I have read with my own eyes people saying that anything that can be funded by tax dollars should be, and so charity should be given only for social change. sigh. The height of social change is to have everyone coerced to fund what 51% of the population wants.

          1. Well of course. If paradise is possible, and does not exist, its absence must be caused by something that could be different, namely people’s making different choices. Since they are doing so willfully, it is only sensible to remove them.

  3. To touch on the religion question, it may or may not be the case that a relationship with your Creator creates meaning in your life (hey, couldn’t hurt.) But what is undeniable is that participation in a faith community can give you defined roles, creating a haven, an escape from the confusion of the larger society.

    1. Which is why religious people are the ones still reproducing, yes. But you can’t have it be PRESCRIPTIVE. I have atheist friends, with a very strong sense of purpose and duty, and they’re fine and mushy-religious friends who think the “universe” will take care of them, and they’re NOT fine. It’s the roles, not the belief.

      1. If I were a workaholic and a lot more organized, I would start a pseudo-religious organization dedicated to helping people anchor themselves by helping them either find or make a role to fit into.

      2. Sorry – I ought have been clearer: oftimes Religion has a placebo effect, the true benefits being delivered by the social structure the community has created. That religion (as opposed to spirituality) seems particularly adept at creating such structures is a topic for another paper, grant willing.

  4. Initial pre-reading thought: Must be something in the air. I was reading Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” (overpopulation and the need to limit “breeders”) yesterday because I needed to add it to a historiography.

  5. ‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
    All just supply, and all relation;
    Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
    For every man alone thinks he hath got
    To be a phoenix, and that then can be
    None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

  6. The grave problem is that reassuming roles is like getting on the water wagon for the skid-row bum. Whatever promises it holds, it also promises hard work, difficulty, and responsibility. These have an amazing capacity to dissuade people from things even when they know those things will make them happier.

  7. I read that rat article, and it is rather interesting that they left out the role hypothesis from the discussion entirely. I have definitely noticed the importance of roles in my own life and happiness. They don’t even have to be traditional ones, I think, as long as there is some framework of actions/traits that fits well together into some coherent whole that you can actually self-identify as. I’ve noticed strongly that when I got married, and again now that I am a parent, there’s this massive part of my mind that settled itself and I’ve felt immeasurably better about life each time.

    I think another way of looking at this is by thinking of roles in terms of purpose: they give people a purpose in their life, a reason to do the things they do, something to strive for. Purpose is such an important concept for living organisms (in a very broad sense), but especially so for human beings. You simply can’t live for 7, 8, 9 decades without having some kind of sense of where you’re heading, or why it is important.

    1. Agreed. I find that I’m clinging to my substitute-teaching role because it gives me an anchor. Writer and historian are too nebulous some days. It feels like floating far out in the waters of a big lake in a small boat: I’ve got oars, but which way should I paddle? All the shoreline, such as I can see of it, looks alike without any hint as to where the docks are.

    2. I understand that one of the great dangers to people tumbled in an avalanche or boat capsizing is that the tumbling they receive disorients them, leaving them unable to distinguish up from down and — without any visual clues to aid them — they can work their way deeper, away from the surface and safety. This seems fundamentally similar to what we are observing with the destruction of definite roles in a culture.

      1. I can verify that tumbling can seriously disorient one. Twice, I have tumbled hard and landed in a heap (not hurt, thank goodness), and had to wait for my inner ears to settle before being able to tell up from down.

        Of course, part of the problem was also the “landing in a heap” part. Both times, I had my shoulders on the ground, but I also had my knees on ground, behind my head, so the fact that I was rolled into a ball made it more confusing.

  8. That sort of explains the OWS phenomenon, doesn’t it? Young people graduate, start job hunting . . . and there’s nothing. Whether they are a round peg or square, there’s not even a hole to try to fit into. In a very real way they’ve been cast out of society, no role to play.

    1. Not exactly assisted by the people who urged them to follow their dreams and never mind the money.

      At least one Occupier was indignant she couldn’t get a high paid job because she had done what she was supposed to — follow her dream. (Though I would say she should have realized that “high paid job” was a different dream and she had to choose.)

  9. I was thinking of this post in more specific terms of my life. I remember that my hubby and I were cohabiting for almost four years before we finally married. Although we just stood in front of a judge, it seem that we were bound with ties that didn’t exist without the “paper.” And now, we will reach our twentieth year of marriage in February. The role of wife was the one thing that helped me to survive some very dark days during my disease when I should have died. It was a role that helped me to think past my pain and nausea as the days went by.

    Wife gets me out of the bed in the morning. It is the one role that I am very surprised I have been able to fulfill (not well –) and it has provided me with a purpose and commitment that no other role has before or since.

    So maybe when a man says he is an engineer or a lawyer or doctor (or a woman says it), they need to be able to define their roles to find themselves. Purpose is a strong need in us–

  10. I’m having trouble fitting my role as a curmudgeonly hermit, because I just have to interact too dam**d much with other people. 😉

    1. “Go-d made the mountains/ G-d made the sky./ G-d made the people/ and G-d knows why. He fixed up this planet/ as best as He could;/ And along came the people and gum it up good!” As sung by the incomparable Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) in “Paint Your Wagon,” that classic documentary about western expansion and mining. 😀

  11. I’m never comfortable with the project of trying to build a better yesterday. But it does seem that our recent decades of social upheaval have left our once-familiar social roles a mystery to many young people. If “normal” is just a setting on the dryer, and “sinful” is just a word on the dessert menu, how shall people find their way? A Great Relearning is in the offing…

  12. I am a mother, wife, and primary wage earner for my household. My children are adults now with children of their own (adding grandmother to my roles), but I’m still their mother. As a wife, I try to support my husband in his writing. At my job, I do the best I can every day (not all days are equal), and I come home knowing that. Reading, whether it be online or books is my ‘down-time’. I do what I must to get by in this world. I guess that I’m lucky that I am comfortable with who I am. I just wish more of society would figure out who they are and then quit bugging the rest of us to be more like them.

    1. Naleta — they want you to be more like them in order to give THEIR life meaning. It’s a trap, just ignore it. They’ve followed the easy road all their life, never been challenged, never had to defend their beliefs, and it’s all so EMPTY.

      If you’re living life for the sole purpose of “finding meaning”, you never will. Do what you have to do, find a way to find pleasure in it, do things that make you happy (family, work, church, volunteer, whatever), and don’t worry about the pygmies out there trying to wear Wilt Chamberlain’s shoes.

  13. Thank you for laying out the reasons for what I have been feeling only as a vague sense of wrongness at hearing some of the things being tossed about today. I couldn’t pin it down.

  14. Hmm, the mouse overpopulation thing is interesting.

    I don’t believe we are anywhere near any sort of resource limit either. Given sufficient energy, we can recycle just about anything and sustain just about any population.

    As for overcrowding though …

    I am living, for the first time in my life, in a huge city (and not a particularly well run one), not just in the urban area of a town. The density of the population, the crowdedness does weigh on my mind a lot. It is hard to describe the sense of being under pressure, under water. It doesn’t help that it is hard to find private space *anywhere* on campus or in the city other than my apartmnet – even my office is one of those open-plan things without cubicle walls (which makes it impossible to concentrate). It seems whoever designed most of the buildings had something against privacy, which is a shame because just having a door you can shut on the world or a small enclosure would do a great deal to relieve the sense of pressure. Some spot that you own, that is *yours*, that you can rest and work in, instead of constantly needing to be on the move through a public space.

    It takes an hour and a half to drive to the outskirts of town, on the highway, when traffic is reasonable. It seldom is. Any slight hiccup anywhere, with any infrastructure turns into a big disaster. The slightest hangup, in the flow of traffic, in the maintenance of the roads, in the interruption of power or water, brings the whole works to a screeching halt. I can only imagine that if the roads were blocked in any serious way for any length of time, (maliciously, or through the result of a big enough disaster), the city would quickly have a coronary, run out of food and water, and become uninhabitable.

    I’ve lived in another city before, one that to my surprise actually has a higher population (Albuquerque), on about twice the land area. But the roads are laid out well, traffic flows well, the infastructure works, the institutions (with the exception of the schools – nothing seems to be able to save them) seemed to work, people live in vast sprawling suburbs, not towering apartment blocks with no parking. I’ve never had that sense of constantly being under pressure, constantly being starved of privacy, while living there. It was fine.

    I can’t even imagine what it is like in those Asian mega-cities, with the apartment towers that are *miles high*. I suppose it depends on how they are designed – whether or not the architects give their people privacy and space (not even a lot, just a room with a door), or if it’s cattle-cars and crowded public spaces all the way.

    1. PS – that wasn’t an overpopulation rant. I’m not much of a fan of the overpopulation crowd, or it’s arguments. I’m pretty confident that the world can handle a lot more people, even a bit more before crowding becomes an issue.

      But they need to be more spread out, not jammed into extremely dense cities where everyone is stepping on each other’s toes. The cities that do exist need to actually function. If you do have thousands of people per square mile, you need wide streets, plenty of parking, mass transit that works, plumbing that works, *backups* for the inevitable outages/blockages, and buildings designed so that people have privacy.

      Anyway, I don’t mean to be repetitive.

      1. Understood– I think you were talking about the seeming lack of privacy by how the city is built– we need more space. I was in Japan and they teach their young ones how to be private in their heads. It is an interesting culture– they do have other problems such as alcoholism and men dying of cardiac arrest at young ages (40s).

        1. As for we need more space, it helps when we trick our minds that there is more space around us — Also the Americans are different because they have had a lot of space (and still have a lot of space) around them– it changes the culture.

          1. I was pegged for being from west of the 100th meridian when I gave distances in time rather than miles. “Only two hours away,” meaning almost 150 miles, or 50 miles, depending on the road. (Or 25 miles on one road that G-d did not mean for normal cars to drive on.)

            1. Or less than 10 miles on the road I have been on the last two days, it has taken me 2 1/2 hours to go 12 miles each day. The fact I have to chain up to make the last three doesn’t help (at least I only have to chain up the front tires, haven’t had to chain up all four yet), it only takes about half that amount of time in the summer.

        2. There are some interesting writings on the different cultural definitions of “private” space. In Japan that area is defined by a mental zone, by distance, in other cultures it can require open-topped cubicles and in others it may demand 3-dimensional solid barriers.

          In his popular science descriptions of proximics, The Hidden Dimension, Edward T. Hall tells of German POWs in WWII compulsively scrounging scraps of materials to build private cubicles for themselves, and of American companies running into trouble in their German offices because the Americans found the fact that every German kept his office door shut subtly distressing.

          Of course, clearly defined and identifiable roles are a great ease to social interactions. A rutting adolescent male who is able to divide potential female partners into “good girls” and “sluts” reduces the mental effort necessary for social interaction greatly, being able to fall into appropriate complementary social roles with less than half his brain.

          One reason for opposition to women bosses, especially in female subordinate cultures, is the conflict between the roles of subordinate employee / dominant male.

    2. Re cubicles and their effects on modern corporate culture – there was a prescient scene in the original Tron where the camera pans up to take in the cubicles stretching off into infinity at Soulless Corporate Entity Inc (actually in the movie the fictional game company was ENCOM), from which the Jeff Bridges character was fired and into whose mainframe he was zapped. When I saw that scene when I was in college I thought it was a funny throwaway visual joke (and so unrealistic, I noted, that they had to use a matte painting to make the shot). I’ve subsequently concluded, however, that it was much more than that, and that this scene was assigned as a development goal for the workplace designers who designed all the cubicle farms in which I’ve since worked.

      And now many workplaces are changing from the standard eight by eight foot cubes with six foot walls to cubes with only three or four foot walls – i.e. no visual privacy whatsoever, to match the absence of auditory privacy already in place.

      Acquaintances know they can impress me by stating they have offices with walls and actual doors, something I’ve never experienced, never having been a VP or above (as has been the rule for getting a closed office at all the places I’ve worked).

      One of the few advantages of being between jobs right now is not having to sit in my beige cloth padded 8×8 cell for 10 hours plus each day, listening to all my coworkers health and relationship problems via their impossible-to-avoid-overhearing phone calls.

      No wonder I need Human Wave.

      1. Actually, the rat study effects seem to me to be a better fit for my experience in the workplace – confiningly cubed population yielding randomly oversexed yet disconnected behaviors punctuated with vicious infighting, sometimes even corporate cannibalism.

  15. “When rats don’t have a role in society, they disconnect from it.”

    That conclusion is complete bullshit because rats don’t form societies. Drawing societal analogies between rats and people is stupid.

    The study forced non-social animals into high population density situations. It is no surprise that their behavior became more savage. The human analogy is putting asocial men into overcrowded prisons. Living in Tokyo or Mexico City isn’t the same.

  16. Sarah, I saw the same article via Glenn, and the same thought occurred to me except like some of the other commenters I see the problem as one of purpose rather than role. Of course purpose for human beings is more flexible than purpose for rats. Reading the experiment, I didn’t see it as having much to do with overcrowding as much as having all basic needs provided for the rats, so abundance rather than overcrowding. However the zeitgeist since WWI has been to convince us all that we have no purpose, so to the extent most in our society/culture buy into that, we see the same effects that Calhoun saw with his rats. I recommend Microcosmic God by Sturgeon and A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Zelany for more optimistic takes.

  17. One useful mental distinction that my husband established is not the difference between adult and child, or religious and non-religious. Passenger and crew. He was pretty sure that the only spacegoing vessel he’ll be a crewmember of is this planet. So he defined in his mind the difference between passenger and crewmember. And thus, I’m married to a guy who works 50+ hours a week, volunteers with Scouts, is active in amateur radio, is on the emergency response team at his workplace, has been on one committee or board or another at church once the youngest was out of diapers, corresponds regularly with friends, volunteers to help run some athletic events, tutors at the local high school, coaches robotics at the local high school, and takes time to be silly with his family. Worst epithet he can apply to someone is “passenger!”
    People are indeed social animals – meaningful relationships and meaningful work are two of the richest gifts anyone can have. And the kicker? People used to say, “A good marriage is hard work” as though that’s a bad thing. It’s great. It means if you’re willing to work at it, you can probably have it.

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