Overpopulation in the USA and the Fate of the Yeast People

Every time I do a Q and A after a college lecture, somebody says (with a fanfare of indignation) — so as to reveal their own brilliance in contrast to my foolishness — “You haven’t said anything about overpopulation!”

Right. I usually don’t bother. Their complaint, of course, implies that we would do something about overpopulation if only we would recognize it. Which is absurd. What might we do about overpopulation here in the USA? Legislate a one-child policy? Set up an onerous set of bureaucratic protocols forcing citizens to apply for permission to reproduce? Direct the police to shoot all female babies? Use stimulus money to build crematoria outside of Nashville?

It’s certainly true that the planet is suffering from human population overshoot. We’re way beyond “carrying capacity.” Only the remaining supplies of fossil fuels allow us to continue this process, and not for long, anyway. In the meantime, human reproduction rates are also greatly increasing the supply of idiots relative to resources, and that is especially problematic in the USA, where idiots rule the culture and polity.

The cocoon of normality prevents us from appreciating how peculiar and special recent times have been in this country. We suppose, tautologically, that because things have always seemed the way they are, that they always have been the way they seem. The collective human imagination is a treacherous place.

I’m fascinated by the dominion of moron culture in the USA, in everything from the way we inhabit the landscape — the fiasco of suburbia — to the way we feed ourselves — an endless megatonnage of microwaved Velveeta and corn byproducts — along with the popular entertainment offerings of Reality TV, the Nascar ovals, and the gigantic evangelical church shows beloved in the Heartland. To evangelize a bit myself, if such a concept as “an offense in the sight of God” has any meaning, then the way we conduct ourselves in this land is surely the epitome of it — though this is hardly an advertisement for competing religions, who are well-supplied with morons, too.

Moron culture in the USA really got full traction after the Second World War. Our victory over the other industrial powers in that struggle was so total and stupendous that the laboring orders here were raised up to economic levels unknown by any peasantry in human history. People who had been virtual serfs trailing cotton sacks in the sunstroke belt a generation back were suddenly living better than Renaissance dukes, laved in air-conditioning, banqueting on “TV dinners,” motoring on a whim to places that would have taken a three-day mule trek in their granddaddy’s day. Soon, they were buying Buick dealerships and fried chicken franchises and opening banks and building leisure kingdoms of thrill rides and football. It’s hard to overstate the fantastic wealth that a not-very-bright cohort of human beings was able to accumulate in post-war America.

And they were able to express themselves — as the great chronicler of these things, Tom Wolfe, has described so often and well — in exuberant “taste cultures” of material life, of which Las Vegas is probably the final summing-up, and every highway strip, of twenty-thousand strips from Maine to Oregon, is the democratic example. These days, I travel the road up the west shore of Lake George, in Warren County, New York, and see the sad, decomposing relics of that culture and that time in all the “playful” motels and leisure-time attractions, with their cracked plastic signs advertising the very things that they exterminated in the quest for adequate parking — the woodand vistas, the paddling Mohicans, the wolf, the moose, the catamount — and I take a certain serene comfort in the knowledge that it is all over now for this stuff and the class of morons that produced it.

A very close friend of mine calls them “the yeast people.” They were the democratic masses who thrived in the great fermentation vat of the post World War Two economy. They are now meeting the fate that any yeast population faces when the fermentation process is complete. For the moment, they are only ceasing to thrive. They are suffering and worrying horribly from the threat that there might be no further fermentation. The brewers running the vat try to assure them that there’s more sugar left in the mix, and more beer can be made from it, and more yeasts can be brought into this world to enjoy the life of the sweet, moist mash. In fact, one of the brewers did happen to dump about a trillion-and-a-half teaspoons of sugar into the vat during 2009, and that has produced an illusion of further fermentation. But we know all too well that this artificial stimulus has limits.

What will happen to the yeast people of the USA? You can be sure that the outcome will not yield to “policies” and “protocols.” The economy that produced all that amazing wealth is contracting, and pretty rapidly, too, and the numbers among the yeast will naturally follow the downward arc of the story. Entropy is a harsh mistress. In the immediate offing: a contest for the table scraps of the 20th century. We’ve barely seen the beginning of this, just a little peevishness embodied by yeast shaman figures. As hardships mount and hardened emotions rise, we’ll see “the usual suspects” come into play: starvation, disease, violence. We may still be driving around in Ford F-150s, but the Pale Rider is just over the horizon beating a path to our parking-lot-of-the-soul.

It’s a sad and tragic process and, all lame metaphors aside, there are real human feelings at stake in our prospects for loss of every kind, but especially in the fate of people we love. The human race has known catastrophe before and come through it. There’s some credible opinion that “this time it’s different” but who really knows? We have our 2012 apocalypse movies. The people of the 14th century, savaged by the Black Death, had their woodcuts of dancing skeletons. Feudalism was wiped out in that earlier calamity but, whaddaya know, less than a century after that the Renaissance emerged in a wholly new culture of cities. Maybe we will emerge from our culture of free parking to a new society of living, by necessity, much more lightly on the planet and for a long time, perhaps long enough to allow the terrain to recover from all the free parking.

James Howard Kunstler

November 17, 2009