Sunday, February 10, 2008

Smoke and Speculation

According to a new report from WHO, in the next decade a billion people will die from smoking-related illnesses, world-wide. A billion! That's tragic, in terms of individual suffering and of survivors' grieving. Howeve, looking past the individual, the statistic raises troubling questions about global population.

Would we be better off with or without those extra billion? If they didn't die, could the Earth support them? Is smoking some bizarre manifestation of Gaia-theory population control on a grand scale, balancing out all the lives saved by modern medicine? Lemmings self-destruct when they become too many; maybe humans smoke.

I wrote a story about draconian population-control methods, "The Kindness of Strangers," which will come out sometime in 2008 (I think) in ECLIPSE 2. The story might be mildly controversial (or not -- I'm no good judge of these things). But the WHO report gave me pause. Some of my best friends are smokers. I want them to live long and prosper.

Does -- if those scientists like James Lovelock, who espouse the theory, are right -- Gaia want the same thing?


bluesman miike Lindner said...

So those smokers would live forever if they didn't light up?


It's the Nanny-State telling us pore ignorant serfs, "We know what is better for you. You can't be trusted to know what's in your best interest. Luckily, we're here to clue you in. Or compel you. You pathetic, clueless slobs. How =dare= you think or act without -us-"!

I could rant on, as the wanna-be masters of our lives do, but I think I'll just step outside me internet cafe for a healthful smoke.

Nancy Kress said...

I don't think WHO was dictating that any individual can't smoke -- they were merely describing the global consequences. not the same thing.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

If the Gaia concept is true (and it might be, though I cannot think of a way to test it), seems to me the planetary consciousness might send a signal to Her friends in the asteroid belt: "The dinosaurs were a pleasure compared to the hairless apes infesting Me now. Could you send another chunk of rock My way? Nothing fancy--just a cubic kilometer of whatever you have handy?"

"A Lady's request is the Belt's duty. Coming right atcha--should arrive in December, 2012."

Dadburnit, Nancy, I work and sweat and slave, as you saw in 2001, at B&N Lincoln Triangle. There are rewards, though. Meet some cool folk. Last year, a gracious lady asked me for Lovelock's latest book. Knew her by sight.

That was Janet Asimov, wasn't it.

Mike Flynn said...

It's not so much the nanny state in this case as the definition of the thing being "measured." What exactly is a "smoking-related death"? How does it differ from a death "caused by smoking"? What relation between the smoking and the death is required to earn the sobriquet?

Given a parallel between this and the term "alcohol-related" traffic fatalities, I suspect that the relationship is this: "the person died AND he smoked."

Statistically, this results from applying the definition to some sample of existing entities and taking the proportion thereby discovered and multiplying it by N, where N is the number of entities in some broader group, like People Yet To Come. But this is only a valid inference if the initial data come from a statistically random sample taken from the larger group OR, if the larger group is Future Man, the process is in a state of statistical control with a constant mean. (

The statistical fuzzy-wuzzies are exacerbated by the natural tendency of any bureaucracy to find more and more instances of the Things the bureaucracy is supposed to bewail. As G.K.Chesterton put it, if you appoint someone His Majesty's minister for fairies in the back garden, do not expect him to report that there are no fairies in the back garden.

BuffySquirrel said...

I'm not sure we can talk about Gaia wanting anything; it's more of a blind force than anything with a personality--if it exists. We're no more important to it than rabbits are!

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Mike, your points are excellent. But do you think a nanny-statist could care less about that kind of thinking? Of course not! And why might that be? Because the engine of decision among nanny-statists (and leftists in general) is not careful thought. It is emotion. "Feelings."

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Buffy, I suspect the rabbits might disagree!

Mike Flynn said...


I have heard it said that among some folk "the point is not to build something, but merely to care passionately about the idea of building something." Public policy as personal therapy. And also "in the celebrity culture the American media have made of our public life, the feelings of our leaders have become more important than anything they actually do."

There is some truth to this, but it is not what is wrong with the prophesy regarding "smoking-related deaths," for prophesy it is, dressed in the priestly vestment of the white lab coat. And probably as accurate as most such prophesies have been of late.

+ + +

You are right about Gaia being a blind force; but then how is that different from the old medieval notion of Nature? Natures do carry within themselves self-organizing principles, what the schoolmen called "formal causes" and we call "wholistic." This can lead people to personify Nature. ("The sea is Poseidon and Poseidon is the sea." Giving Nature a new, more personal name may exacerbate that tendency.

BuffySquirrel said...

I suppose a difference would be that in the Middle Ages, people generally lived closer to Nature than we do. They knew where meat came from; they knew where babies came from; their lives were tied intimately to the seasons and the land. Nowadays we shut out "real" Nature as much as we can, eat fruits out of season, think meat comes from supermarkets, and then recreate "the natural world" in our homes in an artificial, controlled fashion. No wonder it needs a new fancy name!

James A. Ritchie said...

Several years ago, I remember some statistician adding up all the deaths caused by this, that, and the other. He found that more people are dying each year than there are people on the planet.

My grandfather died of lung cancer, a smoking related illness. The thing is, he was 104, which means something should have killed him long, long before the cigarettes did the job.

I think the old saying, "Figures lie and liars figure" really applies here.

Statistics can prove just about anything we want them to prove.

Besides, as another old saying goes, "Something has to kill me, or I'd live forever." I'd just as soon whatever kills me is something I enjoy.

David B. Ellis said...

most smokers live long enough to reproduce---and die well into middle age or later. I don't think smoking related deaths could have much impact on population.

Statistics can prove just about anything we want them to prove.

Not really, its just that most people don't understand statistics very well.

Nathaniel said...

It seems some people look forward to dying of lung cancer. It is their life (though just don't stand or sit near me while you carry out that plan).

About the world population feeling a need to limit itself..... that would be and issue if it was world population that was actually the problem. But it isn't. If you take a look at alot of the most polluting nations in on the planet you will notice that the amount of pollution they kick out has grown despite a low birthrate. This is because there is no set factory to human ratio. The US pollutes more than any nation in the world because of its high energy use (per person) and development. 1 child policy China is going to overtake the US as the top polluter because it is industrializing and building large amounts of new coal power plants. So the number of people matters alot less than what they do-and as the global population seems likely to level off at about 11 billion tops (according to current trends) we should be very worried that these people will treat the planet terribly and it may end up being better if there were 20 billion who didn't.