Q&A: ISAAC ASIMOV

A futurist’s gloomy vision

May 7 1984
Q&A: ISAAC ASIMOV

A futurist’s gloomy vision

May 7 1984

A futurist’s gloomy vision

Q&A: ISAAC ASIMOV

By the time Isaac Asimov’s 300th book, appropriately titled Opus 300, reaches bookstores this fall, the prolific author will have completed at least a dozen more volumes. Since he published his first short story in 1938, Asimov, 64, who writes an average of 15 to 20 books a year, has produced works as varied as The Human Body and The Roman Empire. But he is best-known for his numerous science fiction classics. The re-

nowned futurist recently underwent triple coronary bypass surgery but he likes nothing better than sitting at his typewriter at 8 a.m. each day for a full day ’s work. Asimov recently spoke with Maclean’s correspondent Rita Christopher at his New York apartment.

Maclean’s: What are the important problems confronting the world? Asimov: Pollution, for one. You cannot just tackle pollution in one place and let it go at that. If you have acid rain, it is because somebody somewhere is burning dirty coal. Canada is furious because it gets acid rain that originates in the United States. And Ronald Reagan, every once in a while when a report comes in, orders another report—which is the easiest way of not doing anything.

Other serious problems are the consumption of resources, the destruction of the soil and the ecological imbalances caused by the extinction of various species because of the destruction of their habitats. But it all boils down to endlessly increasing population. If you have more and more people, they have to consume more and more resources. They have to pollute more and more. Each person is an inevitable source of pollution. People take up more and more room, destroy more and more habitats and bring about the extinction of more and more species. They rub against each other more and more. If you crowd people, they will have more and more occasion for mutual irritation. So there is scarcely a problem on earth that you cannot attribute to overpopulation. Maclean’s: In the early 1970s you wrote essays in which you expressed despair over the consequences of unbridled population growth. Are you less depressed now? Asimov: The world birthrate has dropped from * about the two-per-cent£ a-year level that it was 5 back in the early 1970s to » perhaps 1.6 per cent now. That is by no means £ enough because the pop“ ulation has gone up—the actual number of mouths being added every year has gone up. The world seems to be coming to realize the dangers of overpopulation. More governments are attempting to institute some family planning. China, with a population of over one billion, is making strenuous efforts to lower the birthrate, talking about the single-child family. That is true in other nations as well. Family planning is beginning to make inroads in Latin America, and I am sure it will begin to make inroads in Africa, because there can be no government so blind that it does not realize that there is nothing it can do for its people as long as population continues to go up. As the population goes up, society becomes more unstable, and the power of governments becomes more precarious.

Maclean’s: You have said that by 1990

women will be more sexually permissive and less sexually wasteful.

Asimov: What I meant is that more and more women are going to be allowed to enter the mainstream of all human activities because, if our society continues at all, our chief problem is going to be population. That means lowering the birthrate because we cannot very well increase the death rate in order to lower the population. In order to decrease the birthrate we will have to give women something else to do. Throughout history high birthrates have gone right along with low social status for women. If a woman does nothing but have babies and suckle them, she does not have either time or need for education; she does not have time to do anything else except all the housework and the cooking and the ploughing. On the other hand, in those societies where women have, for a period of time anyway, been fairly high on the social scale, the birthrate has been low because women do not want 15 children when they have something else to do.

Maclean’s: Over the past decade we have seen an increasing number of workers lose jobs because of automation. Will advances in technology inevitably lead to greater unemployment?

Asimov: On the contrary, the advances of technology inevitably create more jobs than they destroy. Although the population in the past 200 years has quadrupled, jobs have also increased terrifically. In a roboticized and computerized world there would be many kinds of work that we do not necessarily foresee. But the problem is that the changes are taking place increasingly rapidly. We really do not have time to get people to switch jobs. You say to someone, ‘All right, so your job on the automobile treadmill has stopped, so go and repair a computer.’ The guy says, T don’t know how to repair a computer.’ And you may not be able to teach him. He may be 55 years old and he just does not know anything but how to tighten a bolt. So you have to have compassion. Society has to be prepared to see that people are taken care of when their own work disappears and there is no needful work that they can do or can be trained to do. That is expensive, but it is transitional because eventually people will be able to do the jobs that they are needed to do. The danger is that we are' going to have people in power whose hearts are the size of acorns.

Maclean’s: What do you think of President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ proposal, in which he advocated the use of complex, antisatellite laser-like weapons in outer space?

Asimov: I am not in the least interested in developing space as another arena of warfare. Reagan says that in developing space weapons his objective is to stop warfare, but I do not believe that

for a minute. It is simply a matter of gaining the high ground, and all we will gain out of it is that instead of being able to put an end to humanity in 20 minutes we will be able to do it in 10 minutes. That is an advance I can live without.

Maclean’s: What do you think of the theory of limited nuclear war—a nuclear war that would not wipe out humanity? Asimov: I do not believe in that. There has never been any war in which people did not use every weapon at their disposal. The only partial exception is poison gas. Both sides used it in the First World War, but no nation used it in the' Second World War because it was too easy to strike back. Every nation had poison gas so there was a balance of terror. And now, in the same way, nations do not want to use nuclear weapons because of the possibility of retaliation. In fact, the only time nuclear weapons were used in war, they were used by the peace-loving United States in 1945 against Japan—a nation at the point of surrender. Had it been the other way around—had the Soviet Union dropped the atomic bomb—we would never stop talking about it. The one real threat right now is that we are going to scare the Soviets so much that they are going to feel their only chance for survival is to wait for a good opportunity for a first strike. And the Soviet Union can argue the same way, so the balance of terror works to a certain point. Maclean’s: As people live longer, work takes up less of their time. How will we deal with increased leisure?

Asimov: We are going to have to cultivate eccentricity. Everybody has something eccentric. Take me—all I like to do is write. But even if I were not good enough to make a living at it, why should I not do it to occupy my leisure? There are things in leisure that are respectable to do and things that are not. If, in leisure, you lie on a beach day after day getting a tan, that is respectable. If, on the other hand, you get 75 million toothpicks and make battleships with them, you are considered nuts. My feeling is that making battleships out of toothpicks is an art form and lying around on the beach is just ridiculous.

Maclean’s: As a young man you were refused admission to medical school and instead you did graduate work in chemistry. Do you ever wish that you had become a doctor?

Asimov: I cannot think of anything more horrible. I would have undoubtedly quit to become a writer, just as I quit being a teacher to become a writer. Of course, it is important to teach, but I still teach because writing is a form of teaching. I no longer lecture to 70 students in a classroom. Now I lecture to millions of people.