Science: Doomsday in 2026 A.D.

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Ever since the time of Malthus (1766-1834), prophets of doom have warned that if the human race does not stop reproducing so fast it will eventually outbreed its available food supply. But whenever the pessimists of the plundered-planet school have set a date for this unhappy event, they were proved to be wrong. In advanced countries the technology of food production has kept well ahead of population growth (TIME, Nov. 8, 1948). The U.S., with its burdensome crop surplus, is farther from starvation than ever before, and other countries are in the same condition. Only technologically backward countries are seriously feeling the pressure of population, and they can dodge fate for a while at least, by improving their technology.

"Squeezed to Death." Does this mean that the Malthusian limit will never be reached? Not so, says Physicist Heinz von Foerster, 48, of the University of Illinois, the latest to cry extinction of the human race. He does it, not as a mystic does, having undergone some shattering revelation, but with earnest and scholarly equations. His doomsday is the year 2026. In the November 4 Science, Professor von Foerster calculates by elaborate mathematics what will happen if the human species avoids large-scale disaster (e.g., nuclear war), sets up a cooperative world society, develops technical methods that yield an unlimited food supply and continues to increase at an ever-quickening rate as, he says, it has been doing since the time of Christ. The climax will come at a calculable date in the future, which Von Foerster, in mathematical terms, calls to (t sub zero). "For obvious reasons," he says, "to shall be called 'doomsday,' since it is on that date that N (the number of 'elements,' or people) goes to infinity, and the clever population annihilates itself. Our great-great-grandchildren will not starve. They will be squeezed to death." His equation says that doomsday will come surprisingly soon. The most likely date for it is Friday, Nov. 13, A.D. 2026.

"Widening Every Minute." Von Foerster does not really believe that the human race will breed itself to universe-filling infinity in 66 years. He uses his equation to illustrate in an attention-getting manner that any population that increases at an accelerating rate (as the human race has been doing) is headed for ultimate trouble. Even the best food technology, he says, cannot race ahead of an ever-steepening curve. But he believes that "there is no need to wait until an external mechanism influences human activity. Since man's environment becomes less and less influenced by 'natural forces' and more and more by social forces determined by man, he himself can take control over his fate." Enter birth control. Von Foerster declares that if mankind wants to avoid the doomsday of infinitely crowded population, it must establish a control mechanism, a "peoplo-stat," to keep the world's population at a desired level. This can be done at present by what he considers comparatively painless methods, such as heavy taxation on families with more than two children. "Tomorrow, of course," says Von Foerster, "it will be more difficult, since the gap between birth rate and death rate is widening every minute."

Dr. von Foerster is the father of three.