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In a world where there is ever-declining population due to a phenomenon that has no satisfactory explanation, what could cause war or large-scale armed confrontations between countries or sections of the society?

Assumptions:

  • No births have happened for a while. No new pregnancies are happening.
  • The cause for this population decline is unknown and there is no apparent cure/solution.
  • The decline is unstoppable; humanity will soon be extinct.

Given that humans realize they will soon be gone for good, what could create a situation where human lives are intentionally harmed?

EDIT:

I noticed that I need to word my question better, so I'll add here what I posted in a comment.

Most of the answers so far assume the worst of humanity; stuff like "Might as well do anything I want, since I'll die one day". The thing is, that is true for all humans even now. Why would the possibility of there being zero humans a few decades from now foment conflict today?

For additional clarity, consider the following:

  • The realization that there are more humans dying that those being born sinks in slowly. This isn't a T-virus/asteroid/alien invasion scenario, where humanity is given a few weeks till extinction.

  • For most people, news about economic indicators like labor costs or population decline isn't worth a lot of attention. So it's conceivable they carry on with their lives (for what I assume will be quite a while) until this starts affecting them personally. By then, governments & society are likely to grasp the fact that every human life is "precious", much like tigers or pandas today.

So, I guess my question is, when governments are actively engaged in (however futile) efforts directed towards conservation of human life, what would cause war or any armed conflict between humans?

EDIT 2:

A lot of excellent answers. I'm going to have to pick out elements from each answer and cook up a cascading series of events that form the basis for some bitter resentment between the principal actors and a spark that starts the fire.

If only I could accept more than one answer...

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    $\begingroup$ It is painfully easy to come up with possible reasons. It would be nice if you could include what you came up with yourself our give good criteria to determine what a good reason might be. Otherwise, as is discussed in worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5914/… you might receive downvotes $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 May 30 '18 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE. When you have a moment, please take our tour and visit our help center. @Raditz_35's being a bit churlish, but he's basically right. Stack Exchange sites work on a one-specific-question-one-best-answer model. Given that humans are rarely saints and that there will always be at least one person who's happy to be (literally) the last man standing, every reason valid before the phenom is valid after. In fact, your situation might actually incite people to both murder and suicide. Check out the tour and help center, it'll help with the questions. Cheers! $\endgroup$ – JBH May 30 '18 at 7:38
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    $\begingroup$ Do you want the population decline to be the (direct or indirect) cause of the war? Because I think otherwise, war could happen for many the reasons it happens nowadays anyway. $\endgroup$ – colmde May 30 '18 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ Sadly they would be the same reasons they happen in the real world. Power, resources and ideology. There's no reason why things will be different in an imaginary world. $\endgroup$ – a4android May 30 '18 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ I want to point out that this is very similar to Children of Men; mostly because that has a constant of war/strife going on for something like 10 or 20 years before the main plot-thread. $\endgroup$ – blurry May 31 '18 at 0:26

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A rumour that that other country(or whatever else) has fertile women or men and some government decides that they have the military power to acquire them for their own country.

If the rumour is not actually true, the war can last even longer because "they are hiding them from us".

I believe there have been several films with similar plots where there was one pregnant woman who had to be transported from one place to the other and everyone was trying to capture her.

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    $\begingroup$ It's not war, but the driver for the plot in Aeon Flux is mostly this $\endgroup$ – Baldrickk May 30 '18 at 12:28
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    $\begingroup$ A prime example being Children of Men. $\endgroup$ – JakeSteam May 30 '18 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ Hell comes to Frogtown (imdb.com/title/tt0093171) being another very good (or possibly slightly amusing, I just happen to love it) example of this plot. $\endgroup$ – Doomfrost May 30 '18 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ "the handmaiden's tale" should be also mentioned here $\endgroup$ – k102 May 31 '18 at 12:45
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If you ask me the causes of war are ususally:

Either:

  • Philosophical disagreements (By which I mean ideas about the nature of god, proper governance of the nation, the right to oppress other people and/or the distribution of wealth)

or:

  • Scarcity of resources. (example: Oil, Precious metals and/or space)

Philosophical differences is probably the easiest sell. A war could easily start over a sect of any major religion (or a new one) deciding that the human die off is God's will and either want to help out or hope to change the divine mind by appeasing it. ("We all must conform to these simple rules about food and clothes, then God will make us fertile again" ... basically the setting for Handmaids Tale thought... so I might end up feeling derivative.)

As other users have already pointed out general hopelessness might very well cause an outbreak of violence. Look at, for example, Children of Men which has a rather similar scenario as the one described. However, while most fiction deals with the worst of humanity surfacing in a crisis most studies of real disasters do show that on at least a local level people tend to cooperate. So it might not be the best motivator, it's a powerful trope which we all know. But it is a trope.

As for scarcity I think as a motivator for war in your scenaroi it is trickier, with a decline in population most things naturally get less scarce as smaller amounts are needed to satisfy demand. And killing people who could be farming/mining/producing will essentially be highly counterproductive by make things more scarce, why send soldiers to the front when you could send them to the mines and factories?

Perhaps a related or unrelated event to the die off also makes livable land more scarce? Global warming and sea levels raising, deforestation and growing deserts would might remove viable real estate quicker than natural human die-off.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for mentioning Children of Men. (SPOILERS) The soldiers actually stop fighting when they see the baby, which is a beautiful contrast. Something along the lines of "Pausing death in the face of life". This question is partly because of that scene; why kill what could be the last humans left? $\endgroup$ – H-Finch May 30 '18 at 8:42
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    $\begingroup$ @H-Finch It is a very good questions and while I pondered it I remembered a lecture I once attended on disaster behavior so I dug up some links for that. What we would consider "bad disaster behavior" statistically makes up about 10-15% of the reactions according to some studies. $\endgroup$ – Doomfrost May 30 '18 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ Can you give even one example of a war that was actually caused by philosophical disagreements? One doesn't have to look hard at the ones everybody likes to claim were religious to see that they were actually caused by economic issues ("I want this, and you are in the way of my getting it"). Philosophical differences make peaceful resolutions of conflict much harder, and are used to inflame the sides, but without some other cause, people are not willing to sacrifice just because someone else is "wrong". $\endgroup$ – Paul Sinclair May 30 '18 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @PaulSinclair I'd argue that while the base reason for any given conflict may or may not be economical in nature "These people do not believe in our God" usually works better to make people willing to sacrifice than "The king does not have quite enough gold". I'd also argue that the American liberation war was more philosophical in nature than economical. (Even though there of course are economical benefits to having one's own nation.) $\endgroup$ – Doomfrost May 31 '18 at 7:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Doomfrost - "Those people don't believe in our God" illicits emotions of "let those fools suffer the consequences", not "get them". No - the motivation for "religious wars" is always some variant of "those fools are coming here, taking our lands, our jobs, our children, etc". Kings fight wars for gold. Peasants fight wars because they need to live in the kingdom, and often do better when the king does better (though not nearly as much). The American Revolution started as a protest against absorbitant taxes. Only a rare few actually wanted to break away at the start. $\endgroup$ – Paul Sinclair May 31 '18 at 19:10
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A War of Retaliation or Revenge

Say that one nation blamed it (I will just call it the decline) on another nation or a terrorist group took credit for it. Then it would boils down to, let’s make them pay for what they done to us. Even if it’s just a rumour or a religious hardliner saying this, conflict will arise. Much the same when London burned down the French were blamed and even killed for a crime they did not commit. It could even be used as a tool for control by governments, like this country/race/religion is holding the weapon that caused the decline if we take it we could find a cure...kill them all… we have nothing to lose.

Lack of Hope leads to Despair, Despair leads to Distrust, Distrust leads to Conflict

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Decreasing population means less people available to produce resources and technologies.

Scarcity implies higher value, higher values attract greed. If group A has two cows and group B not, group B will attack group A to take the cows.

Better be killed trying to get food/water/shelter than reaching a slow death by simply waiting.

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I don't think typically humans have an innate desire to protect other humans, other than their immediate family and friends.

The impending extinction of the human race will not automatically make people place any greater value on human life in general.

Conflicts will arise as they always do, due to competition for resources, or perceived moral superiority etc.

I would expect that rather than large scale conflicts, there would be more "tribal" conflicts, and society in general begins to break down.

If there is no clear scientific explanation for the calamity which has befallen the species, I would expect a lot of people will resort to religious and superstitious beliefs. This could easily lead to genocide against minority groups who are often blamed for the ills of any society.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your last 2 points are excellent. Someone else mentioned the Westboro Baptist Church; this is likely to induce a civil-war scenario. $\endgroup$ – H-Finch Jun 1 '18 at 5:00
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Any war in human history has 3 motivations:

  1. Money
  2. Money
  3. and Money

There's a lot of excuses for it because as said by Goering why a farmer can go to a war if the best possible outcome for him is getting back from it in one piece.

Excuses most used are: Religion, Ideology, Survival, Retallation, Freedom and any one you propaganda can get (those guys can be inventive).

But the bottom line is some (usually old) guys want's to grab some resource (land, oil, people, trade routes, market, political power, hunt fields, potatoes, etc) from another (usually old) guys and they send (usually young) guys to solve the resources owmership question.

They really don't care about unless they are good enough liars they can lie to themselves.

That beging said you can set the war for whatever you want because in reallity those old guys really don't care about the long term future (they are old).

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    $\begingroup$ I'd have said "resources" rather than "money" but yeah this. $\endgroup$ – Ash May 30 '18 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash I started writing resources but settled with money to accentuate the greedy aspect $\endgroup$ – jean Jun 1 '18 at 11:02
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It's been mentioned in several answers and comments already, but if you haven't seen it already, go see Children of Men. It deals with a very similar setting.

enter image description here

Inspired by (but not directly copying) that, one excellent way to introduce large scale conflict in a world such as this would be to have a cure pop up.

What's important to keep in mind, because a cure like this would be a big deal for your setting and potentially quite disruptive to your plot, that there doesn't actually have to be one.

People / countries just need to be convinced that there is a cure and that somebody is hoarding it.

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Loss of hope and collapse of civilization.

If the world is going to end, why not do what you want and damn the consequences? You'll see suicide, crime and increasing apathy increase over the years. Then as the last generation becomes teenagers and young adults, they'll ask themselves why they should do jobs that ultimately don't matter? Why they should obey rules from a dying government? Why they should care about anything at all?

Revolutions will bring down governments. Hordes of like minded people will rove across the cities and land, taking what they want, destroying what they don't want, and fighting others for ever declining resources and to end their lives in a shower of blood and glory.

When you have no future, why not make sure no one else has one either?

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    $\begingroup$ "When you have no future, why not make sure no one else has one either?" While I would absolutely buy this of course, there are enough people like that, however, I want to answer that question because I think it's important to be not that pessimistic in life in general and in worldbuilding (there is enough dystopian fiction out there already): Because not everyone is a psychopath, sometimes people do stuff because it is the right thing to do, way more often than not. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 May 30 '18 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 there would definitely be people who would fight to maintain some stability. They'd be one of the major targets for the hordes. It's kind of like what we see in a riot, some people are acting violent and attacking targets they hate, so others join in, it grows until everyone tires themselves out or the police stop them. In this case, with the stress and societal strain, the need to hold back, to restrain themselves will be much less than in reality. $\endgroup$ – Dan Clarke May 30 '18 at 7:50
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Moral superiority / Fear

So if people are behaving like savages, and creating a civil war, still stable nations might fear that this behavior will lead to an earlier end of themselves and wage war against those nations in faster decline.

(Religious) fanatism

Think of the islamist idea of jihad or kamikaze attacks by the japanese. Humans will easily throw their life away if the apokalypse is coming and they do it for what they believe is a greater cause.

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If all current forms of humanity are dying, then anyone with the technology to convert human consciousness into another form has the only hope. Such a technology is worth fighting for, as it is the only way to survive, even if in a different state. Post-humans will both be a goal worth gaining, or possibly in some circles worth destroying, or both (as many times what is forbidden for the populace is practiced by their masters).

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Humans just went from being problematically numerous to being a scarce and rapidly diminishing resource, governments in countries with seriously aging populations, Japan comes to mind, could easily justify going to war in order to capture themselves an ongoing labour force. Once one country does it out of physical necessity others in less dire straits can start to justify similar course of action.

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  • $\begingroup$ The economic reason. Japan was on my mind a lot while researching this topic. $\endgroup$ – H-Finch Jun 1 '18 at 5:06
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Consider that with a diminishing population, vital skillsets will be vanishing too.

A nation that was previously nuclear powered might shortly realise that they don't have anyone who can keep their reactors from melting down. but their neighbours do...

Extreme example, but I'd expect that head-hunting of this kind would quickly cross any borders, Upskilling would be a duty. If you can't do a dozen jobs then you become a burden fast on the people who can.

Maintaining a modern standard of living takes a LOT of people with a spectacular range of knowledge and skills, to keep it going, some nations may press-gang or even enslave the citizens of a neighbouring nation into doing all the grunt-work while their own citizens fill the expanding gaps as people begin dying off.

Of course, those other nations would take serious umbridge with this. They'd fight, and that would lead quickly to war, the losing side being taken into indentured servitude would give them serious motive not to surrender and thereby prolong the conflicts.

Stockpiled resources too would be targets, nations cannot afford the time to dig up fuel or metals when they can simply take it by force or scavenge it.

The more powerful nations would quickly resort to drone and remote warfare, their soldiers being far too valuable to risk in combat, but this would only last as long as the complex machines can be maintained and munitions and fuel provided.

Ultimately, the most advanced nations would be head-hunting anyone with a background in longevity, fertility and indeed anything at all that can prolong the inevitable, they'd gladly take those people by force from their own countries. It'd be a last desperate search for a cure or fix for the extinction of mankind. It's up to you the Author about whether you want this to succeed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Andy Weir's Artemis has a protagonist that works as a janitor(?) on a lunar luxury resort. But then again, if there is hardly anyone to do more basic operations like farming, would any nation really 'hoard' butlers? $\endgroup$ – H-Finch Jun 1 '18 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ Probably not, though I was thinking very much that the trained and highly skilled people would be working to maintain the high-technology and industrial capability of the nation, it'd be a tremendous waste of a valuable resource of brainpower to put them to work on a factory floor or farm. So capture the natives of another nation (likely a less educated one) and make them do the grunt-work. You might even get a scenario where qualifications and skills literally denoted your standing in society, Polymaths with many skills over "monomaths" with only a single skillset. $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Jun 1 '18 at 8:27
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A religious movement might decide that the global infertility is the punishment of God for the evil ways of them, and accordingly decide that it must be God's will that they are destroyed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Any random religious group or are there any good specific candidates out there? Since the question is apparently about the real world, maybe such an answer would be more useful if you could perhaps at least cite historic cults that were influential and at the same time crazy enough to start such a war for that reason $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 May 30 '18 at 10:32
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    $\begingroup$ ISIS springs to mind. Also the Westboro Baptist Church (godhatesfags.com, yes that really is their URL), although they aren't influential. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) worked within the law, but it had a definite attitude towards anything it disagreed with. $\endgroup$ – Paul Johnson May 30 '18 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ While I think you just mentioned three groups you disagree with strongly and not three groups that would most likely start a war when people become infertile, I believe ISIS is already fighting a war against basically anyone, they can't really declare even more war, best include that into your answer, maybe with a short statement why you think that they are such great candidates $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 May 30 '18 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 It probably wouldn't be any particular group that exists now. I picked these groups in response to your question because they all believe in inflicting their version of morality on everyone else, and because they cite divine authority for their campaigns. The only missing ingredient is the belief that a natural disaster is God's divine punishment. However this is a common thread in response to disaster: nbcnews.com/id/9600878/ns/msnbc-morning_joe/t/… $\endgroup$ – Paul Johnson May 30 '18 at 11:26
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War, by its Clausewitzian definition, is the use of force to compel our enemy to do our will. This definition, its limitations and faults aside, hints at two primitives: the means (of force), and our will. Of these two primitives, means are variable, not only through the ages (as seen with the development of weapon systems), but also during the course of the conflict (reflecting casualties), and thus represent the changing character of war (the way we prosecute war). Will, on the other hand, represents the unchanging nature of war, being as it is an expression of human nature.

The dystopian scenario of the question purely addresses means – the loss of fertility predicates a reduction in manpower, an issue for the character of war, provided that the existing paradigm of increasing battlefield automation is somehow abandoned and WMD are somehow discounted. This character of war will change correspondingly to reflect the means change, but the nature thereof will remain constant, as long as human nature remains unchanged. It is therefore not a question of whether war will be possible in such a scenario, but rather how such a war will be fought. The ‘why’ or ‘origin’ question is thus the same as for any war – a query addressed by a host of academics (Geoff Blainey, Michael Howard, Bertrand Russell, Anatol Rappoport, etc.), using a variety of models and tools (Game Theory, etc.). But please note :this is not to suggest that war in such a scenario is guaranteed – but rather to show that war is possible in any scenario, whenever certain conditions are met.

This leads to the question – what are those conditions (of human nature), specifically those required for a major war? A handy analogy to aid the conceptualisation is of a playful ‘dust devil’, building into a tornado when the correct meteorological conditions are present. The first prerequisite is almost self-explanatory: major conflicts require major belligerents, and the more belligerents there are, (in the form of alliance systems, or self-identifying camps), the greater the likelihood of the conflict outgrowing time and geographical realities of the origin. Even big wars start small, just as every tornado starts life as a ‘dust devil’.

The second prerequisite is a mental construct: a structure of fairness. Wars are either fought to maintain the status quo, or to change it. Given that fairness is subjective, those who feel that the status quo is fair, will fight to maintain it (or improve it to be more ‘fair’). Those who experience the status quo as unfair, will seek cause to change it.

For a war to occur in the scenario described, my suggestion would be to supplement the loss of manpower by automation (including drones and the likes in combat zones), thus addressing the implied reduction of means. To address the will (assuming that the dystopia is brought about purely by the loss of fertility, and not some additional external accelerant), there is nothing to suggest that existing conflicts will be concluded or abandoned, purely on the basis thereof – in short, [insert name of least-favourite world leader here] will not all of a sudden abandon [insert casus belli here], just because nobody is having babies.

However, should you feel that a brand new war is needed for a brand new threat to our existence, the will primitive is auto-diagnosed by a perception of fairness, (or the lack thereof). Scarce and in-demand resources (such as fertility) is fertile ground (pardon the pun), for perceptions on fairness to develop. By having major players coalesce into two opposing camps, the rest should be a walk in the park.

Sorry…

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  • $\begingroup$ I really like the dust devil analogy. The plot would require elements from all the answers here (economic, religious, psychological, group dynamics etc), working together to create the 'perfect storm' situation and a singular flashpoint to set off the chaos. Need to do a lot of research setting this up ;-) $\endgroup$ – H-Finch Jun 1 '18 at 5:03
  • $\begingroup$ @H-Finch: absolutely, but my suggestion would be not to overwork the casus belli - theories on the origins of real wars are pretty boring and can be laborious to introduce, other than by means of a history (or social psychology) lesson... my response being a case in point. $\endgroup$ – Quintin Jun 1 '18 at 11:33
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Nothing binds a people to their leader like a common enemy. Voters don't change governments during war. Harvey Fierstein

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/harvey_fierstein

A sense of impending doom and hopelessness would make the citizenry unproductive at best and hard to govern / chaotic at worst. An outside enemy will unite the people in a cause, taking their minds off the existential threat of extinction.

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In the face of extinction, I would imagine that many people would be in denial. People in denial might lash out against those who challenge their self-deceptions. That is, of course, not particularly rational. But, in this case the aggressors would be protecting their own wishful perceptions, as opposed to anything planted firmly in reality.

Sadly, I think that that sort of protectiveness over perceptions is quite common in people. In one extreme case, I remember reading an article about a school in (I think) Russia, where a teacher was accused of sexually molesting their students. The parents were furious... at the accuser, for suggesting that this particular community was as bad as outsiders made them out to be. I wish I could cite the article, but I don't remember the name off the top of my head, and the details aren't particularly important to my point anyway.

More generally, it is well known that people who are in distress, and especially who lack feelings of security/stability in their lives (which people in the situation that you described certainly would) have a tendency towards risk-taking behavior (which war certainly is). The distraction of war might be worth the trouble of going to war.

People come up with a lot of stories for why they lash out, but I think that those are mostly just things to tell other people. Or, even when they are legit, the reasons tend to fall back on this: when they feel insecure, people get more aggressive. For this reason, I cynically think that the situation that you describe would likely lead to conflict. The real challenge is deciding what excuses people come up with for becoming violent, how quickly do those ideas (excuses) spread, etcetera.

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Disagreements in how far people are willing to go to create new humans could create conflict.

Otherwise, I don't see why the usual things wouldn't apply. People might be of the opinion that lives are precious, but not their lives, or not as precious as a cause. Much as today.

Some might be of the opinion that they are entitled to supress and control populations for the greater good.

Cloning might be an option to save humanity. Some might see this as bad. Maybe they are right to? Maybe clone soldiers are dispensable and "real" humans are not?

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  • $\begingroup$ Cloning is something I don't know a lot about. That it's not 'switch-on-a-machine-and-humans-roll-out-on-a-conveyor' type deal is something I know for sure. Is fertility a factor in cloning? $\endgroup$ – H-Finch Jun 1 '18 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ @H-Finch Fertility isn't exactly a factor, but depending on the cause of the infertility, it could influence cloning viability also. There is currently no known way of growing a fetus outside of a uterus, but it's likely not impossible. (Just difficult ) It might also be possible to make a clone from any human cell, or from human dna injected into a non-human cell. It's still possible to imagine a single cause for both infertility and inviability of this kind of cloning. $\endgroup$ – Osthekake Jun 1 '18 at 7:19

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