Longevity and the Overpopulation Conundrum

If humans start living till the age of 150, it will lead to a rapid rise in population. Tackling this population growth may require unusual solutions.
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“The battle to feed all of humanity is over”

The Population Bomb, a 1968 book by Stanford University entomologist Paul Ehrlich, begins on this ominous note, and its predictions turn progressively dire as you turn the pages.

The Population Bomb was initially ignored, but it slowly became a controversial cult classic of the 20th century. In it, Ehrlich argued that in the decade that would follow, that is the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people would starve to death worldwide and, even more alarmingly, nothing could be done to prevent this catastrophe. His reasoning: the population explosion.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that Ehrlich’s predictions were wide off the mark. Our planet’s human population is more than double than what it was when Ehrlich wrote his book, and while there are many things to be concerned about—the proliferation of nuclear weapons and climate change, for instance—population growth is not considered an existential threat by most experts.

According to data released by the United Nations, the world’s population is expected to effectively stop growing by the year 2100 thanks to falling fertility rates. The magic figure is 10.9 billion. The UN’s demographers have predicted that once the world’s population reaches this number, the curve will start to flatten.

But such projections are not based on a few fundamental assumptions. Among them is the assumption that in the near future, there may not be an unusually big drop in the worldwide death rates.

So, if humans start to live longer, much longer, because of life-extension technologies, we may have to revisit the population math. Are we then staring at another population bomb, this one driven by longevity?

The population bomb reimagined

Some smart folks have already done the math.

John K. Davis, professor of philosophy at California State University, Fullerton, and author of New Methuselahs: The Ethics of Life Extension, worked with a demographer in order to ascertain what would happen if people were to live to the age of 150 or even 1000.

Davis gave a hypothetical scenario: in a population of 1 billion with an average life expectancy of 150 years, every woman has two children, the first when she is 25 and the second aged 75. Alarmingly, the number-crunching revealed that the world’s population would shoot up to 21 billion by the end of this century, which is about 10 billion more than the UN estimate.

But here’s the catch. This admittedly nightmarish projection could be drastically reduced if only one child were allowed for every two women.

In the second, even more outlandish mathematical model, where everyone lives to 1000, a similar discipline in producing far fewer kids was found to have a similar impact, although this would be over a longer time scale, and it would take hundreds of years for the population to stabilize.

Cutting through these numbers, mortality becomes a morality play – How do we choose which couples can have children, and who can’t?

What Davis’ numbers game has demonstrated is that unless there are some unexpected technological breakthroughs that would allow a very large number of people to sustain themselves on the planet, longevity – even the relatively modest extension of life till the age of 150 – will pose some knotty problems.

What could this reimagined future look like?

When we are discussing something as profound and far-reaching as life-extension, with its attendant political, societal, economic and religious dimensions, it makes sense to think about the near future (i.e. this century) and the far-off future separately.

Within our lifetime, the goals of most longevity advocates are more realistic, such as making ageing a more comfortable process, living a much healthier life well into our eighties and nineties, and defeating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.

Whereas beyond that, after 2100, technology would have advanced sufficiently to make actual life extension (say till the age of 150) a possibility. Other than mandating a section of the population to have no babies, are there other ways to imagine that future?

For one, the idea that women need to have a biological child determined by their menopause cycle may itself become outdated – as provocative as this may sound now. We are after all talking about societal norms that may be very different from ours, and the psychological and biological urge to have children may not be the same as it is today.

To put it differently, instead of a dystopian world where governments force people to have fewer children, reproduction may naturally become less popular among people.

But the question of overpopulation cannot be looked at in isolation. A world which is starting to conquer death will also be technologically super-advanced in many other ways.

From new ways of farming, producing 3D printed meat and perfecting fusion for an endless source of energy, to our ability to harness drinking water from the sea and finding innovative solutions to mass housing — the technological breakthroughs in all these disparate fields may render overpopulation a less dangerous phenomenon than it seems now.

Also, not all life-extension technologies are about the physical body. There are various man-cyborg and artificial intelligence singularity scenarios in which the human brain and consciousness are seen as the real life in need of preserving, rather than the clumsy body. This would render the entire overpopulation debate superfluous and shift the conversation to how best to digitally preserve the brain/mind of a person that truly makes him or her a unique individual. This is admittedly not a very appetizing prospect for many, but it again demonstrates that there are many ways of looking at the overpopulation conundrum.

Indeed, according to James Lovelock, the British visionary environmentalist and futurist, the rise of intelligent machines means the end of the dominance of Homo sapiens.

“The understanders of the future will not be humans but what I choose to call ‘cyborgs’ that will have designed and built themselves,” he writes in his book Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence.

Novacene means ‘the new new age’ and in Lovelock’s extraordinary vision of the future, benevolent cyborgs will be the descendants of the robots and AI technologies of our era, and will possess self-awareness. So, human civilization may not necessarily come to a violent end but may cease to be the fittest in the techno-Darwinist scheme of things. If such a future dawns, then we might need measures to combat underpopulation, not overpopulation. Except that ‘we’ will no longer be the ones in charge.

Nevertheless, the underpopulation hypothesis is an outlier. When life-extension technologies start making a measurable impact on human longevity in the coming decades, it is overpopulation that policymakers, technocrats, scientists and the rest of us will most likely need to grapple with.

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