Overpopulation and Living Forever – Part 2

[I apologize to my readers. I discovered a few days after publication that this essay is virtually identical to my previous post. I would take it down but I would then lose the reader comments .]

Many worry that radical life extension or the elimination of death will lead to overpopulation and ecological destruction. In other words, while it may be best for individuals to live forever, it might be collectively disastrous. Readers may recognize this situation as an instance of the “tragedy of the commons.” Acting in their apparent self-interest, individuals destroy a common good. It may be convenient for individuals to pollute the air, earth, and water, but eventually, this is catastrophic for all. However, I don’t believe that overpopulation and its attendant problems should give researchers in this area pause. Here are some reasons why.

Let’s begin with a few simple things. First of all, fertility rates are currently plummeting around the world. In addition, the carrying capacity of our planet in terms of the population depends on our technology, which is constantly progressing. Technology itself may allow us to comfortably feed more people with less environmental impact in the near future. Next consider that if the choice is between using technology to prolong healthy lives or having more children, most of us would choose the latter. Wouldn’t you prefer to have fewer children than having your parents get Alzheimer’s?

But there’s more. If we have conquered death, then we may already be transhumans or post-humans living after a technological singularity. Such beings may not want to propagate, since achieving a kind of immortality is a major motivation for having children. Posthumans would be relatively independent of the physical environment too—their bodies may be impervious to environmental stressors, or they may not have bodies at all. In such cases, concerns about overpopulation would be irrelevant. I’m not saying that they will be irrelevant, but that the tragedy of 150,000 people dying every single day—100,000 of them from age-related causes—is a huge price to pay for speculative hypotheses about the future. We shouldn’t assume that our concerns as biological beings today will be relevant in the future.

Of course, I don’t know how the future will unfold. But preserving the minds that now exist may be a better survival strategy than educating new ones. In the future, we will probably need educated and mature minds—their invaluable knowledge and wisdom. So I argue that we should try to eliminate death, dealing with overpopulation—assuming we even have to—when the time comes. My suggestions may be considered reckless, but remember there is no risk-free way to proceed into the future. Whatever we do, or don’t do, has risks. If we cease developing technology we will not be able to prevent the inevitable asteroid strike that will decimate our planet; if we continue to die young we may not develop the intelligence necessary to design better technology. Given these considerations, we shouldn’t let hypotheticals about the future deter our research into defeating death.

Note too that this objection to life-extending research could have been leveled at work on the germ theory of disease, or other life-extending research and technology in the past. Don’t cure diseases because that will lead to overpopulation! Don’t treat sick children because they might survive and have more children! I think most of us are glad we have a germ theory of disease and treat sick children. Our responsibility is to help people live long, healthy lives, not worry that by doing so other negative consequences might ensue. We are glad that some of our ancestors decided that a twenty-five-year life span was insufficient, instead of worrying that curing diseases and extending life might have negative consequences.

Most importantly, I believe it is immoral for us to reject anti-aging research and the technologies it will produce, thereby forcing future generations to die involuntarily. After anti-aging technologies are developed, the living should be free to choose to live longer, live forever, or even die young if they want to. But it would be immoral for us not to try to make death optional for them. If we made decisions for them, we would be imposing our values on them. At the moment we tolerate a high death rate to compensate for a high birth rate, but our descendants may not share this value.

Moreover, as I have argued previously, death is like a bomb strapped to our chest. The bomb is with us from birth and can detonate at any time. If it is in our power to remove that bomb for future generations, then we should. We should not let hypothetical concerns about negative consequences deter our removing those explosives. I’d bet future generations will thank us for removing such bombs, and even if our descendants do decide that a hundred years of consciousness is enough, they will probably be thankful that we gave them the option to live longer. I’d guess that higher forms of being and consciousness will want to preserve their being. They would want us to disarm the bomb.

The lovers of death don’t want to disarm the bomb because its detonation transports you to a better address—from a slum to a mansion. Even better, in the mansion, your mind and body are eternally bathed in a salve of peace, love, and joy. That is the justification for opposing the bomb’s removal. The problem is this story is fictional. And we know that most people agree because when humans conquer death when they learn to remove the bomb—they will. Those in the future who have the option to live forever will be eternally grateful that they have the real thing, instead of the empty promises we now pay for each Sunday in church. Consciousness has come a long way from its beginnings in a primordial soup, but there is so much farther to go. Let’s put our childhood behind us, and make something of ourselves. (to be continued.)

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11 thoughts on “Overpopulation and Living Forever – Part 2

  1. As one whose mother died at 60, father at 67, brother at 72, allow me to weigh in. I do NOT want to live past 80. Nor do I think the proliferation of nonegenarians, which is no fantasy of immortality but is happening today, is good for the planet. It is blithely optimistic to assume that technology will keep up with population. It is also anthropocentric for while we may be able to feed our teeming masses, our toll on the planet is leading to mass extinction of other species.

    So we should keep minds alive, not bodies? We already do that — in books. For the life of me (pun intended), I do NOT understand the value of life after 85, perhaps even 80 (I’m 68 now). Our society is geriatrophilic (I invented the word), meaning we thrive on stories of the 85-year-old marathon runner, the 90 year old tennis player. But these exceptions hide the million or more who, kept alive by technology and their own fear or denial of death, rot away in nursing homes. To me, this obssession with long life i a sin, a crime, a blot on our species.

    When Einstein was 76, he was diagnosed with an enlarged aorta. Told that surgery would fix it, he refused it. “Artificially prolonging life is tasteless,” he said. “I’ve done my time.” He died a few months later. Such wisdom needs a revival in our death-phobic times.

  2. This post made me smile and brought back old memories. I studied under professor Hardin (Environmental biology) and did my senior thesis on his then recently published book: “The Tragedy of the Commons.” He and Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb)were very much the raze in those late 1960s. I argued before him and my mentor philosophy professor about the philosophical ethics of his book. Let’s say we agreed to disagree. As he was a member of the Hemlock Society, he and his wife, both in poor health, decided to remove themselves from the gene pool in 2003. R.I.P. Thanks for the memory.

  3. wow. that’ quite a story. I have absolutely no objections to the hemlock society and have published articles in favor of voluntary active euthanasia. That said, I’ve also read somewhere that he wasn’t a very nice guy—a racist and a bigot. But I have no idea if that’s true or not.

  4. UN world pop. projections for 2100 are 8-18 billion, median of ~12B. In some parts of the world, women are pressured to be baby factories, having an average of as many as 7+ babies ea., and marrying in childhood, which significantly accelerates the geometric increase. In these countries, the median pop. age may be 15 years today, with births being 6, 7, 8 times the number of deaths. In 2100, how old will they be when they are asked to hurry up and die already? 12 years old? 9?
    The already-living should have more rights than potential future humans. Women’s bodies should be under the control of women, not in-laws or clergy or pols. With a “flat earth,” overpopulation anywhere is overpopulation everywhere. And we often forget that carbon emission isn’t the only problem. Water, topsoil, and pollutants are critical issues wherever humans live.
    Rarely do quality of life, peace, justice, and privilege coexist with overpopulation. There is a hesitancy to make aid contingent on these countries relinquishing the mores of the past (child brides, slavery, etc.), although that would be the truly compassionate way, and it would be one of the greenest of new deals.
    When ought we to croak? My 2 cents: first we should address (a) the natality issues, (b) what sorts of technically realistic longevity scenarios are worth aiming for.

  5. To post another cynical/facetious comment, it does appear right at this moment that viruses might keep populations in check. Yet, naturally, it is all conjecture: speculation concerning a future we haven’t a clue regarding.
    Thus, though Bruce Watson isn’t Mistaken-Wrong, he—as all of us—has no crystal ball or tea leaves to ponder. So I couldn’t reply adequately to Bruce or anyone else on these matters.

  6. Btw: how can the UN peer eight decades into the future and project a median of 12 billion people? Too many variables in c. 80 yrs.
    I’ve never understood how anyone could think of anything more than fifty years into the future as being anything more than an abstraction.

  7. I really cannot think of better arguments, especially the last one: many people have the pathetic delusion of an existing “nice place somewhere in heaven”…. this is why they just don’t get how “death is final, and it will be the end of us” (by now you know whom I am quoting, although in my own -mostly inadequate- words).

    In a way, and I am sorry to say this, even the great Plato was deluded, because he believed in the existence of a “soul”.

    Ah! Don’t we all wish it were all true? Having an indestructible, luminous thing inside of us, and a gigantic, smiling being with a long beard, waiting for us to join his golden patio where his noble entourage strums their divine harps!

    I believe that even the most hardened non-believer, including me, and all the scientists and atheist philosophers of the past and present, wish these fairy tales were true.

    But the truth seems to be quite simple, disappointing, and brutal: we are creatures of one day. Also, overpopulation seems a trivial possibility compared to defeating DEATH. Besides, why assuming that immortal beings would want to continue propagating? (an argument you have already presented). Maybe there could be an “international” agreement to not propagate at all.

    It takes forever (pun intended), but usually, when we become aware that something is damaging us, we tend to do something about it. 50 years ago people could smoke anywhere, now only under certain circumstances. In a few years, smoking will be likely completely banned. The point is, the world changes and adjusts. It is still a terrible place, but for example, now thieves don’t get thrown to lions anymore.

    And of course, your idea of death being optional, would solve everything. You want to die? Die. You want to live? Live.

    What can be better than that!

    As it is, these people who are so afraid of overpopulation, resemble the beggar who wants to choose to eat in the finest restaurants. They, and us all, will all leave this strange place like the poor beggars we are.

    Thanks for your excellent article!

  8. “….death is like a bomb strapped to our chest. The bomb is with us from birth and can detonate at any time.”

    Truthful, real, and brutally honest. It reminds me of what Seneca wrote: “We are on our way to our death, since the day we are born.”.

    and Schopenhauer: “Death is always lurking in the corner, ready to jump out at us, any instant.”.

    And these people are worrying about overpopulation? They might as well say that it’s a great thing that everyone dies, just so that no one of us is going to bother posterity and leave them some room. Or that it is pretty good that their own parents, siblings, and friends, die, if they haven’t already (I believe they haven’t experienced that yet. For whom of us would not bring a loved one back from the dead?).

  9. BUT, the good news regarding opponents of life extension is: they will change their minds. People always do.
    Something is rejected, then later accepted when the benefits to themselves, and those close to them, are realized.

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