Filiapolis logopodcast

No overpopulation among the Gods

Fear so often mentioned during life extension debates, today will we be looking at the problem of overpopulation in a world without elderly people.

Hey everyone, Nicolas for what may be the biggest bit in our series about death and aging. Yes today we’re tackling what may be one of the biggest objections against the idea of eradicating the aging process. It isn’t the objection I find the most compelling but it is brought up so often that it might be the most important to analyze.

The problem is often put like this: if nobody ages anymore then mathematically we will end up with overpopulation. And yes, take few deaths, add many babies, shake well and out comes a malthusian disaster cocktail. Or not.

But before analyzing the ingredients to try to guess that cocktail’s taste, I’d like to be a little more rigorous in our philosophical approach, for once, and define what is meant by overpopulation.

Generally speaking the simple version is that of some inadequacy of resources or infrastructure for a given population. Not enough bread for all.. or, not enough room for all. Simple in theory but not always useful in practice.

What is meant by not having enough bread? Does it mean we should all have enough to eat at will, that is to say be fully satiated or even beyond? Or just enough to match average nutritional requirements? An athlete’s nutritional requirements or a couch potato’s? It’s obvious that daily privations with permanent hunger is rather problematic. But is it also overpopulation if we merely need to restrain ourselves a little bit once every decade or so?

Same for housing where overpopulation can take quite a different meaning for a Japanese person or an American. And indeed varies from Japanese to Japanese and American to American. Some struggle to fill 20 square meters and others don’t know how to fit everything in 200.

Here we are starting to see that the problem isn’t to be understood in terms of one or zero but as a gradation. Even worse, it isn’t easy not to use rather subjective criteria. And so it is quite easy for two people to analyze the same situation yet arrive at completely opposite conclusions.. nonetheless both perfectly valid.

The one thing we can at least all agree on however is about whether the situation is moving toward overpopulation or away from it. And then the concept retains its usefulness and allows for some discussion, even as we may not easily agree on the urgency of it.

And is it urgent? Well I’d like to propose that the calculation is much more complicated than some simple extrapolation of current tendencies with just one modification, that of no longer having people age. Indeed observing the past does not perfectly predict the future. It is tempting to look at the curves and simply project them forward but it isn’t that simple.

If humanity indeed gets to stop the universal aging process, if nobody becomes all frail and wrinkled and kick the bucket around 80 anymore, yes the mortality curve is to be inflected. But it nonetheless does not mean that other curves, such as the natality one for instance, will keep following today’s tendency.

We all well know that the natality rate already has a tendency to go down nearly everywhere in the world and we could anticipate it not to be constant but to keep going down some more since the main factor seems to be quality of life. The more humans become comfortable the more they seem to invest their time in a reduced number of offspring and better quality for all of them.

It seems our biological instinct is to favor quality over quantity when the environment allows it. I’m not going to go into details here but in biology this is the idea of R selection (focusing on quantity) or K selection (focusing on quality). Humans are naturally rather K selected (quality) and all the more so that we have become masters of our environment.. which is bound to be even more the case with the end of aging and the near complete control of our biology implied by it.

This argument then tends to show that we should anticipate an inflection of the mortality rate following the absence of deaths by aging, but also an inflection of the natality rate. However there is no guarantee that the population would reach some demographic equilibrium. There could still be more births than deaths overall.

And indeed it seems that it will be the case. In Japan for instance, a developed country where the natality rate is extremely low and the age related mortality rate very high.. if we were to remove all diseases and infections (assuming that we can cure everything soon and no longer age), the demographic expansion in this country would go from -1 per one thousand today to +7 per one thousand tomorrow. A sharp difference indeed, which seems to point to some sort of overpopulation to come. For Japan which is worried about depopulation it’s almost a gift.. but also the risk of some exponential growth.

Because all those kids will also one day have kids of their own, even if very few on average. And those kids’ kids will go on having kids themselves and so on.. without their parents dying off as they regularly do today. Worse still, the low birth rate we are seeing today is no longer guaranteed in a world where centenarians can now decide to have babies too.

The absence of aging is also potentially the absence of fertility with an expiry date. The fertility rate of a woman is today calculated based on the onset of menopause or lacking that average longevity. Tomorrow we won’t have either. And so some women could potentially have 30 children, 40, 50.. or even more.

Will they want to? That I can’t tell. This is unprecedented in the history of the human race. But animals which do not age keep on reproducing until death. It’s quite probably that maternal instincts will be just as present, or absent (depending on women), as hormonal levels remain those of a young woman. And once the first children have been out of the house for many years it isn’t impossible to imagine some women, perhaps even most of them, wanting to again hold their own personal tiny baby in their arms. Men too perhaps.

And so in the best case scenario only people in their twenties would have children and the population will keep growing in a predictable and linear manner. But in the worst case scenario, centenarians will also want their own sometimes and the population might well grow rather exponentially.

It’s also interesting to note that it has been suggested that people may want to delay the age at which they have their first child. I’m not convinced by this argument. Those who want children do not get going by fear of menopause. If it were the case we would have most births occurring around 35 or 40 years old, precisely just before menopause.

However, and even though the tendency is to have the first child later than before, it is mainly because of constraints preventing having them earlier. When parents are in a stable situation they no longer wait. Generally it happens late in their twenties or early in their thirties, when menopause is but a distant threat.

For most people having a child is an emotional decision which is only delayed because of reasoned necessity. Tomorrow’s thirty somethings, without the threat of menopause or old age, but with a stable situation, will probably have as many reasons as today to procreate without waiting further.

The idea of population stability despite the lack of aging seems to me not particularly credible. Everything seems to point to a growing population and only the amplitude and speed is in doubt. It is potentially a problem. But not necessarily so.

We must not forget that a population growing because of better technological mastery, will not come alone. This same mastery guarantees other changes which will be able to, if not counter the negative effects, at least soften them.. and perhaps cancel them out completely.

So what am I talking about? Well I’m talking about our capacity to do ever more with ever less. Yes we shouldn’t forget that overpopulation is not just a lot of people but rather too many people given our resources and needs. If it is possible to grow our resources or diminish our needs then it is possible, even with a growing population, to avoid overpopulation and maybe even to become more comfortable.

This is actually not utopian or even without precedent. Humanity has never been both so numerous and so comfortable. We like to focus on what isn’t going well but in truth, except some really god awful places, everything is getting better. We are less sick, less hungry, and we’re better housed today than ever. Less and less poor countries included. Humanity has never been this connected, this peaceful, this law abiding or this rich. It is precisely because a few black spots remain that we see them so black. They are stains on an otherwise rather white canvas.

We are alive at a time when one of the main fears in developed countries (which by the way represent more people than ever), is to no longer have enough work. Not the fear to no longer have enough to live or even be entertained.. no no, the fear in modern societies is to no longer have to work. A lack of imagination on how to share resources in a world of abundance without work yes.. overpopulation certainly not. Not only do we have enough for everyone, we don’t even need to have them all work anymore. Talking progress that’s not half bad.

And this weird world in which we live, inconceivable just a century or two ago, is about to get much better much faster. More people? No problem. Tomorrow’s world can, even on our tiny planet, welcome more and better, all the while disturbing ecosystems less. “What sorcery is that?”

Well the sorcery called biotechnology which indeed is going to allow us to end the aging process, but also nanotechnology, space colonization, virtual reality and so on. A few examples maybe?

Well we have in labs organisms, modified bacteria which can transform carbon dioxide into fuel, food for fish and mammals (like you and I), which can eat and recycle plastic in the oceans.

We can recreate muscle, meat from pretty much any animal, in large quantities and using only a few stem cells and a tiny fraction of the water and nutrients used today. And of course all without the ethical dilemmas posed by industrial animal slavery.

We can 3D print our houses with super insulating materials, self cleaning and uber strong. We use fewer and fewer resources per capita with on demand transportation made possible by self driving cars, hyperloop trains that go as fast as planes without pollution and at a fraction of the energetic cost.

The immersion in virtual and augmented reality which diminishes the need for physical travel and brings humans closer together in social and convincing environments impossible until now.. or conversely which allow for some escapism, an on demand safe haven for those who need it.

I’m going to stop the inventory here but we already have enough to significantly improve our planet’s capacity to support human existence. And I merely described some of the advances already ready to come out of the labs. We have in store much more promising. Artificial intelligence which will allow us to augment more than just our muscles. Molecular and atomic level recycling allowing us to eventually transform pretty much anything into almost everything. Scarcity of matter being mostly a thing of the past.. limited only by the energy harvested from the sun.

This world seems fantastical, utopian, out of reach. And yet it is close at hand. Let’s not forget here that we are talking of a world without aging. Something which I’m sure sounds just as utopian to those who haven’t been paying sufficiently close attention to the scientific research in the field.

Tomorrow’s world, the one we should normally see you and I, is not solely composed of new problems but also new solutions. Solutions which I believe to have shown have the potential to be perfectly capable of tackling our future challenges.

But it is true that some day humanity, if it continues to procreate and no longer ages, will eventually reach a point where resources, in spite of our advanced tech, will no longer be enough to provide everyone with enough comforts. This is a distant problem, which will arise long after the first anti-aging therapies. In a far future where several generations of inventors, explorers, and artificial intelligences too, will have long set their sights on the stars.

And precisely, we shouldn’t forget that nothing forces humanity to stay on its rock. If one day we were to need more resources or space for the newcomers, we could simply.. go somewhere else. We do not yet know how to efficiently move a large number of people offworld but let me remind you this problem is not for today or tomorrow.. it is several generations away at the earliest.. if ever. Until then the most exotic ways of sending men into space will have become possible with new materials and propulsion technologies already being studied.

And once beyond the stratosphere, space isn’t exactly scarce. Or even resources of all kinds. Enough to ensure humanity can be fine for a period of time too long to anticipate. Overpopulation here on earth, yes if we all stay. But we’re not all going to stay. No more than we will all move into my living room, no really don’t.. or that we find four generations in great-grandma’s studio. No when things become complicated we move. That’s it. It’s nothing new. It works well. We know it does.

And this will be helped by virtual reality which will make the concept of space all the more relative. I’ll get into the details of concrete reality versus virtual reality, simulations, dreams and so on in a future episode.

Ok this future seems too crazy, inconceivable, unrealistic maybe even for some. I’m not going to try to convince you here. Those of you who already are don’t need to be and everybody else will become so progressively with ever intensifying coverage of the new technologies I just mentioned.

But let’s imagine the worst of the worst.. And let’s be a bit less scientist and sociologist, and put on our philosopher’s toga. Let’s imagine then that those new technologies amount to nothing or at least are not sufficient to significantly counteract the population growth. Let’s also imagine that we are unable to leave our rock or that we are profoundly disappointed to have left. Believable or not it gives us food for thought.

Don’t we have here some unavoidable overpopulation disaster? Well yes and no. There’s at least one simple solution that remains.. that to no longer procreate.. or at least less procreate. There we go. No more problem. We could even imagine under-population happening. Well without going that far it is obvious that diminishing the number of children has problematic sides too. At least so it seems.

For instance it could be said that refusing to birth the next generations is a problem for the generations in question who will not enjoy life. Who will not have the pleasure of being, of banging one’s foot against the bed, well not this one, but at least all the other positive things in life like those I cannot mention in case children are listening.

And this argument is false or at least leads to inextricable moral dilemmas. Either we consider that those who do not and will not exist do not matter, good or bad, or we consider not just one of two of those children to be, but all. And so we now have to pop out kids on a conveyor belt. Be careful not to stop because according to this logic not birthing someone when it was possible is morally reprehensible.

This position is of course untenable and we quickly see it is senseless. At FILIAPOLIS we do practical philosophy and this is anything except practical. Logically there can be no responsibility without causation. We can have toward that which does not exist no duties precisely because we are not the cause of anything concerning them. Indeed they cannot be concerned by anything until after this cause has been established and result in their existence. In this way we are actually responsible to those we gave life to, but the reverse cannot be true.

In other words not creating the next generation has no moral consequences either good or bad. It is a non argument. No need to consider it any further.

A more interesting argument is that of stagnation due to some lack of new blood. Old people are assumed to be unreasonably stubborn and young people to be the engine of breakthroughs of all kinds. And so with only old farts, if not biologically at least chronologically so, society, humanity, would stagnate.

This is the subject of a future episode in this series and I am not going to delve too deep into it here. It is important and I’m not trying to avoid it, but as we’ll see the conclusion is the same. This problem is probably false or at least vastly exaggerated as we will see.. and in any case moot.

Those who are not here do not need a better society, and those who are here have no interest in dying to create a better one. And so the new generation which does not exist does not need the progress it is supposed to bring, while the current generation which does not age would need to die to be replaced and eventually not see this progress anyway.

If we do accept the idea of a young/elder divide we must conclude that there is no winning solution. The price of progress is to kill all those who want to live so those who don’t want to live can benefit from it. Absurd. No progress then in this scenario but at least we aren’t murdering anyone. We will see that it is a false dichotomy anyway.. for all kinds of reasons.

The third axis is perhaps the most obvious. If we prevent people from having children, or if they become fully responsible for them, which eventually becomes one and the same given how prohibitively expensive it would become, we would create a lot of unhappy non parents. Sad if not despairing. Not being able to procreate is real suffering for many.

Few are the women, and men to some extent too, who are fine with their infertility. And I suspect that their reaction in the face of social, administrative or financial prohibition would be more or less the same. No children equals big tears for many. It’s a problem. A real problem in a world where we would hypothetically need to restrain parental instincts.

But let’s be honest. It’s a rather pale problem in comparison to the dark one of death which permeates our societies. The mass mourning of millions of human beings who have lost loved ones or see them slowly wither away. The omnipresent suffering which strikes, sometimes long announced and sometimes out of the blue, but always with the same dramatic consequences. This horror we all know or that we will all know with certainty. This one that pushed us to rationalize the unacceptable for fear of being unable to vanquish the scourge of aging.

No, the suffering of not being a parent cannot be avoided at that price. We cannot condemn to death humanity as a whole, to know oneself mortal and see oneself and others wither away.. just to allow those who would like to again be the happy owners of a baby to realize this one desire. Not being a parent, or not being parent again, is a frustrated desire for some in the population. Waking up tomorrow is the sum of all desires for almost everyone in the population. If we need to sacrifice something here, which again I don’t think we do but we’re talking worst case scenario here, it is procreation and not the end of this rot called aging.

A rather sad episode today. You and I will surely see our parents fade and we will eventually need to say our goodbyes. Our friends too. Everyone we care about in fact. You have a right to be angry. To rebel against a state of affairs you have not chosen. It is neither childish nor stupid. In this series we are destroying the myths which keep going this guilt we all feel wanting more life for us and our loved ones. This guilt is so strong that society refuses to debate it and many among us, perhaps even among those listening, forbid themselves from wanting to live with no expiry date. They self censor, grasp on to those myths to avoid having to upend this worldview that was thought up for them.

But today a main piece falls. Aging is not obligatory to save humanity from overpopulation. Mathematically it’s unavoidable, if humanity keeps on procreating even a little, it will but grow. But this process is slow and does not represent a real problem for a species which, after having conquered biological aging, will be technically closer to the gods than to apes. On earth and then among the stars, the future of man is one of comfort in multitude. And even if not, we would be ill advised to sacrifice the living for those who do not want to be.. or to exchange the pain of not being a parent for the mass suffering of the entire species. We have suffered enough.

Thank you for listening to this episode. You have a right to stay alive if you want to.. to share this podcast too.. don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, we have seen that so far their arguments amount to nothing. Speaking of which we have a few more myths to debunk but until then.. talk to you soon.

be generous, share


Let's talk
Help out

Please attribute the source to should you copy part of this site.