Printed: 2019-08-21

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Longevity will lead to Overpopulation - we need to consider our options now

Adrian Cull

Ethical Technology

July 04, 2015

At some point technology will allow us to live forever. With billionaires spending millions on research [1] and huge corporations such as Google getting in on the act, very soon we are likely to see rapid advances in life expectancy – with the ultimate aim of radical life extension. All diseases will be cured, and the cellular aging that leads to the deterioration in body and mind will be slowed and eventually reversed so that everybody can choose how long they want to live for.

Inevitably this will result in a massive increase in global population.  Even if we only manage to fight off the big killers such as heart disease and cancer - leaving us with cell level aging that limits our bodies to about 120 years – that would still be a 50% increase in life expectancy . [2]

Further into the future we (or an AI) will fully comprehend how cells and bodies age and make death optional.

Although currently only around 5% of people say they would like to live forever this is partly because they struggle to see past the decrepitude of aging, which they wouldn’t suffer, and also because at the moment it is a hypothetical question – what would they say if the little pill was available right now?

There are only two logical ways to address this impending problem of too many people on a planet not designed to support us all, either:

1. prevent the increase in population or
2. find somewhere for the ever growing mass of people to live.

Taking away people’s right to life does not seem a moral or even practical solution. Most longevity treatments are also health improvement treatments – who is going to say that senior citizens should not benefit from less pain and better health in their old age? Everyone would take the pill to cure cancer and give them a few more years of life. And then the next pill which stops brain degeneration. And then the pill after that to revive their flagging energy so they can contribute more to society and enjoy a fulfilling retirement. But then, at what point is a government going to say enough is enough?

Even less likely seems to be enforced euthanasia. At what age would people be made to sacrifice themselves, and who would force them to do it? This scenario was considered in the 1960s book, film and TV series Logan’s Run. [3]

What might be possible is legislation to limit the number offspring, such as China’s one-child policy, or a hybrid where having more than one child means you forfeit your right to immortality. But again, after you’ve signed the forfeiture who is going to physically stop you seeking longevity treatments? Doctors would surely still be obliged to help prevent you from dying.

Any laws to restrict the population would likely only apply to the general population. The super-rich will be able to ignore them by moving to, or creating, a jurisdiction-free zone – perhaps longevity havens will spring up, like tax havens that exist today. Places where the elite live disease-free and are able to procreate as they desire. They would then live in a small area with a small population – but unless that exclusive society also introduced birth controls it would also inevitably suffer the same overpopulation crisis.

The second option is to cope with an ever increasing population. It is generally considered that we are reaching, or possibly have already exceeded, the sustainable population for planet Earth [4] – that is, where we cannot produce and grow enough resources to feed and sustain everyone at a reasonable living standard. This alternative can be broken down into 3 sub-options:

1. we find more places to live on the planet,
2. we each take up less room on the planet, or
3. we find some more space off of this planet.

Perhaps we can squeeze more people on the Earth; maybe we’re only scratching the surface of occupying the planet. Many a science fiction film shows cities growing high into the air, and others with humans digging down to benefit from the warm interior. There is plenty of volume available even if it would require significant engineering such as directing sunlight through fibre optic channels to grow food on multiple levels, or mastering nuclear fusion to give us unlimited energy to produce our own mini-suns wherever we need them.

If we do run out of space, can we take up less space and resources than we do today? Maybe. Possibly we will volunteer to live in a Matrix style world where we are crammed onto the planet taking up little more room than a coffin each – happily living in a virtual world where we experience more than ever possible in the physical one. Ray Kurzweil is predicting we will be able to upload ourselves by the 2030s [5] so what need would we have for physical space after that?

The final option is to find more space elsewhere in the universe. This may seem like a radical, impossible feat, but with improving technology it might be an option.  NASA’s Advanced Space Transportation Program [6]  aims to reduce Earth orbit launch costs to $200 per kilogram by 2025. To remove the 75 million people currently being born every year from this planet would cost in the region of 1.2 trillion dollars which is 1-2% of global GDP. Sounds like a lot, but it’s about the same as the world spends on defense so it is achievable with political will. Obviously there would be more costs to create habitats in space or other planets but in a few more decades the costs would fall, keeping it a feasibility.

None of these options may be life as we know it, but nor is our life today - compared to that of a thousand or even a hundred, years ago. Technology did not exist at the turn of the 20th century to support megacities such as Tokyo, New York and London – the ability to transport, service and sustain people at such densities.

Radical life extension is coming, an increase in population is inevitable, and it’s physically possible to cope with that in one or more ways. The big question is can society and technology react quickly enough? If a wonder drug appeared tomorrow, with the global population growing by about 1% per year we would have a generation to decide what to do, whether that’s building, digging or ramping up space industry investment to make the Apollo program look like a hobby. The planning would be immense and the breakdown of society a significant risk. Religion and other groups might revolt against the technology and object to tax money being spent on projects they morally object to. Laws would have to be reconsidered to cope with fundamental changes brought about by massively longer life spans . For example: loss of inheritance tax, employment opportunities if people don’t retire, and prison sentences – what does a 20 year sentence mean to someone who might live for thousands of years?

We need to be considering these options now as life expectancy is increasing and overpopulation is already with us. If we don’t plan now then as radical life extension technologies improve the decisions will become harder as they’ll affect more people with more to lose – they won’t be protesting for higher wages or equal rights, they’ll be demanding eternity.

[1] 5 billionaires who want to live forever
[2] Global Health Observatory Data Repository
[3] Wikipedia
[4] The Environmental Politics of Population and Overpopulation

Adrian Cull is the founder of the Live Forever Club which monitors advances in life extension technology as well as longevity and health research, translating these findings into practical tips for living forever.


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IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837