There is No Overpopulation: Only Waste, Corruption, and Inhumanity

Advocates for rapid and widespread development of engineered longevity are making some progress in dismissing the Tithonus Error - the common and mistaken belief that longevity-enhancing medicine would make a person spend more years as a frail and decrepit elder rather than more years in the prime of life. As more people come to see a future of longevity therapies as personally beneficial, however, a more insidious form of opposition will come to the fore.

By far and away the most common reason I see given these days in opposition to engineered longevity is fear of overpopulation. Environmentalism has become almost a religion in its own right now, and many strands of that religion are essentially death cults: loose networks of like-thinking people who fervently believe, for whatever reasons, that the world is dying, that humans already live too long, and that people should be forced to relinquish technology and return to a simpler era. Extreme fringe variants of the environmentalist death cult really do stand for the complete destruction of humanity, but even supposedly reasonable, middle of the road people are influenced by deathist environmentalism to the point at which it is seen as reasonable to say that (a) too many people exist, and therefore (b) the unending horror, pain, and suffering of death by aging is necessary.

Death cult environmentalism of the "too many people" variety is, fundamentally, a failure of understanding. It is to look at the undeniably bad situations and unpleasant regions of the world and say "this is because too many people are using too many resources," rather than to see that in fact it's all due to misallocation of existing resources and the failure to develop new resources - a grand procession of waste, corruption, and the inhumanity with which human beings treat one another. These situations are problems that can be solved through development and tearing down corrupt systems of rulership - they are not immutable facts of life that must lead to the deaths of millions.

I've spoken of this in the past, so I won't rehash it at great length here:

Overpopulation: Not a Problem Now, and Never Will Be

What some presently view as "overpopulation" is more accurately described as crushing poverty amidst the potential for plenty and resources left unused. This is the result of despotism, corruption, economic ignorance, short-sighted greed and the inhumanity of man unto man - it is not a matter of counting heads. ... Here, then, is a short guide for kleptocrats and egalitarians who want to keep their countries poor. All of these policies have stood the test of time as techniques for creating and maintaining poverty. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it will give would-be political leaders a good idea of how to start their countries on the road to ruin.

Malthusians are Deathists, and Decentralization is the Better Way

And yet, alongside the ethos of human rights and the development of heroic medicine, contemporary society appears estranged from its own humanity. To put it bluntly: it is difficult to celebrate human life in any meaningful way when people - or at least the growth of the number of people - are regarded as the source of the world's problems. Alongside today's respect for human life there is the increasingly popular idea that there is too much human life around, and that it is killing the planet. ... today's Malthusians share all the old prejudices and in addition they harbour a powerful sense of loathing against the human species itself. Is it any surprise, then, that some of them actually celebrate non-existence? The obsession with natural limits distracts society from the far more creative search for solutions to hunger or poverty or lack of resources.

What I do want to direct your attention to, as the 4th Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence conference drawns near, is recent work by Leonid Gavrilov and Natalia Gavrilova on demographic models for scenarios of enhanced longevity. For all that everyone and their dog seems willing to stand up in casual conversion and predict Soylent Green the moment that greatly enhanced human life spans are mentioned, there hasn't in fact been much in the way of full-on scientific work done on predicting the demographic results of radical life extension. Over the past year or two the Methuselah Foundation, and now SENS Foundation, have been trying to remedy this state of affairs, and this work by the Gavrilovs is one of the first results of this strategy:

Analysis of already existing computer programs for population projections revealed that many of them are based on short-sighted assumptions of small incremental changes in human life span, and they do not allow making detailed projections for the oldest age groups of the population (which are often collapsed into one single 85+ year category). For this reason, many already existing computer programs of population projections are not well suited for the purpose of this project. Therefore, with the support of the Methuselah/SENS foundation, a new demographic projection software has been developed in this study, which was then validated for consistency of results with traditional approaches. This new demographic software is based on generally accepted cohort-component method of population projections. A number of different demographic projections is considered in this project, assuming several scenarios of life extension.

A general conclusion of this study is that population changes are surprisingly slow in their response to a dramatic life extension. For example, we applied the cohort-component method of population projections to 2005 Swedish population for several scenarios of life extension and a fertility schedule observed in 2005. Even for very long 50-year projection horizon, with the most radical life extension scenario (assuming no aging at all after age 50), the total population increases by 35 percent only (from 9.1 to 13.3 million). Moreover, if some members of the society reject to use new anti-aging technologies for some religious or any other reasons (inconvenience, non-compliance, fear of side effects, costs, etc.), then the total population size may even decrease over time. Thus, even in the case of the most radical life extension scenario, population growth could be relatively slow and may not necessarily lead to overpopulation.

If you're interested in more details, there's a powerpoint version of the SENS conference presentation that can be downloaded from the Gavrilovs' site.

Sadly none of this seems likely to change the minds of those folk emotionally vested in a Malthusian view of the world's ills - they already choose to reject plenty of very straightforward, easily demonstrated forms of data that refute their position. Once more study is just one more study, and removing Malthusianism from its place of great and malicious influence over the minds of billions is likely to be a long struggle.


"death cult environmentalism": exactly!

I teach English to groups of middle-school Koreans, and they've internalized the green/leftist/AGW talking points after years of public school indoctrination. I've told them that the end goals of the environmentalists/ZPGers include:

1. You return to the rice paddies.
2. You eliminate all technology beyond the plow.
3. You remain stone-dead ignorant.
4. You obey your betters.
5. You die as soon as possible.

Posted by: Michael Yonce at August 31st, 2009 8:14 PM

It becomes clear that these folks, despite what they claim, have some goal other than "saving the earth" when they reject strategies that would eventually help environmental conservation, such as space colonization.

This fellow is pretty hypocritical about his confidence in science and technology, too.

Posted by: shegeek at September 1st, 2009 8:59 AM

The Overpopulation trope against life extension is just so overused and abused. Its hilarious because many places like Japan are now concerned about declining populations and the lack of child birth. Many places like France and Russia are giving money to women to have kids and the winners of the recent elections in Japan want to do the same.

So, which one is it guys? Over-population or under-population?

The fact is that as economies develop, people have fewer kids. Often they have no kids. Then, throw radical life extension into the mix and I will bet you donuts to dollars that the already low birthrates will plummet to near non-existence.

I wish people who stop harping about overpopulation. It is just, so 1970's, like silk shirts and platform shoes.

Posted by: kurt9 at September 1st, 2009 1:11 PM

I would posit that there's a different way to look at this.

With current technology the earth is overpopulated to afford everyone a western lifestyle.

For example, in the area where I live the market value of real estate near the employment center is significantly higher than your average person can afford. I view this as technological problem. First it's based on the premise that you must physically travel to a work site. Second current commuting technologies are quite lousy.

So unless technology improves drastically, the quality of life in the area remains depressed given the size of the population (or rather demand to be located in the area exceeds the supply).

This leads to the question, is technology progressing rapidly enough to comfortably accommodate our current population growth?

Posted by: Duncan at September 1st, 2009 2:26 PM

Who said humans have to continue breeding? When unlimited lifespan becomes possible, nobody will need children to live through them, leave something to the world when they're gone or have someone to take care of them when they're old.

Posted by: patientia at September 3rd, 2009 11:36 AM

Birth control may decrease population

But Death-control may increase it.

These two effects can balance each other so there will be no more population increase or even a small decrease.

I don't like overcrowding and competition as a result of it. so i am against population increase.

United Nations came to conclusion that the absolute maximum for this planet is 15 billion.
It's already half of that.
Also, increase in population may lead to increased competition, aggression, nuclear holaucaust and resulting population decrease to zero, in other words human extinction. Those of us who want to live for ever wouldn't want to become extinct,would we ?

Posted by: nikki at September 4th, 2009 4:49 PM

I agree with your comments that overpopulation concerns are not an excuse for longevity research. Having longer more productive lives is in effect a highly efficient resource management tool. As someone who has worked in food production systems in countries around the world for the past 40 years, I have to tell you you are sadly and grossly misinformed regarding "no overpopulation."

No matter where you look the human population expansion today is rapidly wiping out not just extraneous and marginal species that might have died out anyway, but entire eco-systems and now major food chain species - most easily observed in the loss of many of our major fishery species in the last 20 years. I'm no eco-fanatic, but I very well understand food production and what occurs when you pack too many animals in an area that can't support them. Many food scientist are saying that we have exceeded the ability to produce food for the current new born generation of humans. Predictions of mass food shortages and starvation in the next 25-50 years - not just in primitive peoples in desert countries, but in first world countries are becoming increasingly common. When we realize that our food production is linked to our finite petroleum resources - 95% of our food is produced with petrochemical fertilizers - there is no denying we have a serious problem and that problem only gets worse with every human that we add past the planet's sustainable human carrying capacity - about where it was in the early 1900s. While you are certainly correct that the world is corrupt and resources are poorly managed (what makes you think this is going to change?) - you are only saying that we will last a while longer before we starve to death, but you are not providing a solution to the over population problems that are staring us clearly in the face.

By your making such unsupported claims that there is "no- overpopulation" you not only weaken your intellectual credibility regarding sustainable human population management, you are also damaging the cause you are attempting to support -healthier, longer, more efficient human lives. Longer productive lives mean less resources spent per individual in education, training, child rearing cost per life time, and it could reduce the period that age related disease effects each life - and the resources spent on this non-productive period of human lives. Longer productive lives in conjunction with managed population reproduction are really the only intelligent choice we have if we are survive, and by far better than what we are doing now - denying we have a major problems in over population. In fact, whether we do longevity research or not, will not matter - if we can't manage a sustainable human population on the planet.

Posted by: Durwood Dugger at September 6th, 2009 8:04 PM

Yeah there is a overpopulation problem, every 12 years the earth gains 1 billion people. No matter what it is GAINING people, it has never went down from any of those causes, they are pretty much insignifigant. TOO MANY PEOPLE WILL BE A NIGHTMARE

Posted by: danielle at September 27th, 2009 10:36 PM

PAUL EHRLICH was wrong on everything he predicted and still the news media listens to this crack-pot

Posted by: Flu-Bird at October 8th, 2009 1:28 PM

The goal of negligible senescence must go hand-in-hand with human freedom.

The resource of the human mind to solve human problems is wasted in societal and governmental systems that force irrational and destructive behavior. People without the freedom to solve their own problems, that must continually bow to the inflated egos of hierarchial leaders, wade through bureaucratic mazes before beginning to start, and continually trapped in the pitfalls of misallocated resources are what drain the earth of resources and prevent solving the problems of resources for all of us humans.

Posted by: Kelton Baker at October 12th, 2009 7:39 AM

Do I understand this right, the Gavrilov projection assumes that aging stops at age 50 (at which most women are infertile)? What if aging stops at, say, 30?

Posted by: Anton Sherwood at January 30th, 2010 10:53 PM

Most of the communities in India (such as Bengali), are succumbed in 'Culture of Poverty'(a theory introduced by an American anthropologist Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is at all ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-administrative system, weak mother language, continuous absorption of common space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold. Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent, caring society, fearless & dignified living. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative behaviour (values) to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately co-parenting of those children those are born out of ignorance, real poverty. All of us are being driven only by the very animal instinct. If the Bengali people ever be able to bring that genuine freedom (from vicious cycle of 'poverty') in their own life/attitude, involve themselves in 'Production of Space’(Henri Lefebvre), at least initiate a movement by heart, decent & dedicated Politics will definitely come up.
- Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah-711101, India.

Posted by: Siddhartha at April 6th, 2011 10:39 AM
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