Pessimism: Longevity as a Crisis

Too many people take it as read that there are too many people. The assumption of overpopulation as a reality is the great myth of our time, held despite the obvious figures on the table to show that this planet of ours could comfortably support many multiples of the present population even with today's technology. It is the legacy of the success of the environmentalist movement, which transcended the reasonable portions of the original agenda to transform itself into something of a civic religion somewhere along the way. It is a strange twist to the cultures we create to see that the average person in the street now thinks that many of our greatest achievements should be torn down or relinquished and even that human existence is a net negative.

Yet where there is poverty and suffering, that state exists despite present wealth and opportunities to generate wealth, not because of the number of people involved. There is more than enough food, more than enough resources, and more of an excess of both are being created with each passing year. These are political and distribution issues, problems of organization, kleptocracy, and simple inhumanity. Waste amid the potential for plenty.

The prevalence of the overpopulation myth is, I think, one of the important contributing factors to public opposition to extending healthy human life span. Much of the public is convinced that there exists a present crisis of population that will lead inevitably to some form of resource collapse - which is far from the case, but facts in evidence never played much of a role in these sorts of slow-moving hysteria in the past. These patterns of belief even extend into the community of futurists and supporters of longevity science, and hence you'll sometimes see articles such as this one:

When our most precious and hard fought for successes give rise to yet more challenges life is revealing its Sisyphean character. We work as hard as we can to roll a rock up a hill only to have it crush us on the way down. The stones that threatens us this time are two of our global civilization's greatest successes - the fact that children born are now very likely to live into old age and the fact that we have stretched out this old age itself so that many, many more people are living into ages where in the past the vast majority of their peers would be dead. These two demographic revolutions when combined form the basis of what I am calling the Longevity Crisis.

Ultimately in terms of the sustainability of our species [the present] decline in the birth rate is a very good thing. Demographics, however, is like a cruise ship - it is hard to turn. In the lag time the world's population is exploding as societies are able to save the lives of children but continue to have nearly as many of them. We are living through the turning. [It] took humanity roughly 250,000 years to reach 1 billion of us in 1900, but thereafter the rate of growth skyrocketed. There was only a little over a century between our first billion and second billion. 40 years later in 1960 we numbered 3 billion. Only 14 years after that we reached the 4 billion mark and the time between adding another billion would shorten to about a mere dozen years with 5 billion reached in 1987, 6 billion following 12 years later in 1999, and 7 billion a dozen after that in 2011.

Thankfully, the rate of population growth is slowing. It will take us 14 years to pass the 8 billion mark and 20-25 years to reach what will perhaps be the peak of human population during this era - 9 billion in 2050. Though comforting we shouldn't necessarily be sanguine in light of this fact - we are still on track to add to the world the equivalent of another China and Europe by the middle of the century. Certainly, these people will, with justice, hanker after a middle class lifestyle putting enormous pressures on the global environment. Add to that the effects of climate change and it seems we are entering a very dangerous and narrow chute through which humanity must pass.

Some people feel threatened by large numbers. But numbers alone mean nothing and say nothing. They carry no information or context, and to base fear of the future rather than optimism on the fact that one number is changing is an emotional reaction, not a rational analysis.



Yeah I fairly strongly disagree with percieved overpopulation being the main reason for public apathy towards funding longevity science.

Admittedly just going on my personal feelings and observations, but near immortality just sounds so woo woo right now. If something has been some way for, well, forever since the beginning of history (aging and death). Then changing public opinion will take a pretty strong demonstration, probably a rat of rabit that has lived 2 times a normal lifespan already and is still in the what appears to be yourhful vigor and health. Do that and public support and interest will begin to increase.

ThE public aren't experts and fairly enough can't be arsed thinking about this too deeply. Overpopularion is a trite reason given for not investing in longevity science. But resounding belief in it is not the reason for a lack of funding. It gets trotted out a lot because most people can't be bothered thinking up more serious objections to longevity science. But if people thought a bit more deeply they'd probably conclude that the real reaon is that there isn't living breathing proof in the form of a 10 year old youthful rat or 80 year old youthful human that they can see with their own eyes.

Not saying that this situation is fair, but it is what it is.

Posted by: jim at November 11th, 2013 9:17 AM

I think that it is worse than pessimism - it is full blown and pervasive apathy, complacency, and just utter disinterest in any type of meaningful continuation of people's existence. I would say only 1-in-20 of the people I know (from a wide variety of education, income, and age backgrounds) have any interest in a rich and inspiring post-60s life - unless it is the move away from structured work environment to a particularly immobile and sturdy sofa. If you want to solve and promote anything in longevity treatment/ repair/ refurbishment, reinstate that bio-chemical attribute which promotes risk tolerance, challenge, inspiration, and grit. Longevity has to be more than healthy physiological continuity, it has to be healthy psychological continuity. Perhaps longevity is being marketed to the wrong people. We need to move to the college campuses and high schools - getting those truly 'healthy' people to contribute - for I am not sure anyone above that age is really worth preserving.

Posted by: Jer at November 11th, 2013 4:48 PM

The way conservatives describe this longevity does not appeal to most people bc it sounds like hellish torture.

When discussing social issues like work, retirement and life span, the response has been work longer.

Completely missing the point that most people don't like their jobs and retirement is the only reason they hold on.

Posted by: Realty check at November 11th, 2013 9:35 PM
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