In the final episode of X10’s overpopulation series, Nicola discusses why it would be enormously unethical to stop the progress of life extension to hope to stop overpopulation.
Throughout the past four episodes, we’ve discussed overpopulation in general, what effects life extension may have on the size of the human population, how population growth can be contained, and what science could do to allow us to support a larger population.
Fundamentally, I’m an optimist. I’m not a hundred percent sure whether life extension therapies will dramatically increase the size of our population or not, but I am more than convinced that science will prepare us for that hypothetical moment well before it actually arrives, if it ever will.
Still, for the sake of argument, suppose that the worst-case scenario came true. Suppose life extension pushed our numbers through the roof and science failed to prepare us for that. Suppose we did become too many people. I know from experience that many people would argue that the most ethical way to prevent this from happening is to ban life extension, never create it in the first place, forget about it, and let sleeping dogs lie.
If you ask me, that’s the most unethical way to prevent overpopulation.
Before I continue, I want to stress that the views presented in this video are mine and mine alone. Ethics are not absolute, so I can only speak for myself. It’s up to you to decide whether you share my views on the subject or not.
The overpopulation objection to life extension can be summarized in a very simple way: if we created life extension, we would eventually end up with more people than our planet can sustain; therefore, we should not create life extension.
Of course, this objection hinges entirely on the assumption that life extension would inevitably lead to a population so large that we could in no way sustain, and as we’ve seen in previous episodes, that’s far from certain. But let’s say that it is certain and that we only have either of the following two options to prevent overpopulation: more deaths or fewer births. As a side note, fewer births doesn’t mean forced abortions; it means deciding to make fewer babies in the first place and acting accordingly.
Now, which option is more ethical?
The more-deaths option means that someone must die. Living, breathing people, who probably have dreams, ambitions, friends and family who will grieve for them, and so on, must give everything up and stop existing for the sake of averting a population crisis.
The fewer-births option means that hypothetical people, who are not even in their mothers’ wombs yet, will not be born. This, by the way, happens all the time. The number of people who could be born but aren’t is astronomical, and it completely dwarfs the number of all people past, present, and future.
The more-deaths option means some of us (and, eventually, all of us) will lose everything, themselves included. It means we’ll all lose our one shot at existing, and the people who care for us will lose us.
The fewer-births options doesn’t involve anyone’s death, nor any losses of any kind on anybody’s part. Some people may be unhappy about not getting to have as many children as they’d like, but frankly, I think that asking Mary and John to have fewer children than they’d like is more acceptable than asking Bob to die so that Mary and John can have more children.
Besides, even if things got so bad that births had to be cut down to zero, this would not last forever. It would last only the time it takes to develop the science and technology to manage a larger population, and as we’ve seen in the last episode, several solutions are in the works already now. Mary and John would just have to wait a little bit, and when the length of your lifespan is indefinite, you can afford waiting. The assumption that managing a much larger population in a sustainable way will be forever beyond what we can do is simply not one that I’m willing to make, because, frankly, it’s as dumb as box of rocks.
Maybe you think I cheated when I introduced the more-deaths option. It kinda sounded like the deaths I was talking about weren’t old people. That doesn’t really sound like I’m talking about an old person, right? It sounds like I was talking about a young person, and no one (to my knowledge, anyway) says that we should prevent overpopulation by letting young people die; only old ones, simply by not creating life extension and letting aging do its thing.
Yeah, that’s wrong. On several levels and for different reasons.
The first reason is the hidden assumption that old people have no dreams, ambitions, purpose, or anything to contribute, left to do, or possibly want. That’s not an assumption, that’s an ass-umption, if you catch my drift. I don’t think I could say it better than Varda Yoran, a 90-year-old woman, did on the Huffington Post during the COVID-19 pandemic:
“I’m not disposable, and I’m saddened that there are people who think age dictates whether a human life is worth saving. I can tell you that I, and my loved ones, want me to live for many years to come. I want to attend my grandson’s high school graduation and see which college he’ll attend. I want to see my older grandson, who is married, become a father. I want to continue my joyful life. I am unable to travel as extensively as I once did, but I want to visit Israel again. Just because I’m 90 doesn’t mean I don’t have things to learn and skills to hone.”
The second reason is that even if the first assumption was universally true, it would be so because of aging itself. For example, as Varda said, she’s no longer able to travel as extensively as she used to. It’s fully understandable that, if your health keeps worsening, the list of things that you have the energy for shrinks, but the point of life extension is precisely that of preserving the exact same vigor, energy, and health you had as a young person.
The third reason is yet another ass-umption, namely that if a choice had to be made between existing old people and imaginary unborn ones, the existing old people would get the shorter end of the stick by default. Not only are they disposable and should die for the sake of potential people that are presently scattered around the world in the form of brainless chemicals; they also get to spend their last couple of decades in a state of worsening health, which, by the way, is precisely what leads them to eventually dying. They don’t die just because.
That’s another point that I will never tire of repeating. Life extension, or rejuvenation, are just fancy names for medicine, future medicine able to do something that present-day medicine can’t: preventing or curing the diseases of aging by attacking their root causes. The root causes are several, grouped under the umbrella term “aging”.
If life extension must not be a thing so that aging can keep the population from growing too much, it means that some of the diseases of aging need to stay around and kill people. That’s easily done. We only need to pick which age-related diseases we want people to die of and make sure we never attack their causes. I’m not comfortable making that choice, especially not on behalf of others.
To sum this all up, if the problem is that we don’t want to have more people than we can afford having, we should not make more people than we can afford having. It’s as simple as that, and I think it’s far more fair and selfless than telling old people: “Look… We kinda need you to die. You know, we’d rather have more children.”
As a side note, one of the papers I consulted during the making of this episode series says that, during the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo, several approaches to slowing population growth were considered, all of which we discussed in the third overpopulation episode. Unsurprisingly, they were all aimed at reducing births, not at increasing deaths. No one proposed to drop medical research against the diseases of aging as a solution to population growth.
I’ve heard more than once that wanting to extend your life is supposedly selfish. I really don’t see why. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to die. I guess this belief stems from another one, that is that there is a “right” length of life, a more or less set number of years that somehow is the right number of years we should live, and that if you want to live past that, then you want more than your fair share.
This belief is entirely groundless. There’s no criterion, scientific or otherwise, to decide whether others have lived long “enough” or not. In my opinion, there’s only one person in the entire universe who gets to decide if and when you’ve lived long enough, regardless of everything. That person is you. Others don’t get a say, and this goes both ways: nobody can force you to die, nobody can force you to live.
Life extension is not selfish, and it wouldn’t be even if it meant making fewer babies for a while. We’re not talking about hurting or killing others for the sake of saving yourself. If we banned life extension for the sake of making more children while avoiding overpopulation, now that would be selfish. It would indirectly force older people to die so that other people can fulfill their own wishes to have children without having to worry about any consequences.
The choice to make children is not selfish in general, but in a hypothetical situation where making children and life extension were mutually exclusive, it very much would be. People don’t see it that way because, in reality, there’s no identifiable victim. Saying that “older people need to make room for the young” is easy; it would be much less easy if you knew for a fact that an old person would die specifically to make room for the baby you were planning to have.
Let’s make a thought experiment. Forget life extension, and say that you lived in a country so overpopulated that the government enforced a one-birth-one-death policy. You’d get to make all the babies you wanted, but for each of them, the government would select an older person according to certain criteria and euthanize them. You wouldn’t get to know who, but you would know for a fact that, as a result of your choice, someone would die. Do you find this more ethical than not having babies?
Probably not, and yet it’s not very different from a situation where we banned life extension for the sake of babymaking. The only differences are methodological: old people wouldn’t die because someone killed them but because we refused to take action to save them. Also, no old person would die to make room for any specific baby, but all of them would for the sake of making room for some babies anyway. If we decided against life extension for this reason, we would all be guilty of countless age-related deaths: not only those of our own generation, but also all the following ones, for whose sake we decided against life extension in the first place!
Look at this chart:
It shows the total death count in 2017, broken into age brackets. The peak on the left is children under five years: over 5.3 million of them died that year. It’s an average of about 15,000 children per day, which Our World in Data rightfully calls “an everyday tragedy of enormous scale that rarely makes the headlines.”
Now look on the right, at the deaths that occurred at age 70 and above. They add up to over 27.7 million dead that year, for an average of about 74,500 people per day. Five time more older people died in 2017 than children, and that’s been the case in any given year for a while now. Yet, while 5.3 million dead children in a single year is a huge tragedy that rarely makes the headlines, 27.7 million dead elderly in a single year is… what? It’s just the circle of life, the natural order of things, and it never makes the headlines, because we don’t see it as a tragedy, we don’t think it’s even worth mentioning. At best, we see it as a way out of population growth. It’s a crystal-clear sign that our society sees older people as second-class lives that don’t matter as much as younger lives, and I really don’t think we should see it that way—let alone if we’re talking about ethics.
In a way, I think this whole debate is pointless, and I already told you why. We’re never going to have to choose between having children and life extension. Life extension will not happen overnight, and it will not suddenly triple our population. It will take a long time for life extension therapies to be effective and widespread enough to have measurable demographic effects.
On one hand, that’s really sad: it means many people will die because we won’t be able to save them. On the other hand, it will give science all the time it needs to do what it does best: finding a way for us to have our cake and eat it too, making both parties happy in the process.
This episode concludes X10’s overpopulation series. I hope you enjoyed this as well as the other episodes. If you didn’t see them, check out the playlist up here. I also hope the views I expressed in this episode didn’t piss too many of you off, but especially if they did, let me know in the comments below. As long as we keep it civil, discussion is always welcome, and you know… I’d like to live long enough to see life extension happen. So, please, don’t bite my head off because of ethical disagreements, will you?
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