Can the Earth Survive the Longevity Revolution?

This is my final post for the week, and I just wanted to say that it’s been great participating in the Volokh Conspiracy! I didn’t get to all the topics which are covered in my book, so I hope my posts have made you curious about 100 Plus. One topic that may be of interest is how religion evolves in a longer-lived world. The answer will surprise you. So, now, on to the topic of the environment…

————–

Increased health and life spans may be a dream come true, but many worry that it could turn nightmarish owing to problems like overcrowding, resource depletion, and greater pollution. Living a long time might be wonderful on an individual basis, but if many people can do it, would the world still be a place in which we would want to reside?

This is a legitimate worry because both the U.S. and world populations continue to grow. For instance, in 1800 America’s population totaled just over 5 million—that’s fewer people than currently live in New York City. By 2011 that number had grown to over 311 million.

Likewise, the world population in 1800 was estimated at around 900 million and by early 2011 the U.S. Census World POPClock estimated that number at 6.8 billion. Of course, during that time the economy changed and living conditions improved significantly, driving up life expectancy by decades. Nevertheless, 6.8 billion is a big number. Can the planet and our societal structures handle any more people?

In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Thomas Malthus advanced the thesis that population grows faster than our ability to provide for ourselves and thus will always be checked by famine, disease, and war. Malthus was wrong.

Consider the idea that more people automatically means less food for everyone. In reality, as population grew, so did our ability to produce food. Today, many around the world are struggling with obesity, or the consumption of too much food, all while the world’s population has been growing. Since 1800, the price of wheat has been steadily declining and the daily intake of calories per capita in both the developed and developing countries has been on the rise.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, greater numbers of humans do not necessarily translate to fewer available resources. A key reason for this is that the more people there are, the more ideas there are, and more ideas lead to new and better ways of producing the things that we need.

Fiber optic cables, which turned out to be superior to copper as a conduit for data communications, were invented in response to prohibitively high copper prices. Analogous innovations have been engineered in the food industry, such as high-yield dwarf wheat that has saved countless lives in India and Pakistan, and crops that can flourish in areas with less pure or plentiful water.

As the innovations driving the longevity revolution improve the length and quality of our lives, concurrent improvements in the environment can be expected. Numerous studies have shown that the less people have to focus their energy on survival and meeting their basic needs, the more they care about making their environment cleaner. This pattern has occurred, and continues to occur, in developed countries like the United States and is now beginning in developing countries.

There are new technologies on the horizon that promise to make the planet a cleaner and healthier place. For instance, it looks increasingly likely that societies will be able to turn more of their waste into fertilizer or energy. Such processes, if they were to become common, would revolutionize the way we think about garbage, perhaps even creating new and vibrant competition to collect trash.

One method involves a field known as synthetic biology, in which engineering principles are applied to biological systems. Using DNA sequencing and synthesis, scientists can re-engineer organisms like bacteria, yeast, and algae, thereby creating mini chemical factories that can turn all sorts of waste, including paper waste and carbon dioxide, into fuel.