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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Will Extreme Longevity Cause an Ecological Hell?

Over at the very entertaining web site io9.com we had yesterday a facile and naive example of excessive technological optimism, written by George Dvorsky. The piece was entitled No,Extreme Longevity Won't Destroy the Planet.

I don't object to the title: we can overheat and pollute Earth to our maximum ability, and the planet will still be around, and habitable to many forms of life. I do object to the reasoning in this piece that we need not worry about environmental problems that would be caused if the human lifespan were to vastly increase.

Dvorsky claims, “Over the course of the next several decades, and as we eventually (and hopefully) cross into the next century, humanity will progressively shrink its global footprint on the planet — a footprint that, for each of us, is impossibly large right now.” But he does nothing to support this amazing claim that man's footprint on the environment will shrink in the next few decades. We have every reason to believe that this claim is false. Our footprint on the planet is getting worse every decade, as population grows, as consumption increases and as the global warming pollution and other types of pollution get worse. A large part of the problem is that more and more people in Asian and Third World countries are developing Western patterns of consumption, such as all of those Chinese who are buying cars.

Dvorksy asks, “How are we going to feed everybody?” He notes that “we are way off track if we are going to feed everybody by 2050,” citing this study. Besides mentioned genetically engineered crops, all he can do to support the idea of food abundance is to cite the theoretical arguments of Eric Drexler about nanotechnology, and to note that a Star Trek type replicator would help the problem. Not a very compelling case. Drexler claims that precise atomic manufacturing will allow for an age of superabundance, but his claims were extensively criticized by Nobel Prize winner Richard E. Smalley.

Dvorksy then asks,”Where are we going to get all that energy?” He mentions only two technologies: concentrated solar power and space-based solar power. But concentrated solar power is feasible only in places such as Spain and Nevada where there is a very high amount of daily sunlight. Space-based solar power is a speculative system, and no one knows if it will work. 

Dvorksy then finishes up his case by saying that we really have enough room for everyone, since we can build mega-pyramids to house people, and if necessary we can move people into outer space. That's pretty lame reasoning, given the huge costs (both financial and environmental) of doing either of these options.

Overall, I find that Dvorksy has made a very weak case for what he seems to be arguing for, that we can have super-prolonged lifespans without worrying much about the environmental effects. At least Dvorsky's piece is not quite as na├»ve as a similar recent piece at the SeriousWonder.com web site, which can be summarized as: “Google is working now on age extension. Next stop:utopia.” (The piece now comes up as a blank page, so I won't link to it.)

Consider a few points relating to what man is currently doing to the planet. Today there is a news report saying Health of Oceans Declining Fast.  The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) warns that the oceans are being warmed by global warming, facing an acidification threat. Stocks of fish are rapidly declining because of overfishing. NASA just released an air pollution map showing huge air pollution levels in India, Europe, and China. The IPCC just released a new report warning about how global warming is imperiling our planet. We are rapidly depleting the fertility of our planet's top soil as discussed here,
with one professor saying that we have only 60 years of usable top soil left. There is a huge risk of future water shortages. Currently nearly one in ten US watersheds are stressed as discussed here, with China, India, and the Middle East facing worse water supply problems. 

Schematic Depiction of Future Environment Problems

It would seem that all of these problems will get much worse if suddenly the human life span increased by several decades. So a cavalier attitude of “no problem, new technology will handle it” seems doubtful.

I think that in the short term there is not much risk of environmental degradation caused by extreme lifespans, because probably for a good long time it will only be rich people who can afford the medical treatments needed for such lifespans. But if we ever get to the point where a large fraction of the people can afford 120 year lifespans, we would then need to introduce new laws or social sanctions to prevent an increase in environmental degradation caused by longer human lifespans.

I can think of two possibilities. One stern possibility is to introduce legislation requiring sterilization (whenever necessary) for anyone who has his lifespan extended way beyond the current limit. This would prevent situations such as a 160 year old man becoming a father at ages 20,22, 45,47,49, 55,57, 65, 75, 77, 85, 87, 95,97,99, 105,108,111, 120, 122, 131,133, and 141. Of course, just mentioning required sterilization brings up all kinds of unpleasant memories and associations, but this might be a rare case when it might be morally justified. 

Another possibility would be to introduce legislation that would tend to make it extremely difficult for any person with a super-extended lifespan to consume at a very high rate in his later years. One can imagine an age-adjusted tax code which slaps very high consumption taxes on people who try to live in great luxury (with a high carbon footprint) after achieving a lifespan greater than 90 years.

In effect, society would then be saying to an 80-year old: You want to live fifty more years? Those years have got to be green years.