The Overpopulation Myth
Choosing to pursue an unlimited life as opposed to settling for death is an obvious choice – who doesn’t really want to live? But objections do arise. When people come across the idea of living forever or physical immortality, often their first response is to question its advisability given the danger of overpopulation. The argument is that if nobody dies, the world will become overcrowded and unsustainable. While there are a number of reasons why this doesn’t make sense, I thought I’d check out the facts first – as much out of curiosity as anything else.
Crunching the numbers
From the numbers that are currently available, it’s pretty clear that overpopulation is not going to be a real issue for a very, very, very long time, if ever. Even at the UN’s highest extrapolated rate of population growth, total global population would only be 36 billion by 2300. While this may seem like a lot, consider that in order for global population density to match that of the current most densely populated country – Monaco with 16,779 people per km2 – there would need to be a global population of over 1-1/2 trillion people (that’s 15 plus 11 zeros). And I’m not aware of anyone in Monaco complaining about being overpopulated. What is perhaps more interesting and relevant though is that according to the UN in its World Population 2300 report published back in 2004, global population will stabilize by the end of the century at about 10 billion, or less than double where we’re at now. As world population more than doubled from 1970 to 2000 – from around 3 billion to just over 6 billion – this is predicting a significant reduction in the anticipated population growth rate. But the UN in the same publication also extrapolated that, based on how population growth has fluctuated, it’s more than likely that total world population will decline from 2100 onwards.
While it’s true that these predictions are based as much on anticipated death rates as birth rates, the data suggests that the trend is for these two rates to cancel each other out.
Although it’s not likely that if suddenly everyone chose to not die that they would also stop having children, it is more than likely that if people were to live forever they would have a completely different attitude to procreation than they do now. Part of the urge to reproduce is to leave something of yourself behind after you die. If you stay around, you won’t need to reproduce as much.
Regardless of these predictions, it seems to me that whatever level of population actually occurs, the suggestion that future overpopulation is a reason for choosing to die now – and not choosing to pursue a life without end is by definition choosing to die – is somewhat less than sensible.
Looking beyond the numbers
The apparent concern for the survival or comfort of future generations is one of the most common arguments for making death acceptable.
But just because you don’t believe we’ll be able to solve any population issues before they become insurmountable, doesn’t seem to me to be a very good reason for just laying down, rolling over and giving up. Maybe this objection has a more personal basis, not that future generations need to be protected, but the individuals who voice these concerns feel that they themselves will be squeezed out as they age – that there’ll be no place for them. So they would rather opt out before they’re forced out, or would rather not be around to face that possibility. It’s a brutal system and clearly one that needs reformation, but dying won’t help advance that cause either.
Looking beyond population
The solutions to population growth however don’t merely revolve around birth and death rates. As it’s estimated that only 18% of the planet’s surface is habitable, that leaves a lot of unused land and sea to be explored and developed for human habitation, plus a whole universe. Given the rate of technological growth, which has far outstripped population growth, it’s likely these kinds of issues could easily be addressed well before there’s any planet-threatening population crisis. Unfortunately, unless there’s a major shift in human and societal development towards cooperation rather than divisiveness, and towards valuing human life rather than perceiving it as expendable, there’ll be no impetus for technology to be used in this way.
Overpopulation: Facts and Projections
• According to Wikipedia, Monaco is currently the most densely populated country at 16,779 people per km2. (3)
• For the habitable areas of the world to reach that density there would need to be a global population of over 1 1/2 trillion people (that’s 15 plus 11 zeros).
• The current world population is 6.8 billion (1)
• World population in 2050 is projected to be 9.2 billion (1)
• Lowest, highest and median estimates of population growth beyond 2050 are 2.3, 36 and 9 billion respectively by 2300. (2)
• World surface area: 196,935,000 miles2/510,000,000 km2 (3)
• Habitable surface area: 24,616,875 miles2/91,812.960 km2 (3)
Data extracted from:
(1) The World Factbook, published by the CIA,
(2) World Population 2300, published by the UN