Longevity 101: The Overpopulation Myth

Longevity 101: The Overpopulation Myth

Quick overview of what you will learn from this article:

  • What is overpopulation exactly?
  • How the overpopulation myth started
  • Why overpopulation due to increased longevity is unlikely to happen

Whenever the topic of increasing healthy human lifespans is suggested, inevitably the concern it will lead to overpopulation will be raised.

Objecting to rejuvenation is objecting to medicine

We think this objection to extending healthy human life is a bit strange and illogical and here’s why.

Most people support finding a cure for cancer to help people survive and live longer. No one says to those developing cancer therapies – “But what about overpopulation if you manage to cure it?”

Taking it a step further. If you are worried about overpopulation and you get diagnosed with cancer, would you refuse treatment in case your survival contributed to overpopulation?

The likelihood is that you would not refuse treatment and it is exactly the same situation for technologies that target the aging processes to prevent diseases too. At its core, therapies that aim to delay or even reverse aging are simply medicine, just like cancer treatments. So to object to it is essentially objecting to medicine.

So with that said, does the idea that longer lives will mean an overpopulated world really hold water?

What is overpopulation?

Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, people tend to conflate population growth and overpopulation. These two things are not the same but are often lumped together and used interchangeably.

So first let’s define overpopulation. In simple terms it happens when you have too many individuals in a group or society and not enough resources to sustain them. Best case this would mean a reduced quality of life for some or all of that population and worst case it would mean starvation and death for many.

In wild animal populations nature balances out overpopulation by killing off excess population when it occurs. For example, if predators eat prey animals faster than their prey can breed, it would eventually lead to starvation. The population of predators would dwindle out in time until it reached a sustainable level again.

This is not only true of wild animals but was true for most of human history also. Our ancient ancestors who were very much reliant upon and at the mercy of the environment likely knew this fear only too well. Back then, overpopulation could rapidly lead to the worst case scenarios and some communities died out due to famines caused by changes in the environment.

What is population growth?

Population growth is defined as a change in the size of a population which can be either positive or negative over a period of time and depends on the balance of births and deaths.

Overpopulation is frequently used to describe what is happening in human society, but this is not accurate. What we are seeing is not overpopulation but in fact is simply population growth. This misuse of the words gives simple population growth a negative connotation and implies that any increase in population will harm us.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, human population growth has not always been rapid. It took us from 10,000 BCE to year zero to reach 190 million people and we only reached 600 million by 1700; the population growth rate was only 0.04% by then. By 1800 we hit 1 billion and by the end of the 1900s we were at 6 billion. We reached 7.9 billion in 2022.

Predicting that mankind will breed itself into oblivion

One of the people keeping the fear of overpopulation alive into modern times was the Nineteenth century English scholar Thomas Malthus. He believed that human populations acted the same way as those found in wild animals and that if given abundant resources, the population would continue to increase.

Furthermore, he also thought that this population growth would simply keep on growing without stopping to the point where that growth outpaced food production. Ultimately things would reach the point where there was not enough food to sustain all of human society. With that in mind, he believed in order to avoid this from happening, the only solution was to place societal limits on reproduction.

Malthus is also not alone in popularizing the concern of overpopulation. Biologist Paul Ehrlich had dire predictions of a post-apocalyptic world in his 1968 book, ‘The Population Bomb’. The book collected his many ideas, articles and lectures on the topic of overpopulation where he expressed the view that “mankind will breed itself into oblivion.”

He predicted that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death during the 1970s and that this crisis could not be halted, though perhaps it might be somewhat mitigated.

But these dire predictions didn’t happen, did they?

No, these things have not happened and while there are things that humankind is doing that are harming the planet, overpopulation has failed to have the dire consequences such people thought it would.

A fundamental reason that such prophecies have not been fulfilled is because human population dynamics do not work the same as they do for wild animals.

For starters, unlike animals, we have the ability to dramatically change our environment through the use of technology. For example, the green revolution that started in the 1950s saw automation and large-scale farming take off and boost food production well in excess of the population. That production has kept pace and even increased ahead of population growth since and with technologies such as vertical farming and hydroponics there could be a second green revolution in the near-future.

Fortunately, new crop breeding methods, that have a high per acre efficiency compared to organic and sustenance farming, can help. Because they need less space to produce the same amount of food and are more resistant to pests and diseases, it means we can get more from the land we are already using rather than reducing the natural habitat of animals.

How we live is the real problem, not how many of us there are

In fact, having too many children and running out of food was never the real problem here, but rather it is harmful human influence on the planet that is a much more likely threat to our existence.

That is not to say population does not have a role to play in the threat to our environment. Where population is an issue is not so much about how much food there is, because there is more than enough, but rather it is about how we choose to live.

Our lifestyles, how wasteful we are, how we manage the environment, and the technologies we develop can all have an impact on the environment and potentially make our climate better or worse.

Population growth seems to be slowing down

Speaking of population growth, it may seem surprising, but there are indications it is actually slowing down.

It was during the 1960s when population growth was at its highest rate at around 2.1% a year. What many people do not know is that since then that rate has fallen to around 1.08% and is projected to continue falling to 0.1% by 2100. Indeed, according to the UN, the global population is projected to plateau by the turn of the century.

Some countries such as Japan have been experiencing negative population growth for a few years now. And in 2021 more countries joined in the trend of negative population growth including Latvia, Ukraine, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cuba, Moldova, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Albania, Romania, Greece, Estonia, Poland, Georgia, Portugal and Italy. It is likely that other countries (especially European ones) will follow this pattern too.

In general, the trend worldwide is a falling rate of population growth with the only exception being (in particular Sub-Saharan) Africa where population growth is 2-4% and rising.

So, will we run out of food and space for everyone?

The dire predictions of people like Malthus and Ehrlich have not come to pass thanks to technology and our ability to produce food in excess of demand.

The take home here is that population growth and overpopulation are not the same thing and the evidence suggests that rather than heading for an unsustainable level of population, we are ultimately heading in the opposite direction.

If we want to avoid the potential economic pressures of an increasingly aging population, then developing rejuvenation technologies makes sense. A long lived, healthy, active, and productive population, regardless of age, would be a huge boon for society and is a goal worth striving for.