6. Towards abundant food

This page contains the opening portion of Chapter 6 from
Sustainable Superabundance: A universal transhumanist invitation

tam graphic 6

6. Towards abundant food

How many people can the earth accommodate, providing everyone with good quality food and water? Are we near the limit, or might we have passed it already? Alternatively, is that limit located far above the present population size?

Transhumanists envision the quality of life increasing all over the world, at the same time as the global population continues to rise. Wise management of technological innovations can enable a sustainable abundance of numerous kinds of healthy nourishment, with plenty available for everybody. But in the absence of careful forethought and some hard decisions, such an outcome is far from inevitable.

Accordingly, this chapter of the Invitation highlights a number of key scenarios for the future of the production of food and drink, and the risks and opportunities en route.

Population, onward and upward?

The global population passed the landmark of seven and a half billion towards the end of 2016. How it reached that huge figure is a huge story in its own right. Until around 1800, the global population remained less than one billion. Within 127 years, that is by 1927, another billion was added. It took just 33 years, until 1960, for the population to grow to three billion. The next billion was added in just 14 years – by 1974. The next three billions were added in, respectively, 13 years (to 1987), 12 years (to 1999), and another 12 years (to 2011).

Extrapolating current demographic trends would suggest that the population will reach eight billion in 2023, nine billion in 2037, and ten billion in 2055. Of course, that extrapolation assumes only modest changes in the current rates of births and deaths. However, transhumanists anticipate radical improvements in healthcare that will significantly reduce death rates around the world. If this happens, the population is likely to rise more quickly. Rather than increasing at the present rate of around 220,000 people each day, it could increase at around 350,000 people each day. Rather than it taking 12 years to add another billion to the population, this could happen in just 8 years.

What’s more, transhumanist technology such as ectogenesis – the ability for a baby to develop outside of a mother’s body, in an artificial womb – might impact birthrate in various ways. In some projections, the population could rise by a lot more than the figure of 350,000 per day just noted.

As well as considering the sheer number of people alive, we also need to consider how many resources (including energy, food, and water) each person consumes. As larger proportions of the population become more affluent, and adopt so-called “western lifestyles”, the total resources used by humans will grow more quickly than the population count.

The organisation Earth Overshoot Day regularly carries out calculations comparing the demands of the population to the capacity of the planet to regenerate resources. The supply side of this calculation estimates the planet’s biologically productive areas of land and sea, including fishing grounds, cropland, grazing lands, and forests. The demand side estimates demand for livestock, fish products, plant-based food, timber and other forest products, and so on. The result for 2018 was that the demand exceeds supply by a factor of 1.7. Stated in other words, by 1st August 2018, the human population had already consumed more of nature than the planet can renew in an entire year. Accordingly, the 1st of August is dubbed “Earth Overshoot Day” for 2018. It is said that, if everyone around the world adopted the same lifestyle as people in the USA, Overshoot Day would be 15th March.

If matters continue unchanged, this state of affairs seems unsustainable. It would appear that overfishing, over-harvesting of forests, and overuse of land, should be a cause for real concern.

Indeed, there are reasons to fear potential sweeping unwelcome side-effects from agriculture becoming overly dependent on new chemical treatments and new genetic manipulations. Larger and more mechanised doesn’t necessarily mean more resilient. Biochemical innovations can have longer-term consequences that weren’t evident from short-term trials. The real world is a much messier, more complex place than a carefully controlled research laboratory.

And there are reasons to fear that the pursuit of increased profits by powerful agrochemical corporations will result, not in the feeding of the world, but in the unintentional poisoning of the world. Just because a product makes good short-term financial sense for a company and its investors, that’s no guarantee of a positive longer-term effect on human well-being.

The legacy of Malthus

Some observers dismiss the calculations from the likes of Earth Overshoot Day. These calculations are said to stand in a long line of discredited forecasts of ecological doom and gloom.

The line of discredited forecasts is said to include the predictions of British cleric Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 theorised about hard limits on the growth of the human population. Malthus believed that faster population increase would result in famine and starvation, or in other harsh mechanisms to correct the population size. Specifically, he forecast that, on account of constraints in improvements in food production, population growth could never exceed one billion in any period of 25 years. Food production methods could only increase linearly, Malthus maintained, and could not keep up with the tendency of population to increase exponentially.

Malthus had some notable predecessors, including, sixteen centuries earlier, the early Christian writer Tertullian based in Carthage, North Africa. Tertullian complained about the “teeming” numbers of inhabitants he observed, as being “burdensome to the world” which could “hardly support” everyone. That was at a time when the world’s population was less than 200 million.

The line of discredited forecasters also includes, more recently, US professor Paul Ehrlich, who in 1980 agreed a scientific wager with another US professor, Julian Simon. Ehrlich forecast that, between 1980 and 1990, there would be large price increases for each of five metals: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten, as an indication of greater resource scarcity. The wager reflected Ehrlich’s deep apprehension about rapid population growth exceeding possible growth in the supply of food and resources. In reality, Simon won the wager handsomely. All five prices fell significantly over the ten year period, with the prices of two of the metals (tungsten and tin) falling by more than half.

Nevertheless, we should be cautious about any simple extrapolations. The fact that Ehrlich and, before him, Malthus, were proved wrong in their forecasts, is no basis for complacency about the ability of humanity to keep on finding ways of safely extracting more resources from the planet. As transhumanists know well, accumulated exponential changes can give rise to unexpected transitions. Periods of slow change can be preludes to periods of disruptive upheaval. Predictions – whether of flourishing or of collapse – can be dismally wrong, for many a season, before becoming dramatically correct.


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RAFT 2035 – a new initiative for a new decade

The need for a better politics is more pressing than ever.

Since its formation, Transpolitica has run a number of different projects aimed at building momentum behind a technoprogressive vision for a better politics. For a new decade, it’s time to take a different approach, to build on previous initiatives.

The planned new vehicle has the name “RAFT 2035”.

RAFT is an acronym:

  • Roadmap (‘R’) – not just a lofty aspiration, but specific steps and interim targets
  • towards Abundance (‘A’) for all – beyond a world of scarcity and conflict
  • enabling Flourishing (‘F’) as never before – with life containing not just possessions, but enriched experiences, creativity, and meaning
  • via Transcendence (‘T’) – since we won’t be able to make progress by staying as we are.

RAFT is also a metaphor. Here’s a copy of the explanation:

When turbulent waters are bearing down fast, it’s very helpful to have a sturdy raft at hand.

The fifteen years from 2020 to 2035 could be the most turbulent of human history. Revolutions are gathering pace in four overlapping fields of technology: nanotech, biotech, infotech, and cognotech, or NBIC for short. In combination, these NBIC revolutions offer enormous new possibilities – enormous opportunities and enormous risks:…

Rapid technological change tends to provoke a turbulent social reaction. Old certainties fade. New winners arrive on the scene, flaunting their power, and upturning previous networks of relationships. Within the general public, a sense of alienation and disruption mingles with a sense of profound possibility. Fear and hope jostle each other. Whilst some social metrics indicate major progress, others indicate major setbacks. The claim “You’ve never had it so good” coexists with the counterclaim “It’s going to be worse than ever”. To add to the bewilderment, there seems to be lots of evidence confirming both views.

The greater the pace of change, the more intense the dislocation. Due to the increased scale, speed, and global nature of the ongoing NBIC revolutions, the disruptions that followed in the wake of previous industrial revolutions – seismic though they were – are likely to be dwarfed in comparison to what lies ahead.

Turbulent times require a space for shelter and reflection, clear navigational vision despite the mists of uncertainty, and a powerful engine for us to pursue our own direction, rather than just being carried along by forces outside our control. In short, turbulent times require a powerful “raft” – a roadmap to a future in which the extraordinary powers latent in NBIC technologies are used to raise humanity to new levels of flourishing, rather than driving us over some dreadful precipice.

The words just quoted come from the opening page of a short book that is envisioned to be published in January 2020. The chapters of this book are reworked versions of the scripts used in the recent “Technoprogressive roadmap” series of videos.

Over the next couple of weeks, all the chapters of this proposed book will be made available for review and comment:

  • As pages on the Transpolitica website, starting here
  • As shared Google documents, starting here, where comments and suggestions are welcome.

RAFT Cover 21

All being well, RAFT 2035 will also become a conference, held sometime around the middle of 2020.

You may note that, in that way that RAFT 2035 is presented to the world,

  • The word “transhumanist” has moved into the background – since that word tends to provoke many hostile reactions
  • The word “technoprogressive” also takes a backseat – since, again, that word has negative connotations in at least some circles.

If you like the basic idea of what’s being proposed, here’s how you can help:

  • Read some of the content that is already available, and provide comments
    • If you notice something that seems mistaken, or difficult to understand
    • If you think there is a gap that should be addressed
    • If you think there’s a better way to express something.

Thanks in anticipation!

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