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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A reliability index for politicians?

Reliability calcuator

Imagine there’s a reliability index (R) for what a politician says.

An R value of 100 would mean that a politician has an excellent track record: there is no evidence of them having said anything false.

An R value of 0 would mean that nothing they said can be trusted.

Imagine that R values are updated regularly, and are published in real-time by a process that is transparent, pulling together diverse sets of data from multiple spheres of discourse, using criteria agreed by people from all sides of politics.

Then, next time we hear a politician passing on some claim – some statistic about past spending, about economic performance, about homelessness, about their voting record, or about what they have previously said – we could use their current R value as a guide to whether to take the claim seriously.

Ideally, R values would also be calculated for political commentators too.

My view is that truth matters. A world where lies win, and where politicians are expected to bend the truth on regular occasions, is a world in which we are all worse off. Much worse off.

Far better is a world where politicians no longer manufacture or pass on claims, just because these claims cause consternation to their opponents, sow confusion, and distract attention. Far better if any time a politician did such a thing, their R value would visibly drop. Far better if politicians cared much more than at present about always telling the truth.

Some comparisons

R values would play roles broadly similar to what already happens with credit scores. If someone is known to be a bad credit risk, there should be more barriers for them to receive financial loans.

Another comparison is with the “page rank” idea at the heart of online searches. The pages that have incoming links from other pages that are already believed to be important, grow in importance in turn.

Consider also the Klout score, which is (sometimes) used as the measure of influence of social media users or brands.

Some questions

Evidently, many questions arise. Would a reliability index be possible? Is the reliability of a politician’s statements a single quantity, or should it vary from subject to subject? How should the influence of older statements decline over time? How could the index avoid being gamed? How should satire be accommodated?

Then there are questions not just over practicality but also over desirability. Will the reliability index result in better politics, or a worse politics? Would it impede honest conversation, or usher in new types of implicit censorship? Would the “cure” be worse than the “disease”?

Next steps

My view is that a good reliability index will be hard to achieve, but it’s by no means impossible. It will require clarity of thinking, an amalgamation of insights from multiple perspectives, and a great deal of focus and diligence. It will presumably need to evolve over time, from simpler beginnings into a more rounded calculation. That’s a project we should all be willing to get behind.

The reliability index will need to be created outside of any commercial framework. It deserves to be funded by public funds in a non-political way, akin to the operation of judges and juries. It will need to be resistant to howls of outrage from those politicians (and journalists) whose R values plummet on account of exposure of their untruths and distortions.

If done well, I believe the reliability index would soon have a positive impact upon political discourse. It will help ensure discussions are objective and open-minded, rather than being dominated by loud, powerful voices. It’s part of what I see as the better politics that is possible in the not-so-distant future.

There’s a lot more to say about the topic, but for now, I’ll finish with just one more question. Has such a proposal been pursued before?

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