Life Extension, Inequality, and Resource Scarcity: Dealing with Anti-Transhumanist Stereotypes – Article by Hilda Koehler
One of the most major accusations the transhumanist movement faces is the charge of elitism. Journalists such as Alexander Thomas and Jessica Powell have claimed that the spread of transhumanist ideals could lead to the worsening of already severe income inequality in developed nations such as the U.S. With billionaires like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel being the most prominent investors in the immortality industry, liberal journalists have tended to paint the transhumanist movement as a vain pursuit for the wealthy.
This article is a message to my fellow transhumanists. While these charges might seem unreasonably derisive, we cannot leave them unanswered. It’s easy to dismiss our critics as luddites, “deathists”, or a group of unimaginative bioconservatives who are suffering from sour-grape syndrome. As I keep saying to my friend Hank Pellissier, “you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.” It may not be wise to alienate our critics by dismissing them as bitter have-nots or bioconservatives who are resistant to technological progress because they can’t imagine the potential benefits of having a triple-digit health span.
The single greatest charge levied at immortalists is that we are inevitably going to exacerbate the existing problem of overpopulation and resource scarcity. In the last two centuries and a half, the world’s population has grown exponentially. In 1800, the global population stood at 1 billion; as of last year it was 7.6 billion. By the time we’re little way past the Singularity in 2050, the global population is projected to hit 11.2 billion. Most folks and most mainstream scientists argue that a double-digit lifespan is an absolute biological necessity to keep this number from exploding further. This is probably the greatest objection the mainstream public has to radical lifespan extension.
“Privilege” has unfortunately become a very hackneyed word in the last decade, but it’s one that mainstream liberal critics keep on bringing up in their objections of radical lifespan extension. Here comes That Eye Roll-Inducing Statement; in particular, liberal feminist journalists like to criticise that transhumanist movement for “being a movement made for cis straight white upper-middle class men with enough disposable income to benefit from the latest advancements in healthcare.” Sanjana Varghese at The New Statesman forebodingly warns her readers that “the first men to conquer death will create a new social order – a terrifying one.” Varghese warns that the rich, able-bodied Caucasian men who will be the first to have access to immortality treatments will create a dystopian future where we have Elon living to be 500, while the have-nots live much shorter lives and are forced to deal with a declining global economy and increasingly unaffordable healthcare.
Anyone who isn’t a Tumblr native probably has their pupils in the backs of their skulls right now.
Nevertheless, we can’t let these criticisms go unanswered. We can’t just dismiss them as liberal whinging or bioconservative paranoia. Public intellectuals like Nassim Taleb, John Gray and Leon Kass have gained a lot of media traction for their impassioned criticisms of radical life extension. The perpetuation of the view of transhumanism as an elitist “cis, straight, rich, able-bodied white man’s” game is going to undermine the potential for transhumanism to be taken seriously.
There are ideas, and then there are ideas.
Transhumanists are aware that we are of a minority viewpoint and that we view human exceptionalism differently from both the world’s religious majority and from the mainstream scientific atheist community. We don’t view biological death and the termination of individual consciousness as facts of life that need to be accepted prima facie, and we don’t unquestioningly accept natural biological functions as being sacred and off-limits from deliberate technological alteration. However, we must acknowledge that much more PR work needs to be done to assuage the public’s hostilities towards the transhumanist movement’s long-term goals.
The fact that the transhumanist movement itself even exists is itself remarkable. Our movement is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and humanity’s inextinguishable desire for perpetual self-improvement, beyond biological determinism. But we must also constantly remind ourselves that radical shifts in social paradigms are long-term goals. Making transhumanism mainstream is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Our paradise-engineering goals are noble, but we have to be realistic in our approximation of the time it will take to reach them.
Climate change is another hot-button issue closely related to overpopulation. Since the end of last year, scientists have become increasingly pessimistic about humanity’s ability to cope with environmental degradation in the decades to come.
While our individual opinions on this may vary, I applaud Gennady Stolyarov II for making a public statement declaring that the U.S. Transhumanist Party takes climate change seriously, as he states in this article here: “Ideas for Technological Solutions to Destructive Climate Change“.
Critics of transhumanism, especially liberal journalists and online environmental activists, have often painted transhumanists as having our priorities wrongly arranged. Indefinite biological lifespan extension and cryonics won’t matter if society collapses due to resource scarcity, droughts, tornados, and food shortages, they retort. Again, proposing that the time is now right for biomedical and biotech fields in developed nations to pursue the goals of indefinite lifespan extension can appear to be utterly tone-deaf in the face of the oncoming ecological crisis. And rightly so.
The World Bank estimates that over 200 million people from the sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia could be driven into refugee status by 2045 – which is, coincidentally, Ray Kurzweil’s much-hyped appointed year of the Singularity. To give us an idea of how disruptive this is going to be, says David Wallace-Wells the 2015 Syrian migrant crisis in Europe was the result of just one hundred thousand refugees entering Europe; and look at the unprecedented level of political destabilization that followed it in just a span of 4 years.
Transhumanists cannot forget that the majority of us were lucky enough to be born into relatively favorable circumstances. Most of us live in developed nations, or at least developed cities, away from natural-disaster-prone, pandemic-prone, and conflict-prone areas. If we don’t have diabetes or heart disease and don’t smoke, we can reasonably expect to live until 75 (barring a freak accident). In contrast, the expectancy in some of the least developed parts of Africa is as low as 50 years flat. I was talking to my friend Hank, who runs the Brighter Brains Institute and who does humanitarian work in Kenya, was telling me that he’s often called the “really old man” by the Kenyan children he works with, because anyone who manages to survive past 60 is considered exceptionally long-lived in Kenya.
So what can be done about this?
How can we can dispel the negative stereotypes surrounding transhumanism and radical lifespan extension? The most immediate thing that comes to mind would be more public dialogues and conferences to engage a mainstream audience. The Methuselah Foundation’s CEO David Gobel has publicly stated in a CNBC interview that, “the vast majority of life-extension proponents don’t want things to be expensive,” and would rather make life extension affordable for the majority of the public. A fellow immortalist and Cosmist, Giovanni Santostasi like to use the analogy of mobile phones when they first came out in the 1980s. They were the size of bricks, had minimal connection, and cost a few thousand dollars each; but they became a major status symbol for rich Americans, anyway. Fast forward to 2019; literally everyone and their mother has a cell phone you can text on and take pictures with, i ncluding farmers living in rural Indonesia who are barely above the poverty line. Giovanni is optimistic that radical life extension treatments (and later mind-uploading services) will have a similar trajectory of development.
However, this leads us back to the overpopulation problem. If radical longevity becomes readily affordable to 70% of the public in developed nations, how will the world deal with a further exacerbation of the overpopulation problem? Perhaps what could be done is to hold a public forum specifically dedicated to addressing issues regarding the relationships between transhumanism, resource scarcity, and income inequality. Sociologists, economists, and humanitarian advocates in the transhumanist movement could mobilise to make such a forum a reality soon.
This article is dedicated to my fellow transhumanist humanitarian advocates, Dinorah Delfin and Hank Pellissier.
Disclaimer: If you don’t think that climate change and income inequality are major global concerns, and feel that I’m being a climate alarmist or preachy moralist who’s just delivering holier-than-thou declarations from my soap box, I won’t try to change your mind. If however, you’d like to rationally and politely debate the points I’ve raised in this article, you can PM me at Sarah Chowhugger on Facebook.
Hilda Koehler is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.