Can technology help solve problems of overpopulation?
The lesson of 2016 is that Europe's voting publics are very anxious about migration. National elections in France and Germany next year could bring anti-immigration forces to power in Europe's two largest countries. But really, migration is a sign of something else: a rapidly expanding global population.
Does anyone ever read through technology magazines and think: Wow! And then: Stop, this is all going too fast.
And then: where is this going to lead? I leaf through science magazines and journals to look for what we can expect in 2017 and the years ahead. It’s marvellous stuff. Here is just one example of what awaits us:
The self-healing body – the idea of creating robots so small they can move through your blood and attach to your nerve endings. These bots can regulate our bodies and provide on-the-spot micro healthcare.
It’s amazing – but I am going to put a dampener on things and ask: should there be a “possible future consequences” audit of every piece of technology that goes into the public domain? Well, at least we ought to think about it. I’ve changed my mind about this. I used to think that scientists and inventors were like artists and couldn’t flourish unless they had total freedom. It’s what makes Western civilisation so successful and is a value worth maintaining in itself. Isn’t freedom a wonderful thing to have? But -
Look at the migration crisis, the news story of the year 2016. It’s really the epiphenomenon of the much bigger problem that is global overpopulation. Optimists say that the whole population of China could fit on to the Isle of Wight (if squeezed tightly), so it is not a problem. The world can bear much more. Siberia and Africa are much bigger than you think. Technology will eventually be able to solve everything. But I’m not so sure, and I think we will see a conflict between the incredible inventiveness of technologists and scientists which shows no sign of abating and the resource availability that living on one planet puts an absolute limit to. Even if it were true that technologists could solve, in the long term, the consequences of the short term challenges that the previous generation created, then that gap between the long-term and short-term is not one we can afford.
Who would ever wish to uninvent vaccines? Or the high yield agricultural Green Revolution? But on the other hand, they have enabled the population boom which has seen it increase by a quarter in just the last 15 years and more than double from 3 billion in 1960 to 7.6 billion today, with no end in sight. A lot of people at the European Union’s science conferences used to console themselves with the statement from the UN that the world’s population would max out at 9 billion and then start shrinking as women would be having fewer babies when the developing world reached a certain development threshold. But that now seems to be a bit of wishful thinking - the idea that wealth always coincides with female emancipation and education. It could also be that wealth isn’t increasing fast enough for women to become emancipated. Or perhaps there is a lag between wealth and the propensity to have fewer children. So the UN has shelved its prediction, and we could see the world’s population at 11 billion by 2050.
Of course other technologies that offer a glimpse of how the rich west lives, like television or Facebook - fuel people’s aspirations, so that a large proportion of these billions want to have the Western lifestyle. The trouble is we don’t have any spare planets for 11 billion people who would be living in European and American ways. I can’t see an easy solution to this.
The other thing that struck me when reading about the list of marvellous inventions is that we have another problem, not of ubiquity, but of scarcity. That is, some of the technologies are bound to be expensive and therefore accessible only to a few.
It seems to me that the other issue of 2016, apart from migration, has been this debate about belonging to a state and what rights and duties you have.
The borderless world of European Union and ideology of open borders and globalisation have to some extent cut the ties between taxpayers and tax beneficiaries. Mostly, people also feel a psychological need to belong to a community to which they contribute. Even if they don’t understand it in the intellectual sense, they still see the welfare state as a kind of contract between the generations and between strangers who share the same language, the same values and history, and same sense of identity. These people – let’s call them the West’s working class – feel squeezed by the planet’s growing population on the one hand and a growing reluctance of the West’s elites to identify with and prioritise their own nation state – be it UK or Germany - and its indigenous population, on the other.
The left-liberal intellectual elites of the West talk about global human rights (and consequent freedom to move anywhere) which for the working class is a euphemism for diluting the cohesion and quality of life of their own countries for some short term economic gain for business. While the influx of migrants will lead to greater competition for access to public healthcare. The rich, of course, have their own private health insurance schemes.
So you have two issues here. If a new technology is expensive, there will be calls for people inside a nation state to be part of that technological fast lane as a citizen’s right. As medical care becomes more and more technologically advanced, who will have the right to access to it?
On the other hand, if a new technology becomes cheap and thus universally available, it could lead to an escalation of the population in the developing world, and thus even greater pressure on the world’s resources.
Of course a jolly little nuclear war would rapidly reduce the world’s population problem. It could be affected in a matter of minutes. But seriously, the only thing I can conclude is the need for a better dialogue between scientists, policymakers, philosophers and the general public. And also a new moral seriousness in the public debate. For instance, I think there is a need post-Brexit to put Britain into a true global context. It’s crazy to turn inward now.
I used to believe in European Union from a patriotically British perspective. That the EU would be a multiplier of British power and, that said, Britain could be a force for good in the multilateral world. I didn’t think that the price was going to be an unacceptably high one in terms of weakening of identity. We always sacrifice a bit by being part of more powerful collectivity; may be the price was too high... But rest assured: the problems of global overpopulation won’t go away when Britain delinks itself from the Europe across the Channel.
Technology has contributed to overpopulation. How is it now going to provide a solution?