What are your thoughts on the concept of living a very long life?
Today’s my 43rd birthday. Based on the current best statistics available for my age and country, I might expect to live about the same amount of time again: I’m literally about half-way
through my anticipated life, today.1
Naturally, that’s the kind of shocking revelation that can make a person wish for an extended lifespan. Especially if, y’know, you read Andrew’s book on the subject and figured that, excitingly, we’re on the cusp of some meaningful life extension technologies!
My very first thought when I read Andrew’s thoughts on lifespan extension was exactly the kind of knee-jerk panic response he tries to assuage with his free bonus chapter. He spends a while
explaining how he’s not just talking about expending lifespan but healthspan, and so the need healthcare resources that are used to treat those in old-age wouldn’t increase
dramatically as a result of lifespan increase, but that’s not the bit that worries me. My concern is that lifespan extension technologies will be unevenly distributed, and the
(richer) societies that get them first are those same societies whose (richer) lifestyle has the greater negative impact on the Earth’s capacity to support human life.2
Andrew anticipates this concern and does some back-of-napkin maths to suggest that the increase in population doesn’t make too big an impact:
In this ‘worst’ case, the population in 2050 would be 11.3 billion—16% larger than had we not defeated ageing.
Is that a lot? I don’t think so—I’d happily work 16% harder to solve environmental problems if it meant no more suffering from old age.
This seems to me to be overly-optimistic:
The Earth doesn’t care whether or not you’re happy to work 16% harder to solve environmental problems if that extra effort isn’t possible (there’s necessarily an
upper limit to how much change we can actually effect).
16% extra population = 16% extra “work” to save them implies a linear relationship between the two that simply doesn’t exist.
And that you’re willing to give 16% more doesn’t matter a jot if most of the richest people on the planet don’t share that ideal.
Fortunately, I’m reassured by the fact that – as Andrew points out – change is unlikely to happen fast. That means that the existing existential threat of climate change
remains a bigger and more-significant issue than potential future overpopulation does!
In short: while I’m hoping I’ll live happily and healthily to say 120, I don’t think I’m ready for the rest of the world to all suddenly start doing so too! But I think there are bigger
worries in the meantime. I don’t fancy my chances of living long enough to find out.
Gosh, that’s a gloomy note for a birthday, isn’t it? I’d better get up and go do something cheerier to mark the day!
1 Assuming I don’t die of something before them, of course. Falling off a cliff isn’t a heritable condition, is it? ‘Cos there’s a family
history of it, and I’ve always found myself affected by the influence of gravity, which I believe might be a precursor to falling off things.
child per adult) a population grows while its life expectancy grows, which some people find unintuitive.
An increasing number of people are reportedly suffering from an allergy to the meat and other products of nonhuman mammals, reports Mosaic Science this week, and we’re increasingly confident that the cause is
a sensitivity to alpha-gal (Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose), a carbohydrate produced in the bodies of virtually
all mammals except for us and our cousin apes, monkeys, and simians (and one of the reasons you can’t transplant tissue from pigs to humans, for example).
The interesting thing is that the most-common cause of alpha-gal sensitivity appears to be the bite of one of a small number of species of tick. The most-likely hypothesis seems to be
that being bitten by such a tick after it’s bitten e.g. deer or cattle may introduce that species’ alpha-gal directly to your bloodstream. This exposure triggers an immune response
through all future exposure, even if it’s is more minor, e.g. consuming milk products or even skin contact with an animal.
That’s nuts, isn’t it? The Mosaic Science article describes the reaction of Tami McGraw, whose symptoms began in 2010:
[She] asked her doctor to order a little-known blood test that would show if her immune system was reacting to a component of mammal meat. The test result was so strongly positive,
her doctor called her at home to tell her to step away from the stove.
That should have been the end of her problems. Instead it launched her on an odyssey of discovering just how much mammal material is present in everyday life. One time, she took
capsules of liquid painkiller and woke up in the middle of the night, itching and covered in hives provoked by the drug’s gelatine covering.
When she bought an unfamiliar lip balm, the lanolin in it made her mouth peel and blister. She planned to spend an afternoon gardening, spreading fertiliser and planting flowers, but
passed out on the grass and had to be revived with an EpiPen. She had reacted to manure and bone meal that were enrichments in bagged compost she had bought.
Of course, this isn’t the only nor even the most-unusual (or most-severe) animal-induced allergy-to-a-different-animal we’re aware of. The hilariously-named but terribly-dangerous
Pork-Cat syndrome is caused, though we’re not sure how, by exposure to cats and
results in a severe allergy to pork. But what makes alpha-gal sensitivity really interesting is that it’s increasing in frequency at quite a dramatic rate. The culprit? Climate change.
It’s impossible to talk to physicians encountering alpha-gal cases without hearing that something has changed to make the tick that transmits it more common – even though they don’t
know what that something might be.
“Climate change is likely playing a role in the northward expansion,” Ostfeld adds, but acknowledges that we don’t know what else could also be contributing.
A little dated, perhaps: I’m sure that nobody needs to be told nowadays that one of the biggest things a Westerner can do to reduce their personal carbon footprint (after from breeding less or not at all, which I maintain is the biggest, or avoiding air
travel, which Statto argues for) is to reduce or refrain from consumption of meat (especially pork and beef) and dairy products.
Indeed, environmental impact was the biggest factor in my vegetarianism (now weekday-vegetarianism) for
the last eight years, and it’s an outlook that I’ve seen continue to grow in others over the same period.
Seeing these two stories side-by-side in my RSS reader put the Gaia hypothesis in my mind.
If you’re not familiar with the Gaia hypothesis, the basic idea is this: by some mechanism, the Earth and all of the life on it act in synergy to maintain homeostasis. Organisms not
only co-evolve with one another but also with the planet itself, affecting their environment in a way that in turn affects their future evolution in a perpetual symbiotic relationship
of life and its habitat.
Its advocates point to negative feedback loops in nature such as plankton blooms affecting the weather in ways that inhibit
plankton blooms and to simplistic theoretical models like the Daisyworld Simulation
(cute video). A minority of its proponents go a step further and describe the Earth’s changes teleologically, implying a conscious Earth with an intention to
protect its ecosystems (yes, these hypotheses were born out of the late 1960s, why do you ask?). Regardless, the essence is the same: life’s effect on its environment affects the
environment’s hospitality to life, and vice-versa.
There’s an attractive symmetry to it, isn’t there, in light of the growth in alpha-gal allergies? Like:
Today – climate change causes ticks to spread more-widely and bite more humans.
Tomorrow – tick bites cause humans to consume less products farmed from mammals?
That’s not to say that I buy it, mind. The Gaia hypothesis has a number of problems, and – almost as bad – it encourages a complacent “it’ll all be okay, the Earth will fix itself”
mindset to climate change (which, even if it’s true, doesn’t bode well for the humans residing on it).
But it was a fun parallel to land in my news reader this morning, so I thought I’d share it with you. And, by proxy, make you just a little bit warier of ticks than you might have been
As well additional land around our familiar coastlines, the lower sea level reveals a low lying 9,000 square mile landmass called Doggerland – named after Dogger Bank, the large
sandbank which currently sits in a shallow area of the North Sea off the east coast of England (dogger being an old Dutch word for fishing boat).
Doggerland had a rich landscape of hills, rivers and lakes and a coastline comprising lagoons, marshes and beaches. It had woodlands of oak, elm, birch, willow, alder, hazel and
pine. It was home to horses, aurochs, deer, elks and wild pigs. Waterfowl, otters and beavers abounded in wetland areas and the seas, lakes and rivers teemed with
fish. It was probably the richest hunting and fishing ground in Europe at the time and had an important influence on the course of prehistory in northwestern Europe as maritime
and river-based societies adapted to this environment.
I love a bit of alternative history fiction, and this is a big one, going all the way back to prehistoric times. What if the period of global warming that took place thousands
of years ago, “sinking” Doggerland and separating the formerly-connected British Isles from one another and from the European mainland? The potential impact is massive, affecting
geography, history, and politics indefinitely, and it’s fun to think – and read – about.
In 2014 Henrik Karlsson, a Swedish entrepreneur whose startup was failing, was lying in bed with a bankruptcy notice when the BBC called. The reporter had a
scoop: On the eve of releasing a major report, the United Nation’s climate change panel appeared to be touting an untried technology as key to keeping planetary temperatures at safe
levels. The technology went by the inelegant acronym BECCS, and Karlsson was apparently the only BECCS expert the reporter could find.
Karlsson was amazed. The bankruptcy notice was for his BECCS startup, which he’d founded seven years earlier after an idea came to him while watching a late-night television show in
Gothenburg, Sweden. The show explored the benefits of capturing carbon dioxide before it was emitted from power plants. It’s the technology behind the much-touted notion of “clean
coal,” a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down climate change.
Karlsson, then a 27-year-old studying to be an operatic tenor, was no climate scientist or engineer. Still, the TV show got him thinking: During photosynthesis plants naturally suck
carbon dioxide from the air, storing it in their leaves, branches, seeds, roots, and trunks. So what if you grew crops and then burned those crops for electricity, being sure to
capture all of the carbon dioxide emitted? You’d then store all that dangerous CO2 underground. Such a power plant wouldn’t just be emitting less greenhouse gas into the
atmosphere, it would effectively be sucking CO2 from the air. Karlsson was enraptured with the idea. He was going to help avert a global disaster.
Wonderful but horrifying longread about the truth of the theoretical effectiveness of the Paris Agreement. The short: if we’re going to keep global temperature rises under a “bad” 2°C
rather than closer to a “catastrophic” 4°C, we need to take action, but the vast majority of the plans that have been authored on how to do that rely on investment in technologies and
infrastructure that nobody is investing in and that might not work even if we did. We’re fucked, in short. See also this
great video about greening the Sahara in an effort to lock carbon into plants (another great idea that, surprise surprise, nobody’s investing in).