It is a desire as old as humanity to be able to live forever. Our forefathers exalted eternal life as a gift that could be granted to the faithful or to the pure, and we continue to celebrate and even revere the long-lived; we exalt them in Kung-Fu movies as we do in our novels. Futurists such as Dr. Ian Pearson believe that immortality is coming for those below 40 (see news.com.au article here). In my own novel, Conquerors of K’Tara, there are long-lived groups of people, some of whom praise their long-lives as a gift while others deplore it.
With the decline in religious belief in the 20th Century, the concomitant belief in an eternal life in some paradise (or hell) started losing its appeal. However, novelists and thinkers began presenting different means to eternal life through fictional characters such as Ra’s al Ghul (in Batman), and Vandal Savage (in Green Lantern), or in novels such as The Immortalist or Holy Fire (see a list of novels here and a list of immortal characters here). And today, a growing number of scientists are in fact seriously studying the aging process to understand it and, if not reverse it, at the very least slow it (see medicalxpress.com article here and Scientific American article here). The methods being explored range from genetic manipulations, to biochemical rejuvenation, to the cybernetic embodiment of our brains. Other, wilder, approaches would not preserve our flesh at all, but presumably preserve our minds by transferring them through some yet-to-be discovered technology into a digital network of some type.
But our ability to find or create the Fountain of Youth is an outcome which should not be considered without equally and seriously considering the consequences of achieving this goal. Many so-called thinkers suggest that of course everyone will want to live forever if they can live their eternal—or at least longer—lives healthily, and that we should therefore pursue this goal without fear and with great enthusiasm. Other philosophers have thought more seriously about the question and given perhaps less silly but still myopic answers, explaining that one might become bored or lose his or her sense of self if one lived too long. Fortunately, there exist those who recommend a more rational approach to this very complex question with very complex outcomes.
There are several key concerns to address in order to put in place the structures, laws and conventions necessary to ensure that longer or eternal lives will not lead to humanity’s demise. These concerns are: the social, the environmental, the economic, and the legal.
- Fairness: Some argue that living for centuries or forever will be unfair to the poor who will continue to exist in their misery. But we cannot limit further extensions of our lifespans because of this. Can we morally deny a benefit to some because it might not be available to all? Life expectancy has already nearly doubled (now reaching an average of 75 years) in first-world countries since the 19th century, but it has not been so for developing nations where life expectancy remains near 40 years. As disheartening as it, it will continue to be so, unless we find a way to guarantee universal healthcare, and decent living means for everyone. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy)
- Boredom and Meaning of Life: Others argue that people would become bored with exceedingly long lives. This seems silly, even if it proved to be true in some cases. But again, we cannot prevent those who would benefit from living longer to do so because of a concern for those wouldn’t benefit. But the concern is, nevertheless, considered serious by many, such as by bioethicist Leon Kass, who was head of President George W. Bush’s Bioethics Council. Kass led a group who concluded in a 2003 paper that “The very experience of spending a life, and of becoming spent in doing so contributes to our sense of accomplishment and commitment, and to our sense of the meaningfulness of the passage of time, and of our passage through it.” But advancements which will significantly retard aging will separate age from this sense of accomplishment. I disagree with Kass given that our doubled lifespan since the 1800s has not led to such a disconnect as he and other ethicists warn against. Bioethicist Chris Hackler points out in an article by LiveScience (https://www.livescience.com/10469-psychological-strain-living.html ) that even if we lived to be 180, we’d still be liable to death by accident or disease, and that this is what spurs us to make the most of life. I agree with him, and I am comforted that even as our life expectancy increases, even if it increases dramatically, we can still find meaning in life, or find no meaning in it if we are so disposed even now. But, going back to the point about boredom, what we will need to do, then, will be to find new means to organize people’s lives so as make possible their enjoyment even at 130 or 210.
- Periodic Cleansing: One very real social concern I, myself, have is that in a society where the “old” make up a very large proportion of the total population, humanity will stagnate. Indeed, unless we change private and public retirement rules before this shift in lifespan occurs, companies, governments, and public offices will become fiefdoms of the old, who though they will be physically and mentally fit, will still be much more rigid in their thinking and therefore stifle innovation and further progress. For a current example of what an “unending” life can do to the “young”, see the case of the British Crown which is still held by the 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth, and whose son may only enjoy the crown a few years, if and when he finally gets it. (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/12916099/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/longer-life-could-have-downside/#.XBhcH2hKhPY ).
- Detachment from our nature: Living much longer or forever will not make all the ills of our societies suddenly disappear: people of limited means will still exist, as will the wealthy.
- It is likely that members of the Upper Class will have more time to accumulate even more wealth to the detriment of the Lower Classes given that the life-extension procedures will likely only be accessible to them, at least initially.
- As they detach themselves from the other classes, not only by way of their fortunes but also by way of their longer-lives, it is possible that the wealthy will begin to consider themselves of another race entirely and become even more detached from the rest of humanity. I have not found any academic references to this, but there are movies such as Elysium that have explored the effect of inaccessible life-extending technologies on the human society.
- In this search for eternal youth, another, more far-flung possibility, might arise for the wealthy or for government issues: it is the possibility that brains might be transferred into cyborg bodies, or minds be downloaded into the cybernetic brains of androids or of some mainframe computer. Such transferred brains or minds would most definitely have serious identity issues, with potentially disastrous consequences for the “normals.”
- I do not know how this detachment from our human nature might be avoided in the case of brain or mind transfer, but it will be something to consider very carefully before we do it, if it ever becomes feasible.
- Health must accompany Longer Lifespans: Of course, none of the potential advantages of longer lives will be desired if with greater lifespans, we do not also have healthier bodies and minds all throughout those additional decades or centuries of life. Therefore, it is imperative that life-extension studies be accompanied by health-extension studies, all throughout.
Our Earth, as will be the case of any other planet we might conquer (and of the universe in-toto), has finite resources, and it cannot sustain an ever-growing human population. Significantly increasing our life-spans will only exacerbate an already dire situation. Of course, we can:
- Continue to increase the productivity of the land by enforcing the use of better farming methods across the globe, making fertilizers more widely available, and promoting the development of more genetically-engineering food species, as well as producing certain foods in “laboratories” instead of on the land.
- Conserve water more forcefully and courageously because without seriously cutting into water usage and waste, there will be little safe water to drink, grow our crops, or water our food animals.
- Reduce our square-footage by living in taller buildings, and by enacting strict recycling, reuse, and consumption reduction regulations, by working with manufacturers (the producers) as well as with the consumers to achieve sustainable conditions, especially in the wake of the ongoing climate change which will only worsen.
- Living Means: Living for centuries or millennia would require that we keep working for similarly long periods. Doing so will mean that “old” workers will be competing with younger market entrants for much longer, greatly reducing opportunities for the latter and making it much more difficult for them to find gainful and stimulating employment. This could force the young to stay at home much longer. This is already happening in some European countries such as Italy because of the lack of opportunities following the Great Recession.And if not because of the lack of job opportunities, people might have to stay home longer simplybecause the quantity of knowledge to learn will be that much greater in a few decades or centuries, requiring that “youngsters” continue living with their parents into well into their thirties or forties, which would tax these families of the future with an increased financial burden.
- Some good that may come from longer lives: Significantly longer lifespans may also enable those individuals most valuable to society, because of the good they do, to continue to do so. Longer lives may also enable them to complete long and complex projects critical to society’s wellbeing and which they might not have been able to complete otherwise.
- The need for a change in attitude: In a world where people will live to 150, 500, or perhaps longer, a few legal concerns will arise. Indeed, it is likely that illnesses such as depression will not soon be eliminated, although we may develop better medicines to limit the effects of depression by the time human lives are extended that much, but we do not know what new mental illnesses will surface as we increase life expectancy, and these will take still longer to address. In the meantime, some people will be faced with a hundred, or two hundred, more years of horrible misery. Will it be fair to force them to live so? I would say no; it is neither fair nor right. We must therefore be prepared to make significant changes in societal as well as in legal norms to allow the chronically-ill or depressed to end their lives without the difficulties that even the terminally-ill have today in ending theirs; societal positions on euthanasia will need to change.
- Obligatory termination: A more frightening socio-legal question comes if we let ourselves fantasize a little more about the possible outcomes of the research into extending our lives and our health: It is possible that, despite our efforts at reorganizing human societies to take full advantage of longer lives while minimizing our environmental impact, the harm that would be done would be greater than the good which would derive from allowing individuals to live past a certain age, and that societies will therefore be forced to institute the obligatory termination of the lives of people who reach a predetermined age, as was explored in the novel Logan’s Run or movies such as In Time and The Price of Life. But Humanity would be forced to enact obligatory euthanasia laws (https://qz.com/1186171/what-would-life-look-like-if-we-lived-forever/, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/11/-sp-live-forever-extend-life-calico-google-longevity). But this would not be as bad a what happens to the aged in Gulliver’s Travels.
The ability to sustain our health and our lives significantly, if not indefinitely, will surely be a very real thing someday—perhaps even for the current under-40 generation if we are to believe the most optimistic futurists. But societies will suffer greatly through the shift as the young become rarer and the aged accumulate. The shift will require novel and dramatic changes in the job market, supported by the changes in our laws, as well as in social norms and social benefits. And humans will need to learn to live in that new, perennial society, just as men are now learning to live in a more equal society.
With our concerted efforts, and if we proceed with caution, the increases in lifespan will be accompanied by equal increases in health for everyone, and equal increases in all the things that support our motivation and desire to live the lives we are given. However, given that humanity has not generally proceeded this cautiously before, it is likely the coming changes will also arrive ahead of the needed support systems, mechanisms, and laws. And it is also likely that despite our best intentions, some people will be forced to live who would rather not, and this is a problem which one of the main characters of Conquerors of K’Tara will be grappling with, with catastrophic consequences for the peoples of K’Tara.
What do you think about immortality, its appeal and its risks? You can let me know by commenting below.
To know more about Conquerors of K’Tara or to buy the book, click here.
Acknowledgements: I owe my son, Joseph, an enormous debt of gratitude, for indeed, this essay would have lacked in focus and coherence without his advice, which, despite his young age, is always most insightful, no matter the topic.