Monday, 10 October 2011

Longevity: a solution rather than a problem

It is becoming increasingly common to encounter thinly disguised views that old people are a burden on the young and healthy.

 As the sanctity of life is attacked by philosophical materialists, as life spans in the world increase, as people feel it is their ‘right’ to have an enjoyable life, and as the cost of caring for the elderly grows, how long before it becomes respectable to talk about encouraging people to terminate their lives when they feel themselves to be a liability, so that anyone refusing to take this option is put under ‘moral’ pressure to do so?

From the little I understand of modern molecular biology and medical science the possibility of very long life spans is by no means a fantasy. I even heard of one group at Cambridge seriously proclaiming a target longevity of 1000 years. The progress in understanding structure and function of biological life is also allowing people to stay active, mentally and physically, to within a short time from death.

Why is this a problem? If we can continue to learn, to enjoy our existence, to cherish and help others, why should we not prolong our earthly existence? (I see this as using the gift of science that God has given us to make Earth as much like heaven as possible – ‘Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven’, although this is incidental to our spiritual mission, if indeed the spiritual can be separated from the material.)

There are two obvious questions concerning the wisdom of increasing life span, even supposing we could stay well right up to the end.

  • Population growth.  The population would grow even faster than it is already and become unsustainable. The earth’s ecosystem would collapse.

  • Stagnation. New ways of living and evolving depend on the death of each generation. As the recently departed  Steve Jobs observed, death makes way for new life.

But do these problems necessarily follow from longevity?

Population would not necessarily grow.  Should small families become associated with longer lifespan (voluntarily, there is no other way) the population would fall dramatically. A one-child limit for the rest of this century would reduce China’s population to one tenth of its present 1.4 billion by the year 2100 (EconomistOnline, 2 August 2011). However, the limit must be voluntary if humanity is to be retained.

A life measured in centuries could be richer culturally, deeper spiritually and more pleasurable. There would be less tendency to live in a frenetic, consumption-driven, wealth-seeking, pleasure-obsessed way.  Such a change in values and life style looks likely to be forced on us anyway -by environmental  pressures and resource shortages. In the future it could be that art, music, writing, craftsmanship, anthropology, archaeology, antiques, sport, walking, travel, space exploration, linguistics, philosophy, sociology, psychology, science, mathematics, engineering, agriculture and innumerable other endeavours could occupy us, rather than consumption and wealth generation, according to our strengths and interests.

Technology could remove the drudgery. Such unpleasant work as remained beyond the capabilities of robots could be done for a short part of one’s life on a citizen’s rota basis. With a life expectancy of 300 years and drudgery removed there would be abundant time

The second danger – stagnation – need not occur either. Why should death always be needed for progress? With individuals living much longer and more healthily and having all the advantages of modern technology to enhance learning and communication, they may well be able to achieve  innovation to a degree not hitherto possible. The diversity of concepts that could be assimilated by the brain in a human lifetime would be so much larger and this could lead to more fusion of diverse ideas into totally new ones with who knows what consequences for technology and the progress of science.

The big question here is what would drive such a society forward? If pursuit of wealth became irrelevant because all material needs could be so easily secured and if accumulation of wealth above a certain level came to be widely regarded as pointless, I suppose people would be driven by curiosity or a sense of achievement or a need for adventure  – e.g. expeditions to other planets could provide all three. Probably the human weakness of status-seeking would remain common.

Overall, then, increased lifespans  could be part of a move to a lower energy, less polluting and more fulfilling way of life, and a whole universe rich with multilayered and fractal mystery to explore.

In my novel 2077 AD people have the option of Life Extension to 300 years and this naturally leads to the need for a natural successor to the nuclear family, one of which, the Kinship Circle, is proposed merely as a possibility to provoke discussion.

As always, this Blog is also to provoke discussion, so please come back to me if you have anything to say.

Author, 2077 AD