No facet of life weighs more heavily than mortality. From the first awareness that death is the only certainty, the extinction of our corporeal bodies becomes something to be denied psychologically and avoided in reality at any cost.
This frantic clinging to earthly existence is not new; people have obsessed for millennia about ways to prolong life. And, when confronted with the inescapable—that a physical presence cannot be sustained—we clutch just as desperately to life-after-death concepts that promise perpetuation of spirit, if not body. Heaven, reincarnation, and the more contemporary notion that some vague, ethereal energy form endures, are three of the most common beliefs people embrace. Though unproven and unquantifiable, these leap-of-faith alternatives to rotting in graves bring comfort to billions of people terrified at the thought of infinite nothingness.
Our dread of death, coupled with a grasping belief in the chimera of eternal life, is a deeply rooted psychological paradox that most are unable to rationalize. So, billions spend their lives in worried torment as the sand drains inexorably from their life glasses.
Fear of oblivion obliterates objectivity. Were it otherwise, solace would be found in the fact that people have more time to be less concerned about death than have people at any point in history. Most of the more than seven billion people now on the planet will live longer—much longer—than did their predecessors just two generations ago.
Due primarily to the influences of better medicine and diet, life expectancy has leapt decades in just 100 years. In the year 1900, the average North American lived to about 50. Today, both men and women who reach 65 can expect to survive into their 80s. And these numbers are extending rapidly. Life expectancy in the developed nations lengthens by about one year every decade. Centenarians will be common by 2050.
Medical researchers suggest that the human organism, sustained by appropriate diet, exercise, and pollution-free environments, is capable of existing in a healthy state to the age of 120-plus. And there is promise of adding even further to this remarkable number as 3rd Millennium science searches for ways to dramatically slow our genetic ageing clocks. Such revolutionary breakthroughs percolate even now in biochemical and biotechnical laboratories around the globe.
It appears certain that mankind is about to get what it has always wanted—greatly increased longevity.
PROGENETER is fiction, but much of its information about science, genetics, global environmental trends, limited resources, new diseases, etc. is factual. So, too, is there truth in the astonishing and controversial chapter about anthropoktonos, man the murderer of men. This examination of biological underpinnings to human violence and war is shocking.
The heroic people of the book, the Mavas u Ch’an, are part of the fiction, but they could exist. A sub expedition of the Spanish conquistador, Francesco de Coronado, did reach the Grand Canyon in 1540 A.D., and an isolated indigenous tribe—the Havasupai—reside to this day in a remote offshoot of the Canyon, their village accessible only by foot, horse, or helicopter.
Although PROGENETER uses imaginary settings to examine the implications of greatly extended life spans, the interweaving of fact and fiction should not diminish the real-world importance of the book’s central premise—that average human life spans of 150+ are possible if only a few medical and biological challenges are surmounted. But, that’s only part of the story. Dramatically longer lives will raise important issues.
Will long life be the gift we wish for? What would we do differently if we knew we had twice as long to live? Would double the life span equate with double the productivity, and double the sense of purpose, or would it mean living the same, just for twice as long?
A significant lengthening of longevity suggests incalculable implications not only for humans, but also for other species, for vegetation—indeed, for the entire planet. Clearly, over population would rank as a major concern; there are too many people already in many geographic areas. When congestion combines with disproportionate distributions of food, water, and resources, disaster always results.
If scientific advances continue to significantly lengthen longevity, the global population could continue to balloon. While people would do anything, and pay anything, to live longer, a cut in mortality rates would mean billions more people, and that could well be catastrophic. If a variation of PROGENETER becomes reality, many issues would arise.
- Crime, Terrorism, and War: Will poverty, starvation, ethnic, and religious strife and social unease—all exacerbated by overcrowding—cause a global crime surge and even more widespread terrorism? Will tension and perceptions of increased discrepancies between have and have-not nations heighten growing resentment and produce more conflict?
- Demographics: By 2050, every fifth person on the planet will be 65 and older—1.6 billion elderly, a figure unmatched over the span of human existence. To emphasize the enormity of the imbalance, in 1950 the over-65 demographic comprised only 5 per cent of the people on earth. By 2050, it will make up 18 per cent. Logic suggests that the world needs more young people, not more old people. Will we need to do a rapid about-face to encourage births but to discourage lengthening longevity?
- Resources and pollution: Few people believe that the current cycle of consumption can be maintained, but what significant and serious steps are being taken to curb energy use, particularly in North America? Almost assuredly, more people will worsen damage to the planet.
- Food and water: These are already in short supply in many parts of the world—two billion people lack access to clean water every day. Billions more people will exacerbate the situation unless significant technological advances are made. What can, or should, we do about the spectre of worsening starvation?
- Other plant and animal species: Thousands of animal and plant species teeter on extinction. What effects will billions more people exert?
- Philosophical equity: What about the ethics of providing treatments to prolong the lives of people in wealthy nations but denying life extension offerings to people who cannot afford to pay? (About two billion people live in absolute poverty, earning less than $400/yr. income.)
- Social psychology: What would be the effects of doubled life spans on motivation, social networks, sense of purpose, recreation vs. work, or on family structures? Should people still retire at 65, or will economics dictate that work lives need to be dramatically extended; this has begun already in many countries as the cost of retirement plans threaten to bankrupt governments. What would billions of elderly people do in retirement?
- Economics: What are the economic implications of billions of retirees, some wealthy but many more poor? Longer life could be wonderful if one has sufficient income, but what of those who don’t? Likewise with care for the elderly; living longer doesn’t necessarily translate into perfect health, so how will society cope with hundreds of millions more old people with high-cost medical needs, particularly people without money to support such care?
The optimistic perspective
Of course, there could also be positives. Longer life spans could mean more and potentially fantastic contributions from significant thinkers, inventors, and researchers. We can only speculate what may be achieved if bodies supporting Einsteinian-quality intellects are able to use extra decades invested in intellectual productivity.
It’s impossible to predict if we will deal with supercentenarianism constructively and intelligently, but almost certainly our species will face such critical decisions relatively soon. If we fail to rise to the challenge, we may confront a perverse biological contradiction—longer human life spans could lead to the demise of nearly all life on the planet.
Ultra-long life may prove to be a much more complex and difficult issue than many suspect. Will it bring increased happiness, comfort, and prosperity? To make it so, our species must act quickly to change attitudes and behaviour, but given our history, how likely is it that we will cope with these issues in constructive or humanistic manners? Might Aldous Huxley’s pessimistic view hold sway?
“A belief in Hell, and the knowledge that every ambition is doomed to frustration at the hands of a skeleton, have never prevented the majority of human beings from behaving as though death were no more than an unfounded rumour.”
(Steve Bareham has published books with Harper Collins, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, and EduServ Inc. He resides in Nelson, B.C., Canada, and recently retired after 23 years as an educator from Selkirk College.)