Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Is Death Really So Bad?

Posted by hyperpat on January 8, 2007

The human life-span right now seems to have some hard limits at somewhere around 110 years, though there may be a very few exceptional cases that manage a few more years than this. From everything we can determine right now, this limit is coded right into the genes, and the actions of various proteins and DNA over the lifespan of the individual. On top of this, living beyond age 80 or so and remaining not just healthy but limber and active is rare, and the quality of life for these super-seniors often degrades pretty badly.

Now scientists are busily poking at the mechanisms that control all of this, with the very real possibility that sometime in the foreseeable future they will know enough to be able to significantly affect what goes on, and give humanity something it has dreamed of since the beginning of recorded history (and probably much longer), immortality or something close to it.

But is this really something we want? Let’s consider a few of the things that would happen if such a medical breakthrough really did occur.

First up is the total world population. It currently stands at about 6.5 billion, and is projected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050 without any major changes in current birth/death rates. If greatly extended life-spans should suddenly become the norm, that figure would skyrocket, probably easily hitting 15 billion before any ameliorating forces took hold. This is probably far beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, at least with our current level of technology, and could lead to extreme famines and wars over very limited resources. All-out wars in today’s world just might take that huge population figure right back down to less than one billion in very short order – and the world the survivors have left to live in might not be very nice at all.

Assuming we manage to avoid the famine/war scenario, another foreseeable problem will be a great increase in the average age of the population, and sharply falling birth rates. This might have great economic impacts, as more and more of the goods that are produced are targeted at mature adults, and less and less going to support children and young people. Massive changes in the economy of this nature have, in the past, led to deep recessions/depressions – again not a very pleasant prospect.

Then we have the issue of what this expanding elderly group of people will do with all the extra time. Right now the work force is structured to have almost everyone depart by at most age 70, with the holes filled by the next generation entering the work place. Many older retired people now already have a problem with what to do: hobbies, community service, travel, etc. are frequently not enough to keep these people active, and for many the amount they’ve saved would run out, leaving them with serious problems. It would be quite likely that with the expectation of extended life spans, people would work much longer – but this might make advancement in a career path for younger folks very slow and frustrating.

And we have the question of just how much information the brain can hold. As people live longer and longer, more and more memories stack up. Eventually, it’s conceivable that the brain will simply run out of room to store new information, or will be overwhelmed by the cross-indexing problem between too many pieces of information. Sounds like we’ll need some way to either selectively clear out some of the memories, or have some method to offload them to some piece of electronics for retrieval on an as-needed basis.

Nope, immortality doesn’t sound like quite the bed of roses we want to jump into. Instead of jumping, I think we need to creep up on this capability slowly, and limit the detrimental effects to something we can handle.

3 Responses to “Is Death Really So Bad?”

  1. fencer said

    You ask interesting questions…

    What sci fi novels do you think have done a good job of exploring this? I seem to remember, vaguely, some stories on the theme in the old big format, and small format, Analog. And I recall that James Gunns’ ‘The Immortals’ had a big impact on me as a teenager, although I don’t think he considered some of the difficulties with long life that you present.


  2. hyperpat said

    Gunn’s Immortals actually considers a different problem, that of limited access to immortality and what effect that would have on society. Of course, the idea of immortality has shown up time and time again in various SF works. Only a few have touched on the issues I bring up. One was Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children (and to a lesser extent Time Enough for Love), where the problem of memory storage was at least touched on. It also presented an alternative method of immortality, namely submersion of your consciousness in a group mind whose individual bodies may change but as a group continues forever. A Picture of Dorian Gray certainly qualifies as a look at what endless centuries can mean for one individual, but it doesn’t address any larger concerns. Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night (aka, as rewritten, The City and the Stars), does look at an enclosed society of immortals in Diaspar and its effect on creativity and originality, but the society shown has long gotten over any upheavals the original discovery of how to achieve it caused. There was a short story/novelette from sometime in the late fifties that dealt with the last child on Earth (at 40 something), as everyone living forever meant there was no room or desire for more children – I can’t remember the title or author of this (a little unusual for me), but it was fairly well done, though the ending was a little stock, with a new rebirth of humanity.

    Hmm… looking over the field, I really can’t think of too many books that have really tried to tackle the problems immortality for the general populace would bring. Almost all the one’s I can think of deal with the case of only a few people having this capability – things like Tuck Everlasting, where it’s one family, or Heinlein’s Howard families, a larger group, but separated early from Earth-bound concerns.

  3. Peter said

    Great post! Iain M. Banks tackles long life (somewhat) bundled with extreme opulence in his ‘Culture’ series of books (A Player Of Games, Consider Phlebas, etc). He ends up with lots of bored, sybarites! (that is a great simplification of course).
    I agree with you – and I think that greatly extended life (with good health and mental faculties) could be catastrophic.
    Imagine the drastic changes that a person would witness and have to adapt.

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