Is Life Extension Good?


“Teach us to number our days so we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

--Moses, to God; Psalms 90:12


"When death disappeared, there would be no life."

--Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night





                        Virtually every day, newspapers report that some emerging biotechnology will greatly increase human life expectancy.   


                        Of course, we’ve heard such gross scientific exaggeration before.  People reading newspapers in the 1950s may have believed predictions that nuclear power plants really would supply safe, cheap, inexhaustible energy.   Since then, we’ve had Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Shoreham, Rocky Flats, Yucca Mountain  and an expensive war and military vigil in the Persian Gulf.  In the ‘60s, we heard of an agricultural  Green Revolution that would produce enough food to eradicate hunger.  Unfortunately, the hungry could not afford the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides needed to make these “super-strains” grow and were forced off their land to make room for those who could afford to spend money on these chemicals and allow the runoff to pollute wells and rivers.  The ‘70s catalytic converter was going to end car-generated air pollution.  Since then, we’ve added too many more cars and have discovered that the new constituents of exhaust are harmful in different ways. In the 1980s, we had the artificial heart and the atavistic promise of safe, clean, inexhaustible energy through cold fusion. Then we had poor Bill Schroeder.  And now it seems that cold fusion was a scam.


                        But if we assume for the moment that these ambitious forecasts of significant life extension are accurate, they raise an important question.


                        Have these researchers lost their minds? 


                        Having over 6 billion people on this planet has strained water, soil and forests to near their limits.  If we allow people to live to be 150, how will we feed and provide water, housing and open spaces for the generations born behind them?   Some  say we could vigorously discourage births to curb over-crowding, as does China. But, aside from the moral issues raised by such policies, which would be more interesting and aesthetically appealing: a world full of jaded ninety year olds who can bench press their weight chasing Susan Sarandon be-alikes or a random assortment of people that includes a significant number of enthusiastic babies, kids and teenagers?


                        Beyond the difficulty of supplying the basic human needs of a burgeoning population, life extension presents some major existential/ontological issues. I once read in Harvard Lampoon that life, like all college essays, can be neatly divided into three parts, the beginning, the middle and the end.  The length of a life’s beginning is circumscribed by youth’s impulse to grow up, to be taken seriously, to make their own decisions and their own

babies.  No matter how we adjust our social institutions to extended life spans, most people don’t want to wait until they’re forty to do these things.  I enjoyed high school but, toward the end, I didn’t want to spend four more minutes there, much less four more years.


                        Perhaps aware of the impatience of youth on the front end  and of peoples' fear of long, lonely stays in nursing homes on the back end, researchers promote life extension by saying they can extend middle age by decades.


                        Although I’m  a basically happy, goal-oriented forty year old with a good family and several interests, I don’t think this middle part should last forever either.  A big part of what makes this middle phase worth appreciating is the knowledge that it is transitory.  The blessings and challenges evolve.  One can’t meet these challenges and continue to identify new goals without realizing that these goals resemble prior ones and that maybe they’re just goals for goals’ sake.  If repeatedly pushing the same rocks up hills and letting them roll down again tortured Greek mythological characters, it will drive human beings positively middle age crazy. Of course, I would like to watch my kids grow up, but if my middle age were greatly extended, eventually they’d be wearing boxer shorts at the same time as I was.  Too weird.  And if you think divorce rates are high now...            


                        Even setting aside the prospect of infirmity in our autumn decades, I doubt that many will find a long retirement  fulfilling.  Assuming their Social Security holds up and they have been sufficiently compulsive to have saved for a fifty year retirement, how are all of these centenarian/retirees going to get a tee time? Serial vacations?   There are only so many churches, mountains and battlefields to see and only so many poolside beverages one can enjoy. Whatever quaint places remain today won’t remain so if there is a McDonald's on every corner and the inhabitants of these far-off places have been watching American TV and surfing the Net since childhood. Hang out with the great-grandkids?  Hey, teenagers don’t even want to hang out with their parents, much less their great-grandparents.


                        So don’t mess with my DNA and don’t give me any cloned organs. Give me my three score and ten, or whatever, and let me out of this world.


                        But please don’t euthanize me.




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