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A Shortage of Death?

holy_fire.gifWhat will happen when biomedical science allows people to live healthy lives lasting well beyond what is now considered "maximum possible age?" This is not a new question at WorldChanging; both Alex and I have addressed various possible scenarios and possibilities. It is a topic less often explored in the mainstream media, however, and when it is, it's usually presented as something wacky or fringe, and rarely given its due consideration. It's highly likely that the next several decades will see substantive breakthroughs in health and longevity science; it's important to start thinking now about how we want such a world to turn out.

Charles C. Mann, in the May 2005 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, gives us "The Coming Death Shortage," one of the few mainstream articles that both takes the idea of radical longevity seriously and explores its implications. It's not a perfect article -- some of its conclusions are a bit alarmist -- but it's a good one. The full text online is available only to subscribers, so I would encourage you to either pick up the issue or find it in your local library. Hit the extended entry here for some excerpts and discussion.

Mann's depiction of what a world of radical longevity would be like falls closest to the "Dorian Gray" scenario I outlined in my "What Would Radical Longevity Mean?" article last year -- a succession of otherwise-desirable medical technologies making it possible for people live longer and longer healthy lives, without "immortality" ever being the intended result. His article doesn't address what might happen should longevity allow for a physiological "reset" (a la Holy Fire), admittedly a less-likely near-term pathway to longevity.

He doesn't shy away from recognizing the scale of the changes emerging from extreme life expectancy:

From religion to real estate, from pensions to parent-child dynamics, almost every aspect of society is based on the orderly succession of generations. Every quarter century or so children take over from their parents—a transition as fundamental to human existence as the rotation of the planet about its axis. In tomorrow's world, if the optimists are correct, grandparents will have living grandparents; children born decades from now will ignore advice from people who watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Intergenerational warfare ... will be but one consequence. Trying to envision such a world, sober social scientists find themselves discussing pregnant seventy-year-olds, offshore organ farms, protracted adolescence, and lifestyles policed by insurance companies. Indeed, if the biologists are right, the coming army of centenarians will be marching into a future so unutterably different that they may well feel nostalgia for the long-ago days of three score and ten.

This passage also hints at Mann's general disapproval of the idea of radical longevity. He doesn't explicitly suggest that medical science leading to life extension should be banned; it seems more of a lament that it's going to happen, regardless. And when it does, in his view, the inevitable result of life extension is increased social inequality. Some of that will come from older people in positions of power refusing to give up their seats to new generations; some will come from differential access to the life extension technology. And some will come from compound interest.

...a twenty-year-old who puts $10,000 in the market in 2010 should expect by 2030 to have about $27,000 in real terms—a tidy increase. But that happy forty-year-old will be in the same world as septuagenarians and octogenarians who began investing their money during the Carter administration. If someone who turned seventy in 2010 had invested $10,000 when he was twenty, he would have about $115,000. In the same twenty-year period during which the young person's account grew from $10,000 to $27,000, the old person's account would grow from $115,000 to $305,000. Inexorably, the gap between them will widen.

The result would be a tripartite society: the very old and very rich on top, beta-testing each new treatment on themselves; a mass of the ordinary old, forced by insurance into supremely healthy habits, kept alive by medical entitlement; and the diminishingly influential young.

Mann draws a parallel between this notion of the deathless refusing to give up power to the young and the current situation in Japan. Japan has the world's oldest population, the highest percentage of working senior citizens of any developed nation, and one-third of its young adult population unemployed or working part-time, many still living with their parents. This is the first hint of a flaw in his scenario, however, as he later asserts that increased longevity will inevitably lead to fewer couples having children, raising the specter of fewer young people working to subsidize the retirements of older generations. But wouldn't many older people, still healthy and mentally fit, want to continue working, as seen in Japan? That wouldn't matter -- companies will ruthlessly dump expensive older workers in favor of... well, what will replace them is largely left unsaid. If there's a baby bust associated with radical longevity, there are fewer "cheap" young workers to replace those oldsters forced to retire, and with fewer of them to go around, the less "cheap" they'd be to hire. Conversely, if radical longevity doesn't result in a drop in the birth rate -- because, for example, potential parents recognize that they have more time to build careers, and can afford to focus on having kids early on, or because the medical science extending healthy lifespans also allows for healthy pregnancy and birth no matter how old the mother -- then the fear of too-few young folks is a non-issue.

Most importantly, Mann makes no room in his scenario for society to change in response to (or in co-evolution with) changes in lifespan. He seems taken in by the speed with which technology itself changes, and extends that pace to technology's results. But demographic change is a slow process. Non-catastrophic changes in birth rates and death rates take decades to have substantial results. Even if radical life extension became available today, its broad social effects wouldn't be visible for many years. As a result, this could well be a technology-driven change that society will have time to grapple with. This does not mean that the adjustment will be painless, or that we'll get our choices right the first time. More likely, we'll see indignant public debate, politically-inspired legislation, repealed legislation, judicial proceedings, ethical rumblings, and on and on. In short, the slow pace of demography means that we should have time for our culture to adjust, and to learn from its mistakes.

This doesn't mean we can put off thinking about the issue, however. Mann quotes geneticist Aubrey de Grey as noting that society can't wait until the last minute to start planning for this eventuality, as "you live with longevity for a very long time." Society may have time to learn from its mistakes, but those mistakes will mean suffering for real people. It is imperative that we start to think now about our options. We won't get all of our scenarios right -- in fact, we'll get most of them wrong -- but they'll still be testing grounds for how we will eventually proceed. The more people involved in these discussions, the better; even if I take issue with some of Mann's conclusions, he has done a terrific service to our society by bringing these issues forward intelligently and coherently in a mainstream non-techie publication.

Too often we are dazzled by the strange and often troubling implications of change, forgetting that change is not new. Too often we give insufficient credit to the resiliency of human cultures. We adjust and we learn -- and all the better when we can help that along with a bit of forethought.

(Thanks to James Hughes for bringing this article to my attention.)


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» http://www.fightaging.org/archives/000447.php from Fight Aging!
Dave Gobel of the Methuselah Foundation drew my attention to a WorldChanging commentary on the rather horrible "The Coming Death Shortage" from the Atlantic. I think that the WorldChanging crew give it more respect than it deserves, but make your own m... [Read More]

Comments (12)

Mr. Mann writes:

"The result would be a tripartite society: the very old and very rich on top, beta-testing each new treatment on themselves; a mass of the ordinary old, forced by insurance into supremely healthy habits, kept alive by medical entitlement; and the diminishingly influential young."

That doesn't sound like the future. That sounds like a mildly distorted version of the present.

The medical industries already make a lot of money by beta testing new technology on the old. This is subsidized by entitlements already in place. The middle aged already are quite obsessed with their health. And medical insurance, or more importantly the lack of health insurance, is already forcing their lifestyle choices. Young people already have to wait until they've reached their thirties before they can have any serious influence. Kids are a bunch of burger flippers that are often forced to live longer with their parents because of lack of education, experience or money.

That's not the future; that's now. I'm sorry but, I don't think Mann is thinking that deeply about how things might actually change.

Anyway, I've noticed in the last 10 or so years that there are growing number of articles, both informed and uninformed, about the prospects of radical longevity. I guess this isn't surprising; we know much more about the aging process than we did 20 years ago. More and more biologists are pronouncing that a solution (If we consider aging to be a problem.) might be nearer to hand than previously thought and are not being so quickly dismissed as crackpots. This is, and has been, slowly filtering out of the lab into the public mind.

I wish I had something more insightful to say about this. I'll end glibly: in technology the miraculous becomes commonplace--and annoying.

The prospects for--and consequences of--radical longevity are considered at some depth in The Scientific Conquest Of Death, a new book of essays published by the Immortality Institute. I recommend it highly, and not just because one of the essays is mine. :^)

Steven Ansell:

I think it is best to not look at radical longevity in a vacuum. Many other technologies are being developed that will affect our society in the future and will change the landscape in which we will live (longer). Automation will take many jobs. I have read statistics suggesting 50% unemployment in the US by mid century. "3D printers" or "rapid prototypers" will change the dynamics of the marketplace as we can increasingly print what we need. And what about space colonization? Will we spend our extra life looking for that perfect planet or space station to retire on? Radical longevity is just one of the many dramatic shifts we have to look forward to and all these changes will affect each-other in ways we can't yet fully imagine.

I will pick up this issue of The Atlantic, but I also want to ask for your reaction regarding the population considerations associated with radical longevity.

Heightened resource and energy requirements are my first concern when I read articles on our imminent extended lifespan, and, thus far, I have heard no arguments that ease my mind.

The notion that radical longevity will result in a substantial decline in birthrate strikes me as unlikely, but necessary to preserve a balance. I have also heard some folks theorize that, along with the technological jumps needed to increase our lives, new sustainable, eco-friendly technolgies will be introduced. The combination of radical longevity and eco-friendly development seems a little too utopian for me to accept...but maybe I'm just being a cynic.

Stefan Jones:

One issue that needs to be addressed is what I call The Mr. Burns Problem.

One of the benefits of death is that it eventually gets rid of rotten people. Mortality sucks, but at least it means the world won't have, say, Rush Limbaugh or Lyndon Larouch around forever and ever. (Although I suspect the latter has become a liche; has anyone seen how he reacts to holy symbols?)

The previous posts raise some good points but I think that the problems cited are problems that we are already forced to deal with. All longevity and rejuvenation does is magnify them.

For example "the Mr. Burns Problem" is already something that we are forced to deal with.

There are some annoying, dangerous and broken people in the world. Some of them wind up in positions of power where they can live quite long, spread their damage quite far and force many others to endure suffering--Mugabe, Kim, Pinochet, Marcos, Stalin, recent popes (Sorry but it has to be said.) and the list goes on. This is already a problem we have to deal with.

All longevity does is extend the period that people have to endure these incompetents and tyrants. One could also claim that longevity could extend the reigns of benefactors and progressives (Or, more likely, make them outlive their relevance.) and thus could balance out the broken people.

Longevity is only surface detail and not the source of "the Mr. Burns Problem." I think we should focus on how to cure these broken people, how to stop producing them in the first place and how to prevent them from gaining access to power. Also we have to be careful about who we define as "broken" and not to turn it into an excuse to silence people we disagree with.

Birth control and lack of sustainability are also problems now. Longevity only magnifies their importance. Perhaps some passive yet progressively minded people, faced with long life in declining world, might be forced to do something about it. But we really can't count on that either.

The trouble is we can't choose which areas of science and technology advance more slowly or quickly than others. Some areas of research are given many millions of dollars and still achieve little progress, controlled nuclear fusion for example, while other areas that may be neglected still manage to leap ahead anyway. If the last century taught us anything it taught us that we often have these new tools thrust suddenly upon us.

Hm. Well, I guess my opinion could summarized as let's deal with sustainability, birth control and the Mr. Burns problem now and not worry stuff like rejuvenation and longevity.


"...recent popes (Sorry but it has to be said.)"

Very poor form, sir.

John Paul II actually has done a lot of good I must admit.

He hastened the end of communism is Europe. He elevated many non-European priests to high posts within the hierarchy. He made many attempts to reconcile with other sects of Christianity. He instituted many reforms in the church. He made the papacy a very public and engaged institution. He opposed the invasion of Iraq as hasty and pointless.

But at the same time he did nothing to change policy on birth control. This in a world where millions listened to him.

I apologize for classing him in the same group as the dictators I cited but, considering the global reach the Catholic faith has, this failure to promote family planning and birth control was irresponsible.

Given the coming worldwide population decline, Mr. Farlops may wish to reconsider whether the late pope's influence on birth control is beneficial or baneful.

Well, given the coming population decline, which I'm beginning to slowly and skeptically accept as fact, one could argue that it makes no difference what Vatican policy was on birth control.

Me, I prefer to stay on the side of caution. Current Vatican policy is an impedement to progress in this area.

However I sincerely regret my earlier blatherings that cited the John Paul II as an example of the Mr. Burns problem. My foot was firmly in my mouth then.


Uh, the coming population decline is projected to be 2050 isn't it? Thatis along way off with 5 thousand million more mouths to feed.


well concidering how likely it is we will have a drug resistant plague soon I wouldnt worry about it.

That combined with rampant pollution in asia combined with various other things should do quite "nicely" in curbing our population problems.


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