The sudden success of the science of life extension seems to be turning a myth into reality. New research hints at the possibility of treatment that can radically increase human longevity. But the research does raise some ethical and social issues that can’t be ignored. Already, on this planet of finite resources, the rich and poor are locked in an unacknowledged conflict, as hyper-consumption reduces the planet’s capacity to sustain life.
Grain is used to produce meat rather than feed people; the safe living space for humanity is narrowed by greenhouse gases, industrial pollutants, freshwater depletion and soil erosion. It’s hard, after a while, to see how this can produce any outcome other than a direct competition for the means of life, which some must win and others lose. One would like to hope that life-extension science could invoke a sunlit, miraculous world of freedom from fear and disease. But, it can also lead to a gerontocratic tyranny of the powerful over the less fortunate.
Since the advancement of medical science has led to increasing life-spans, the chances are that a day will come when, as in Japan today where there are 36,000 centenarians, having a 100-year-old neighbour won’t be unusual. Such a state of affairs will be a nightmare for insurance firms because there is a limit beyond which lives cannot be assured or the premiums raised. Family life will also come under a strain. As it is, there are reports of elderly parents being ill-treated by their children and in-laws. If people living till 90 or 100 becomes the norm rather than the exception, then social service representatives will have to deal with more cases of maltreatment. For the aged themselves, long life can be a burden due to the lack of companionship and the feeling of being unwanted. Their fate will be not unlike that of Tithonus in Tennyson’s poem who was cursed by “cruel immortality” to live forever.