What If Humans Lived Forever?
What do you fear most? Some might say loneliness, others are scared of small spaces, and more than a few would say public speaking. For a vast majority of people, though, the inevitability of death would be towards the top of the list. Given our fixation on self-preservation, it’s only natural that human beings should have a phobia of death. Whether we see death’s shadow looming from a mile away or it creeps up on us entirely unannounced, the idea of leaving this life we’ve worked so hard to build and all of our loved ones behind is nothing short of harrowing.
While the exact timing and nature of death can be unpredictable, we can at least take solace in knowing that life expectancy has significantly increased over time. According to the National Institute on Aging, in the year 1900 people were lucky if they lived beyond the age of 50. But, throughout the 20th century the average life expectancy has skyrocketed, with increasing numbers living to see their eighties and nineties - largely thanks to medical advances to prevent infant deaths and allow us to manage certain diseases. Although not every nation has access to the medicines and healthcare that so-called First World countries sometimes take for granted, life expectancy figures have notably risen in many less developed areas, too.
As far as we’ve come though, it’s still rare for somebody to survive past 100 years. Living from 1875 to 1997, Jeanne Calment holds the record for the longest documented human lifespan at 122 years and 164 days. But, as Joanna Masel of the University of Arizona put it, “Ageing is mathematically inevitable.” If you believe in reincarnation, it might be wise to come back as a Great Basin bristlecone pine tree, an Ocean quahog clam, or any other organism with an unusually long lifespan. But you’d still only be delaying the inescapable.
So, what if human beings were wired to live for thousands, millions, or billions of years? What if death was an option rather than an inevitability, allowing humans to live forever?
First off, the world as we know it today would probably look a lot different. Picture a society where history’s greatest minds, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, never died. They would’ve been able to continue their research and evolve along with the rest of humankind, theoretically bringing about a more enlightened future. For every seemingly positive outcome, however, there’s a negative. One can only imagine a world where Adolf Hitler, Attila the Hun, and other merchants of evil were still spreading misery. Plus, the further you go back in history, the more ignorant and intolerant people tend to be. So even if Socrates and co. were still around, social progression would likely have suffered some serious setbacks - or become halted entirely.
However, if we were to analyse every potential alternate timeline, we’d be here for several lifetimes discussing it - and still without even scratching the surface. So for the sake of simplicity, let’s imagine that sometime in the foreseeable future, we find a way to increase human life expectancy to an infinite number of years.
Even if we were physically capable of living forever, there are countless variables that may prevent us from reaching our maximum lifespan. In the U.S., 50% of deaths are caused by heart disease, cancer, and chronic lower respiratory disease. If these diseases still exist, then anyone’s immortality is very touch-and-go, as it’d be almost impossible to evade various major health problems for eternity. Furthermore, for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, or other incurable conditions, living forever might actually seem a fate worse than death.
Then again, if we could cure death, who’s to say that we couldn’t cure all known diseases and disorders, too? But, even then, there are plenty of other ways for people to clock out early. Around the world, roughly 1.3 million people die every year in road crashes alone. Again though, who knows what other medical innovations await us in our ‘live forever’ future? Perhaps bullet wounds, lost limbs or car accident injuries are also curable. So, if death is completely nonexistent and no injuries, disorders, or diseases are permanent or life-threatening... What then?
At first, it might sound like a dream come true! With unlimited years on the horizon, you’d finally have time to write that novel, learn a second language, or spend a year abroad in Paris. But while some would be driven to soak up every last infinite minute, others may be less motivated than ever. After all, if we’re gonna live forever, what’s the rush? Why not just sleep in until noon every day and then spend several hours binge-watching your favorite show? Important tasks can always be left to tomorrow, because tomorrow will always arrive.
Realistically though, very few people would be able to goof off 24/7, since structured work hours and even retirement would be a thing of the past. In the U.S., people often retire sometime in their 60s. But if we can’t die, chances are we’ll never be able to save up enough money to retire forever. Most people will just keep working and working and working, either due to financial obligation or because doing nothing all day just sounds intolerably dull.
In a world where nobody retires though, there would likely be fewer occupations to fill. Which poses a problem for younger generations in need of steady work. Of course certain companies may force older people out of their jobs in the hope of bringing in fresh blood. But, either way, the lack of work could have negative economic and social effects.
Other social norms would also most definitely change. Could you give a criminal a life sentence knowing that they’ll never die, for example? And, with no maternal clock ticking, there likely wouldn’t be as much pressure for people to get married and start a family before any certain age. And staying with age limits, how old would somebody have to be to drink, gamble, or vote in a world without death? In the United States, the age of consent currently ranges from 16 to 18, depending on the state you’re in. Does that mean a 16-year old could consent to sex with someone who’s 16,000 years old? The whole rule book would need to be rewritten.
For the broader picture, perhaps the most significant and obvious dilemma society would face is how to deal with an overpopulated planet. As of 2018, there are over 7.5 billion people living on Earth. Many have argued that we’re already too crowded, but this issue would become an astronomical and almost immeasurable problem if death didn’t exist. On top of the escalating unemployment, resources would also become increasingly scarce, prompting worldwide starvation, homelessness, and poverty. And in trying to find a solution to overpopulation, laws and customs could become very controversial.
Voluntary euthanasia has sparked a number of ethical debates in recent history, with it only being legalized in a handful of countries. If dying naturally is off the table, however, more people may change their minds about physician-assisted suicide - although many would still likely label it as blasphemy. Of course, that’s assuming that our general understanding and appreciation of religion in general remains intact - which it probably wouldn’t be.
In fact, in exceptionally dark circumstances, as a means of addressing overpopulation, some governments may even make voluntary euthanasia a legal requirement upon reaching a certain age. Much like how advocates for hunting suggest that it can help preserve wildlife, assisted suicide may become the only way to maintain our species. However, an elitist society could emerge around the euthanasia issue, where rich and powerful people may be able to buy themselves more years - literally putting a price tag on their own lives.
Another potential and extremely controversial solution could be to limit childbirth, or ban it completely. Similarly to ongoing debates on issues like abortion and birth control though, individuals would likely have vastly varying opinions on whether the number of children they have should be dictated by the government - and policies would likely differ between nations. Since overpopulation is a global issue, differing laws and opinions may even lead to war, although acts of violence would obviously lose a lot of impact without the threat of death.
Perhaps the best and most positive solution would be for humanity to band together and build new habitable environments away from Earth. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there’s been constant discussion about colonizing on the moon or Mars - and it has been predicted that NASA will have humans orbiting the Red Planet by the 2030s. Other options include colonizing on purpose-built space stations, as well as seeking out new worlds that humankind could inhabit. In general, relocating off of Earth is something we’ll have to do eventually anyway, since the sun will burn out within the next 5 billion years. Living forever doesn’t mean much without a planet to live on.
Of course, it’s mostly the stuff of science fiction so far. But there are some that believe that immortality is more feasible than we’d imagine. Although we’ll likely never produce a bona fide Philosopher's Stone, futurologist Dr. Ian Pearson believes we could unlock another elixir of life by the year 2050. Renewing body parts, living in android bodies, and populating a virtual world are all far-off possibilities for Pearson, available to anyone who lives to see the tech developed. So if you’re watching this and your under the age of 40, death may even be obsolete before you reach your eighties. The question is; Would you really want to live forever, if the opportunity presented itself?
Yes, fear of death is one of the most common human phobias. But after a couple hundred years or so, the glory and apparent safety of eternal life could start to become a mental burden. There’s only so much one person can accomplish in a single lifetime, after all. Once you’ve done and seen everything you’d like to, what’s left? Not only would we be cursed to an eternity of increasing boredom, but our appreciation of life could slowly dwindle away. Without the prospect of dying, would life lose its value? Rather than running from death, we may start to welcome it with open arms. Perhaps Japanese writer Haruki Murakami had it right… He said: “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.”