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What If Humans Didn't Die?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
In this video, we're imagining that there's no such thing as 'life expectancy'. Everybody is immortal, and the human race is destined to live forever. What would happen if humans stopped dying? Would the Earth even be able to cope with an immortal society? The cities would be increasingly crowded, and rural areas for farming and agriculture would need to provide for an ever-growing global population. How many cars would be on the road? How many people would share an apartment building?

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What If Humans Stopped Dying?

It’s said that nothing is certain except death and taxes. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if humans just…stopped dying? The taxes would go on (and there’d be a lot more of them!) but what else would change?

It’s a universal, inescapable fact that, eventually, everything dies. According to the Global Ecology Network, upwards of 55 million people die every single year. In 2016, as part of a wide-ranging report, the World Health Organisation found that a combined 18 million people were killed by the three most common causes; obstructive pulmonary disease, stroke, or heart disease. The highest-ranking, non-illness or medical condition was ‘road traffic accidents’ – claiming 1.4 million lives that year. Clearly, if biology somehow flipped a switch meaning humans suddenly lacked the capacity and means to die, then there’d very quickly be a lot more of us.

Let's say that humans still age, but our bodies simply never shut down. The way we look, think and feel would all alter – to compensate for the now infinite amount of time we have alive. Perhaps our faces wouldn’t show our age as readily as they do now; or, perhaps the appearance of someone we’d consider old in today’s world, would be deemed young and spritely in this alternate reality. Either way, the population would rise, and we’d be under pressure increasing by the day to find new ways to house everyone. Or, without the prospect of death lurking over us, would individual homes, houses and places of safety even be deemed as important? After all, not having somewhere to live actually isn’t going to kill you – because nothing will.

In terms of the way we think, the initial implications of a death-free world could be a lot of fun. With the possibility of dying no longer a threat, daring – or even reckless – behaviours would feel a lot more enticing. We’d suddenly all be keen to take up extreme sports – but the ‘extremeness’ of them would likely need to increase to never-before-seen levels, as the adrenaline rush would be much harder to achieve. Nevertheless, the knowledge that the ultimate leveller would no longer be holding us back could encourage us all to chase our dreams. We could theoretically pursue an infinite number of careers, hobbies and friendships while, on the other hand, we’d also be able to take life a little more slowly from time to time.

Another obvious positive would be that none of us would need to mourn or come to terms with the death of a loved one. Everyone we’d ever known and loved would always be there, with no need to say a ‘final’ goodbye. Terminally ill patients and their families would no longer have to live with the diagnosis. No one would have any possibility that their health could suddenly be taken away from them. Given the literal ‘lease of life’ we’d all be enjoying, there’d seem no need for hospitals at all. Intensive care units would be empty and life support machines would go unused. The space that had been set aside for hospital wards and clinics might even be repurposed, as part of sweeping attempts to manage the massive population.

It all depends on where the hypothetical ends, though. If death didn’t happen but pain and suffering still did, then hospitals would actually be the busiest places on the planet. Sure, no one’s going to succumb to their condition and pass away, but the chronically ill would still be chronically ill. The injured would still be injured, and the sick would still be sick. The newly anointed daredevils and thrill-seekers would still be capable of breaking each and every bone in their still-fragile human bodies; coughs, colds, sore throats and stomach pains could just as easily put us out of action; burnt skin would continue to hurt, wounds would still need treating, serious conditions like cancers and deformities could still develop.

The change would be that medical professionals would no longer be striving to ‘cure’ their patients, but instead working to manage symptoms and ease pain in the long-term. Even if an immortal breed of human somehow aged more slowly than we do now, their bodies would still deteriorate as ours do over time. We’d need permanent fixes for things like weakening eyesight, increasing deafness and stiffening joints. Experts in bionic prosthetics would find themselves at the forefront of healthcare, in line with anyone else offering futuristic solutions for health problems that could feasibly last forever.

But say, on a case by case basis, the management and maintenance of everlasting life actually was something we could achieve. How would the removal of death effect society as a whole? The increasing workload at hospitals shows that an immeasurable strain would be placed on the global economy. And, when the cost of care is considered alongside the dwindling natural resources, a death-free future starts to look surprisingly bleak.

While the figure is continually up for debate, population analysts tend to agree that the Earth can safely hold around ten billion people. More than that, and we’re stretching our resources further than what’s possible. In 2018, our global population increased by 82 million people, but the birth rate (i.e., the population increase without people dying) was around 135 million. If that rate remains the same, it’d take just 18 years before we eclipse the 10 billion threshold.

With a death-free world reaching unsustainable limits by the year 2036, basic requirements like food, drink and clothing would become scarce. The price of fresh foods in particular would skyrocket due to their rarity, with less and less land available to grow it on. The development of mass-produced, generic and uninspiring foodstuffs would take over, while our outfits and personal possessions would gradually become uniform and non-descript, too. No doubt society would still have some form of hierarchy based on wealth, but the superficial, materialistic differences from person to person could lessen – all in a bid to alleviate the pressures of a 10 billion plus population.

Naturally, oil and fuel reserves would quickly deplete, as well, meaning the switch to various forms of renewable energy would need to be rolled out worldwide – as a matter of utmost urgency. Likewise, the cost of real estate would blow most investors out of the race. Again, the combination of an ever-growing population and an ever-dwindling amount of land would push prices far, far out of reach for most people. With this in mind, the vital hospitals and clinics from earlier could become the most expensive and lucrative properties around, expanding upwards and outwards to meet demand. Before long, these buildings could even become self-sustaining super-cities in their own right, with so many lives dependent on them.

While jobs would still be gettable – in healthcare, relief work and energy supply, in particular – the cranking economy would inevitably lead to widespread unemployment and homelessness. Yes, the importance of having a home for physical health and safety might not exist for long as death doesn’t happen, but the psychological effects would trigger massive social change. Without a sense of belonging anywhere other than in whatever hospital they’re treated by, individuals could grow frustrated, bored and even lonely (despite the millions of people, everywhere you look). These feelings would unavoidably lead to civil unrest… and civil unrest in a world rife with billions more people than it can possibly cope with could get very ugly, very quickly.

And that’s all before perhaps the most contentious issue is even considered; birth control. Say that the absence of death was somehow established on a certain day. Calls for enforced birth control would likely erupt within just the first few weeks, with advocates claiming that if no one dies but no one is born, then nothing would change too drastically. But, the idea of outlawing someone’s right to give birth would open up unprecedented concerns about human rights and freedom of choice – throwing us all into an all new level of dystopia and totalitarian control, as well as effectively crystallising us as the ‘last of our kind’.

So, say our immortal selves work out that stemming childbirth actually isn’t the way forward… we’d still need a solution to halt the human onslaught on our creaking planet. And so, space exploration suddenly seems the likeliest and most humane answer to our population problem. Today’s organisations like NASA and SpaceX would be joined by any number of similar initiatives, all looking to relocate our Earthly race onto some other celestial object. The biggest benefit of a technological focus here on Earth could be that we sidestep all-out war, unwilling to spend finances that could be used for spaceships on weapons used against an army that simply cannot die. The downside would be that an accelerated space race would likely only increase global tensions, as the opportunity to escape our current, now-crippled planet would be offered to some, but not all.

All things considered, it really could be a pretty grim reality, far removed from the obvious, immediate plus points of never dying. But, if there’s one takeaway to glean from imagining an immortal society, it’s that our lives (as they are) are precious. As is the planet that we live them on.

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