Towers of Babel

According to the BBC, average life expectancy in the UK is levelling off, no longer climbing steadily as it has been for many years:

University College London expert Sir Michael Marmot said he was “deeply concerned” by the situation, saying it was “entirely possible” austerity was affecting how long people live.

If one reads this levelling out as an indication that the general level of health may be beginning to fall then yes this may be concerning, particularly given that life expectancy varies dramatically between different demographic groups: some communities are clearly not getting their fair share of healthy life.

But that said, what I want to ask is: Did we seriously imagine that life expectancy could continue to rise indefinitely?  And, if this were possible, would that even be a good thing?  Or, to rephrase that second question (given that we can probably agree it would not be a good thing if it simply meant more and more people living for decades in care homes with dementia, poor mobility or both):  Would it be a good thing even if ageing could be arrested and good health could also continue indefinitely?

Leaving aside the question of what sort of lifespan is actually biologically possible, it seems to me obvious that death has to be the corollary of birth.  The planet’s resources, including actual physical space, are not infinite, and, if new individuals are going to be born, then old ones do have to die to make room for them.   That being so, in a situation where it was technically possible to abolish ageing and extend human life indefinitely, the question would have to be: would the Earth be better off as a planet of childless Methuselahs, or as a planet where lifespans remained limited but there were children?  Living indefinitely and having children is not sustainable, except perhaps for a small elite.

But this sort of question is not asked very often.  In a narcissistic, individualistic age, the kind of question more likely to be asked is ‘Would I like to postpone my own death, and should I not be given the right to do so?’ or ‘Does not every individual have the right to extend their lives as long as they want?’   As if the world itself was a parent and the human individual a child entitled to infinite unconditional love.

Across the planet, millions are short of food, fish stocks are declining, agricultural land is lost to desert and sprawling cities, rain forests are cut down for farms.  But outside the city of Cambridge where I live armies of construction cranes  mark the sites where yet more medical research facilities are springing up like towers of Babel, reaching for immortality.

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