There are many fronts in the war against death, and for the past two hundred years humanity has been winning.
The stats are easy enough to find. Before the industrial revolution life expectancy was often below 30 years (though if you survived infancy, you had a decent chance of seeing your fifties). Since 1900 the global figure has soared from 31 years to nearly 70, with Japan currently topping the chart at 87. The decline of infectious diseases sees the biggest single drop. In 1900 the leading causes of death in the US were influenza and tuberculosis. Today it is heart disease and cancer.
Across the board, life is getting safer. Despite a smaller world population, ten times more people died from natural disasters a century ago then today. Murders were 50-100 times more common in Europe in the Middle Ages. Even the US murder rate is at its lowest rate in 100 years while workplace fatalities have declined by 90% over the same period.
Self driving cars will put a huge dent in the roughly 1.2 million people who die in car accidents every year, while we can at least take solace that the ever growing surveillance state will make getting away with murder more difficult. There is no reason why even the nastiest diseases like Ebola or HIV won’t be cured someday soon.
So in the 21st century we are much less likely to die from disease, natural disasters, murder or car crashes, and lets assume medical science eventually pushes back all other causes. What remains standing?
Suicides are one of the few exceptions to the above trend. Forty thousand people now kill themselves every year in the US. The UK shows a similar rise. Most western countries are seeing the same and the World Health Organization predicts 1.5 million people will die by their own hand by 2020.
Now there are many possible reasons for this. The breakdown of the family unit has to be a leading culprit. Others blame the GFC or the spread of the internet, but these are all secondary factors.
Savagery below the surface
I’ve written before about the fundamentally savage nature of human beings. By all accounts, we just aren’t the sort of people who can live in perpetual happiness. If anything, we need to be waging some sort of struggle to keep us content. Without an immediate sense of purpose, we begin to question the very meaning of our existence.
For most of history, people were distracted by the concerns of everyday survival. With the possible exception of some hunter-gatherers, there simply wasn’t much time to ponder the mysteries of the universe. Today we’ve just replaced this with digital entertainment and the constant struggle that is fitting in to our politically correct society.
If anything, maintaining a healthy psychology becomes more difficult the more of a material paradise we create around us. The cry of a nearby infant is probably the best bulwark against the urge to put a gun to your head, but we know today’s career-driven youth are far too busy for that.
We’ve done our best to replace an aching belly with an aching need for attention via social media, but eventually, us or our descendants will be left staring into the abyss that is our unimaginably vast universe.
This is why I fully expect euthanasia will soon be legalized. Plenty of works of dystopian fiction have explored the horrors of immortality. I can very well imagine the next generation of social justice warriors demanding the government provide free longevity treatments to all citizens. We can only hope that for once they don’t overreach and make these demands compulsory. Who wants to label themselves in favour of “death culture”?
Of course, a world absent unforeseen death can be seen as a fantastic thing, but our psychology will face some jarring changes. Human beings will be more or less forced to choose a time for their own demise.
Perhaps people will even hold “deathday parties” where they gather up all their families and friends for a final goodbye before their appointment with the euthanasist? Old couples may decide to die together after a few centuries of happy but increasingly stale marriage.
Others might choose to freeze themselves with instructions only to be woken every thousand years, or until something interesting happens. Virtual reality is sure to take off. Personally I wouldn’t mind spending a few decades in Westeros banging fair maidens and riding dragons. It would certainly kill some time.
In fact lately I’ve been asking people the blunt question – what would you do if you could live forever? The answers have varied from “I don’t know…I’m pretty bored right now” to “well…how many women are there on Earth? Three billion? How long would that take?”
The problem of trying to find meaning in a world without sickness or material want will be an enormous challenge for our society to grapple with. Even if we banish all disease, cure the aging process, and surround ourselves in a giant rubber room, death is not banished unless we find a way to fundamentally change our psychology. As we exist now, it seems a human being is never completely satisfied with their lot.
This is why I predict that, unless the planet blows up, euthanasia and suicide will eventually be the leading causes of death, possibly by the year 2100. With physical well-being as a given, life expectancy statistics will be driven not by how long you can maintain people’s physical health, but their mental health, and as far as I can tell, our understanding of the latter has hardly advanced since the middle ages.
There’s no way of predicting how long the average person will wish to live once we’re freed from our basic biology. A hundred years? A thousand?
Only time will tell.