While I’ve been having my tawdry fever-dream worries about unequal health care and expanding populations competing for dwindling resources amid name-calling politicians, suspicious citizenry, and fearful doomsday announcers, there are plenty of other aspects that nag at me as parts of the larger knotty problem. (Aside: is it knotty of me to point that out in the first place?) How do we reconcile the desire for a well-balanced, healthy, safe, educated, and relatively comfortable populace with those ever growing numbers?
This planet is finite. I hear highly educated people saying that we have both the brain power among the best of our species to make our equally finite natural resources capable of stretching to serve the needs of the whole world’s population. I hear some of these same bright lights claiming that the potential is here and now ready to enable humans to live far longer than the current average. I’ve no delusions of mathematical or scientific adequacy, let alone grandeur. But my limited powers of discernment and logic make me skeptical of the veracity and practicability of these claims; even more so, dubious of their desirability. Explain to me why I’m supposed to be so excited to live 300 years.
I’m not too enthralled with the idea of outliving many of my beloved family, friends, and favorite connections, whether the latter are places or experiences that eventually become outmoded or impossible for any reason. Not crazy about having to expand my thinking to find ways to occupy and better myself for not just decades but tens of them. And where’s the appeal in living a zillion years if I have to work three-quarters of a zillion to keep myself in milk and cookies? I have little faith that the American Social Security system will sustain me through the span of a now-typical life in comfort, let alone the attenuated sort being proposed. Where is the food, water, shelter, and acreage necessary to support more of us for so much longer going to be found? If I don’t die for lack of some such thing, will I languish in boredom until I wish I could die? No, really, I’m asking.
If even a sizable handful of humans live that long, I’m inclined to think their wish for such expansive longevity has less to do with all of the additional goodness they can shower on the world and its inhabitants than with how much more they believe the world and all of its inhabitants can do for or give to them. If even a couple of those millegenarians succeeded, I don’t imagine them skipping around the globe and tossing vials of AIDS cures like rose petals out to the milling crowds of children who have been born infected, or composing chorales so mystically entrancing that everyone in earshot will suddenly burst into united song and lay down their enmities, forgotten for eternity. I have more of a pessimistic image of them spending their length of days and years figuring out ways to acquire, win, or steal more, to hoard more, use more, and waste more—without being called to account for it all. Oligarchy is the longest socioeconomic tradition I can discern in human history, and I don’t think any opportunist able to spend more years perfecting that pursuit would likely be inclined to do otherwise. In fact, I would guess that those best able to push their way first in line to receive the treatment and support it will take to live 300 years will already be wealthier than the vast majority.
So what might we get? A rebellion from the planet’s resources themselves, perhaps, like the accelerated depletion of space for the competing needs of farming, manufacture, and residence that outstrip the miniaturization and optimization of those physical systems. What happens is not inevitably so, but historically speaking, it’s typically competition and division. Somebody wins, and more somebodies, both human and other, animate and not, lose. And, also in the long historical tradition, it’s the rich and privileged who win and the poor and disadvantaged who lose. No matter what you think of Darwin and evolution, by the way, there’s plenty of recorded and even remembered history to demonstrate that riches and privilege are no more a guarantee of moral fitness and communal palatability than poverty or lack of resources ever proved that one was inherently rotten or nasty.
Do we just lie back and let chance decide everyone’s fate, with a good shove from the encouraging hand of whoever can afford it to favor their own interests? Sounds to me like a good starter recipe for fomenting an increased appetite for eugenics and eventual genocide. I would hope that we could learn to prefer a taste for a good, balanced stew of self-restraint, collective and collaborative work for the widest benefit, compassion for the weak, and the kind of independence that’s less about cache-building and stockpiling and fortresses, more about how each of us can supply more of our own needs without denying others’, and how one person’s brilliance can be harnessed to shed light on the widest possible sectors of life.
If we’re too preoccupied with how to get other people to conform to our beliefs and ideas, how to keep our Stuff safe from anyone else using or benefiting from it, and how to make more room for more and better Stuff solely for ourselves, none of this is going to happen. I tend to think that few of us who are safe and well-fed and educated and privileged spend enough mindful time recognizing that we are so only because of all the other living beings who work and sacrifice to make it possible. I can’t fix basic household plumbing. I can live without it, I expect, but probably only until I start to get too cold, hungry, scared, ill, weary, or lost to manage one more trip to the nearest stream for semi-safe drinking water or one more trip to a quiet spot where I can relieve myself far enough from the same drinking stream. I can’t find my way from my own front porch to where my spouse works without constantly consulting GPS, so getting from home to the nearest place I could safely forage for food not tainted by the traffic and household waste of suburbia would be quite the stretch indeed, especially on foot. I rely on so many others to keep me alive and functional that I can’t even wrap my brain around the gap between my abilities and the comfort in which I live, and I suspect that most other middle-class persons, never mind the much-maligned One Percenters, would struggle in the same way.
Seems like an opportune point in our history to pause and reflect on why it is not only a benevolence but a necessity that we do our best to feed, clothe, educate, heal, and make very good friends indeed with the rest of our kind, and perhaps most of all, those we too easily forget to think of as our kind at all. We’ll pay for the privilege one way or another. I, for one, would rather do so by choice and with the hope of friendship as its basis than by force and in fear, knowing that I have stepped on too many backs on my way upward to have hope of anything in the end besides a very, very long fall.
I’m feeling better already, just thinking about it.