As with all of nature, our death can mean life for other creatures.
Illustration By Robert Shetterly
Picture a small boat alone, out on the ocean. The sky is a light arctic blue. The water is the deep gray of the cold northern sea. I’m in the boat, thinking of my family, my friends, the places I’ve gone and the things I’ve seen. I’m thinking about God and eternity. I’m thinking of people, animals and places I’ve loved. I’m thinking about the hungry king crab, opilio crab and halibut below me. And I’m considering the end of my life.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Before I discuss my fate, I want to talk about Raymond Kurzweil and his vision for our future.
Kurzweil is a brilliant person, one of the great visionaries of our time. He’s a groundbreaking inventor, an advocate for the disabled, a best-selling author and a millionaire entrepreneur.
Ever since he was a teenager, Ray Kurzweil has been popularly acknowledged as a genius. He was a 20-year-old college sophomore when he sold his first technology company. Then he invented the first computer program that could read typed manuscripts; the first computer that read out loud (the Kurzweil Reading Machine); and the first high-quality computerized musical instrument, the Kurzweil K250. Professional musicians listening blindfolded to a Kurzweil K250 could not distinguish it from a conventional grand piano.
Kurzweil’s books are as compelling as his other inventions. He wrote The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). His 700-page tome, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005), persuasively describes a time in our near future when computers will be smart enough to improve themselves. Then, he says, we will experience previously unimaginable rates of technological change, including advances in medical technology that will make us much healthier, much smarter and could even allow us to, effectively, live forever.
Actually, I loved the book. It describes how tiny computerized machines might stay in our bodies, cleaning our arteries, untangling our neurons and sanitizing our gums. Computers would scan, measure and quantify every function of our bodies and brains. The tiny machines, collectively called nanotechnology, could then monitor and improve our functioning. Our brains could be optimized, making us all smarter than ever before. Our knees and hips would be self-repairing. Our eyes could be surgically corrected in tiny increments, every day, ensuring that our sight would always be perfect. Not only might we live forever, but we might do so with flawless eyes, gums, knees, skin and hair. I imagined myself sprinting around like a 20-year-old: tanned, toned and vigorous. I ran up mountainsides. I lifted adult sheep into the bed of the pickup. I tied my shoes, effortlessly.
Then I woke up.
Kurzweil’s vision personifies one of the biggest collective blind spots of our time. The quest for human immortality is his Holy Grail and it forms a sort of philosophical black hole for him and for our society as a whole. Longer life — eternal life — is such a pervasive, mindlessly popular desire that it sucks in and nullifies all illumination in its vicinity.
Kurzweil, like many visionaries, has a tendency to ignore certain realities if they conflict with his visualization. In more than 700 compelling pages, he barely considers the inevitable impact of 7 billion people living forever, nevermind anyone who might manage to get born in the meantime. Already our technology has allowed humanity’s numbers to swell to the point where every natural resource is strained and every natural system is profoundly affected by our activities. He believes the new technology will heal the wounds from the old technology. But considering the implications of a fertile population of human beings who live forever, we will at least need to get smart enough to make some difficult choices — choices no living thing has ever had to consider before.
Kurzweil takes his own predictions seriously. He’s the guy who wrote Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (2004). By his own admission, he consumes hundreds of nutritional supplements, takes intravenous treatments and drinks alkaline water and green tea in huge quantities. He’s not sure when immortality will be available, exactly, but he’s determined to live until it is.
The giant, luminous reality blocking Kurzweil’s view of a Utopian world is that each biological creature displaces other creatures. If, thanks to new technology, we all chose to stop dying tomorrow, we would immediately increase the rate of human population expansion by about 150,000 people per day. That’s another 55 million people a year added to the 70 million or so we’re adding already, nearly doubling the rate of human population expansion.
Because we’re paving about 6,000 acres of nature a day in the United States, we would theoretically increase that to 10,000 to 12,000 acres per day. We build, in North America, the equivalent of a new Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area every year. In Kurzweil’s scenario, we would build another Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex every year.
Our unexamined lust for longer human life seems to have blinded us to other moral imperatives. What about other species and future generations? Extinction wipes out about 27,000 species per year worldwide, entirely due to human expansion. That would, theoretically, accelerate to about 50,000 species. (For reference, the historic average “baseline” rate of extinctions is, according to the fossil record, less than 100 species per year across the eons we can see in the geology.) And that’s just the impact on the natural world.
Imagine if we were all percolating along in perfect health at 150 years old. Those of us who had great jobs we enjoyed would, logically, keep doing those jobs. I would keep doing mine. MOTHER EARTH NEWS need never look for another publisher. Here I’ll sit at the helm, a century in the future. I can’t think of any reason I would ever want to surrender my command to some 130-year-old upstart. And, of course, I’d still be running my beloved farm, living in my cherished home. The fine job, the great view, and the beautiful land all mine — forever.
Is anyone else starting to feel a little creeped out by this? Could it be that living and dying are all part of our covenant with our creator? Might we have a responsibility to pass away like every other living thing? Is it possible that we have a sacred duty to die, eventually, and get out of the way?
And isn’t that similar to other vexing puzzles? For instance, can we voluntarily manage human population? Can we govern consumption fairly throughout the globe to mitigate environmental damage? Can we consciously take responsibility for the earth-shaking power we have assumed?
The desirability of longer life has gone unquestioned, for the most part, throughout the modern era in human history. We take it for granted that we’ll do anything we can to live as long as we can. It’s hard to imagine giving up any part of our lives, voluntarily, even for an excellent reason. That, traditionally, has been the act of a saint or a hero.
But what if eternal life becomes a practical alternative, as Ray Kurzweil believes it will? What if a single generation lingers on for centuries in its jobs, its houses and its stable, middle-aged way of life? We might lose the desire to have children. Instead we’d just live forever as healthy middle-agers going to seminars, getting smarter, perfecting our yoga poses.
What would human society look like if it weren’t renewed continuously by new generations of energetic, inventive, ambitious young people?
I think it might look dreary, indeed.
What if limited natural resources forced us to choose, as individuals, whether we wanted to reproduce or to live forever? I’m pretty sure I would choose to reproduce. My grandson is, to my eye, a superior reflection of my life. His potential, unlike mine, is infinite — or at least it seems that way to me. I don’t wish to limit his prospects in any way, least of all by occupying space and consuming resources that might enrich his life. I don’t think I want to stick around forever. I’m more interested in pushing new generations forward into an unknown but limitless future, from which I am absent, if that improves their chances of living in a world that is beautiful and full of abundant resources.
Eventually Kurzweil’s theoretically immortal human beings would have to stop reproducing. No more children. No more offensive fashion trends. No more stupid new music. A world full of complacent geezers dedicated to lawn care and televised golf. Ugh. I don’t want to live there.
The power we now exercise as a species has presented us with some new ethical challenges. As our power expands, it tests our value systems. Our traditional reverence for human life implies that we should celebrate the existence of more humans living longer lives. Physical realities suggest that our values need a more nuanced understanding of life’s value. We may have to choose between our ideals. Do we want to live forever, or do we want to reproduce and raise children?
Every other living thing reproduces as rapidly as it can. That’s the natural imperative. But we have been forced to realize that our health and welfare depend on preserving our habitat consciously, which requires that we limit our own population. Now the prospect of living much longer brings a new challenge. It’s possible that within our lifetimes we will be called upon to consciously submit to mortality — we may be called upon to voluntarily give up our lives even if technology could prolong them indefinitely.
Now there’s a challenge on a whole new level.
Some people visualize themselves in a heaven that is like this world, only perfect. They see themselves rejoining all the specific people they’ve known and loved. Ray Kurzweil imagines that sort of heaven in this world, full of healthy, happy people who never grow old or die.
Personally, I don’t think I want to be part of either of those heavens, neither the perfect replica in the clouds nor the new, updated, continuously improved version here on Earth.
If God sees fit to preserve something of me, as an individual, well then I’ll go for something insubstantial, transparent perhaps, with gauzy white wings. Nothing like the wrinkled, brown, shaggy Bryan I’ve been here on Earth.
But given a choice, I think I would prefer an afterlife in which I’m utterly transformed by death, transubstantiated by biology. I think I’d like to be a part of the world from which I sprang — part of the dark earth and the bright flowers; embodied by doodlebugs and mockingbirds; my life force driving up through the new trees, the bamboo and the vast expanses of grass. That, it seems to me, is a beautiful and noble fate.
Which leads me back, finally, to my little boat bobbing on the cold, dark water a few fathoms above the crabs on the ocean floor. Like every living thing, the crabs below are hungry.
Bryan Welch considers his own mortality on his Kansas ranch, where he raises pastured beef, goats and sheep, along with unruly vegetables. He is the author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want.