Rationing Immortality

Written in September 2023 but for some unknown reason not actually posted until January 2024.

I’m not long back from a beach holiday, which was the excuse — well, the impetus — to do what I could do on any idle Tuesday: put down my phone and pick up a novel.

If my own, slender attempts at fiction have anything in common, the theme is immortality. In The Good Shabti, Pharoah Mentuhotep takes the after-life for granted, while amoral scientists attempt to reignite dead brains. ‘Round Trip’ considers, inter alia, what one might do with eternity, and what could animate someone to want to live forever. ‘Frozen Out’ is about cryogenics.

Immortality is also the theme of Void Star by Zachary Mason. This is spec-fic where two variants are presented: anti-ageing; and the possibility that one might upload one’s consciousness into a computer, to be preserved and propagated (and perhaps, if one suffers a catastrophic injury, to be rebooted).

The first sort of longevity is the one that mankind has surely been day-dreaming of for as long as we have had imaginations. I assume this, because it is surely the easiest event a person could conceive: that we will exist tomorrow, and in years to come, just as we exist today. It is often said of teenagers that they think they are immortal, and young children certainly assume this to be true. From our point of view, being alive is the normal state of things, and death is the unusual event that requires imagination. We forget that all of us are highly experienced in the art of not being alive.

Of the two versions, biological longevity is, to my mind, the form of immortality that our current technology (and scientific approach to the world) is best placed to deliver. In the book, medical technology that places a temporary hold on the ageing process is available, but it requires an annual dosage to keep old-age at bay. If real-life medical science does unlock the secret to, and a ‘cure’ for ageing, then I suspect that the resultant technology will be in a similar form, rather than a one-off elixir. This means the treatments will be expensive.

Mason’s vision of a society where the treatments are only available to the super-rich feels depressing but correct. In this respect, the book is reminiscent of the German film Paradise (2023, a recent Netflix addition) and In Time (2011) with Justin Timberlake.

In those films, the life-giving technology is scientifically absurd, and presented as a parable for exploitative financial systems. The rich are able to hoard their years and draw time directly from the poor, who die younger.

Nevertheless, all these fictions reckon with how extreme longevity might change our behaviour.

In particular, immortality provokes extreme caution. If you expect to live for hundreds of millennia, then freak accidents that would be improbable in a standard three-score and ten innings turn into a near-certainty. The time-rich heiress of In Time (Amanda Seyfried) is filled with ennui because her father is (rationally) over-protective. Things are worse for the one character in Void Star who is permanently ‘cured’ of ageing: she hides away underground, eschewing human interactions completely. These immortals find that the very reason why we might seek a longer life in the first place — more fun on this planet! — is denied to them. They watch human history unfold, but cannot participate. Immortality (like wealth) brings with it social exclusion.

It might also bring about an alienation from conventional morals. The most chilling passage in Void Star is when the main antagonist, a tech billionaire named Cromwell, comments on his changing attitudes to the people that get in his way. To him their lives are inconsequential because they are short. If they are going to die ‘soon’ (from his point-of-view) then killing them earlier carries no moral prohibition.

We may not all turn into psychopaths, however. One eyebrow raising moment in Paradise is when the inventor of the fantastical anti-ageing treatment explains that when the elites gained additional years, they finally made the necessary investments to reverse global warming. Personally I found that to be embarrassingly naive and I suspect the line is the scriptwriter’s cynical joke. Far more likely is that the ageless elite will simply wall themselves off in private arcologies and leave the rest of use to boil.

If these aspects of a post-ageing future are correct, then it’s clear that the question of who can access such therapies is a question we must consider. If anti-ageing treatments take the form of pills (like anti-retroviral therapy) then surely generic versions will quickly overcome any patent-enforced scarcity. But if (far more likely) the treatment requires gene-sequencing and the expensive generation of bespoke stem cells, then future government regulators will face some incredibly difficult rationing choices.

How many cycles of the therapy should the state ration to each citizen? Can people trade their allocation? Should rich people be allowed to buy additional cycles?

Should it be allowed at all?


One reason to ban or heavily restrict longevity treatment might be because of the negative implications of reproduction. I predict two lines of argument.

The first concern is that extremely long-lived humans may simply choose not to procreate.

Reproduction in living things is intrinsically linked to the fact that they, we, do not live forever. Having children is a form of pseudo-immortality — we appreciate the idea that our genes, our values and the memory of us will live on after our bodies expire. Will the general compulsion to child-rearing be as strong when we have entirely lost the sense of our own mortality? What would happen in a society that no longer has many children? It would be almost unrecognisable.

Here I think the underlying assumption is incorrect. Even if we conquer death through medical advances, the starting point for each person will be a human body that is evolutionarily hard-wired with the physiological means and a hormonal desire to pro-create (that template is not destiny, of course — many people already shrug off the pressure to have kids).

We don’t know how age-extending medical technology would affect fertility. If it merely postpones old-age but leaves the rest of women’s ’biological clock’ alone, then those who want to have kids will still have to do so in the thirty years or so between puberty and menopause. Many women choose to postpone having children, or refrain altogether, because they prefer to have a career or other life experiences. However longevity treatment works, it is likely to mean that women can finally ‘have it all’. If one has additional decades available to study and work, the pressure to choose between career and family falls away.

So unless there is proactive government intervention (akin to China’s invasive One Child Policy of 1979-2015) I suspect that near-immortals will continue to have children.

If people do continue to bring new humans into the world, then a second question arises, which is an inverse of the first: Would over-population become an issue?

If vast numbers of people stop dying then we might, under our current economic system, run into resourcing difficulties. Paradise is probably right that extreme longevity would demand other technological advances in order to be comfortable and sustainable. Having said that, the Earth is huge and the Sun is an abundant energy source. My gut feeling is that we would only run into difficulties if we became immortal rather than just long-lived.

Space colonisation could also become both feasible and a necessary solution to a full Earth. Our longevity would also make it practical — who needs ‘generation ships’ if a single cohort of human colonists can stay alive for the duration of an interstellar voyage?!

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