Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Living Longer May Not Be So Great

Bristlecone pines are the oldest trees in the world, some of them around 5,000 years old. But clonal colonies – groups of genetically identical individuals – can survive much longer than that. One such colony of quaking aspen, nicknamed Pando, covers 106 acres in Utah and is not only one of the largest living organisms in the world, it’s also one of the oldest, at approximately 80,000 years old.

There was a trapdoor spider in Australia – Gaius villosus – that lived for over 40 years. And a tarantula once held the record for the longest-lived spider at the age of 28.

A species of jellyfish – turritopsis dohrnii – seems to be immortal. In fact, it’s called the immortal jellyfish and it can revert to a sexually immature stage after having reached sexual maturity, so it can theoretically live forever.

Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise, may have lived to be over 200. And many tortoises live to be over 150 years old. A cockatoo at the Brookfield Zoo lived to be 83. And 10,000-year-old glass sponges have been found in the Southern Ocean, while koi have been known to live for over 200 years.

These are amazing examples of longevity; there are many others too. The potential for an extremely long life exists in many living entities. We see these exemplars and imagine that we might someday be able to live extremely long lives too. We could, if we can harness the correct genetic code, potentially live to be 200.

But is this a good thing?

If our average life expectancy climbed by just 20 years, we’d be adding not only many millions more people, but also a huge amount of energy expenditure to the world. Last year, for example, the estimated average total energy use per person in the U.S. was 300 million Btus. Multiply that by our population: 325 million. That’s kind of a big number. Further, global CO2 levels have just risen above 400 ppm for the first time in over 3 million years.

If we all start to live much longer, the strain on our natural resources – already high – will greatly increase as well. The pressures placed upon farmland, ranches, even woodlands and other ecosystems, will expand.

The people who would benefit the most, at least in the early stages of any concerted effort, would likely be the wealthy, who would hang onto their money for many more years. They would want to make sure they have enough to support themselves when they’re 120 or 130, for example. No point in living to such a ripe old age if you’re going to do so in destitution.

Programs like Social Security and Medicare would go bankrupt that much faster, putting increasing pressure on the rich to get even richer than they were in the past – out of fear that they won’t have enough. The inequities occurring now would only worsen.

So yes, it would be nice if your grandma lived to be 140, active until the day she died, but imagine all the grandmas living that long, using up limited resources, while their great, great grandchildren toil away to support them.

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