Deathling Things

The OG Recycling

It’s so old that I think relatively few people recognize it as such.

I’m referring to death. I know several people who believe death is unnecessary; some relatedly think that medical science and tech will eventually eliminate ageing as a cause of death. As most of these individuals are getting up in years, I find myself wondering how they maintain their faith.

One argument that’s been advanced is essentially a sort of bootstrapping: people alive today may achieve immortality through small advances that will keep them alive until the big breakthrough is made (if it is, and if said breakthrough is possible—I’m not convinced it is). Maybe I’m focusing on details rather than the big picture, but that kind of quality of life doesn’t seem worth an extended quantity of life.

I was reminded of these issues by a Tom Scott video titled “Storing Dead People at -196° C.” In his introductory remarks, he states, “I think death is a bad thing.”

I don’t understand that belief. I know that it can be a painful transition for the dying person and their loved ones. One may never fully “recover” (whatever that might mean in this context) from the death of a loved one, yet many fail at it and still live a full, productive life afterward. Some undoubtedly view their lives as more valuable for having experienced a loved one’s death. Failure to die doesn’t necessarily mean a vibrant, healthy existence; and there’s no way to predict how genetic and epigenetic functioning might change in organisms that have senescence programmed into their being. Also, how many people would truly want to live forever? (Well, at least until the heat death of the universe… don’t think there’s any way to out-tech that.)

But let’s temporarily accept that a plurality of the current population would choose immortality if it were possible. What might that mean for the planet?

The first and most obvious thing I see is that the balance of resources will tip, catastrophically so at some point. Each human consumes a lot of essential resources as part of being alive: air; water; and foods. More are consumed in all the necessary supportive roles for life: waste removal; growing, harvesting, storing, and selling foods; creating and maintaining shelter; etc. And then we can consider all the creature comforts and indulgences so many of us consider necessary for an existence worth keeping: clothing/fashion; decorations (bodily and other); technologies that shift physical labor from our bodies to other animals and/or machines; entertainments and the arts; access to others’ ideas and ways to share our own (intellectual pursuits, vocational training, etc.); ongoing research and developments to improve our lives; and more.

Keeping a large number of people alive—while new ones are being born that may also desire to be immortal—will rapidly outstrip Earth’s ability to supply all the needed resources. A nontrivial element of this is because death is the OG recycling. Death and decomposition are needed to free up molecules, ions, and elements to be useful for other life, and especially new life.

If you’ve composted, you know the truth of this. If you’ve watched any of the myriad nature shows on TV over the decades, you also know this: things must die for other things to live. I’ve not yet seen anyone who is for life extension into immortality address this aspect of the equation.

The American tradition of embalming a body and putting it in a fancy box inside a concrete vault six feet in the ground in perpetuity admittedly hinders human recycling; but it’s not a universal practice at all. And it’s changing here as well, starting with cremation becoming more common. New technologies are faster and better at converting a human body into useful substances to support other life; two are aquamation and human composting. Both are also less energy intensive than cremation.

I understand not wanting to die. At this point in my life, I’m not looking forward to it. The mystery of the transition has me a little apprehensive. But none of that has pushed me so far into death denial that I’m clamoring for any bit of medical science that might keep me alive longer, watching and waiting (and saving my money!) for the next advancement to keep me drawing breath.

Reframing death as the ultimate recycling did bring me peace of mind. When I was teaching developmental psychology courses, I’d share this thought with my students. Several told me afterward that it helped them shed some of their fears about death. I wonder how much good this way of thinking about death might do in this and other death-phobic cultures.

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