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It's a Gray, Gray World
(First published in Chicon 2000 Progress Report #1)

A fair portion of this Progress Report is devoted to an event that wasn’t progress at all: the sudden death of Chicon’s Program Director, Ross Pavlac.

I’ve already posted my thoughts on our Web site and will leave this issue’s memorializing to others. Not only is it fitting to allow benedictions to come from those who knew Ross longer and more closely than I did, but excessive lamentation would be untrue to his drive and optimism. One might as well commemorate G. K. Chesterton with a day of fasting or the Challenger astronauts by shutting down the manned space program (as very nearly happened, alas).

One major reason why Ross’s passing was shocking was his age. Today we think of 46 as a time that death should not properly visit. Everyone has a sense that life expectancy is longer now than in the past, but it takes a bit of reflection to grasp the qualitative change that has taken place over the past several centuries and how curiously and profoundly it has affected modern attitudes toward life itself.

Demographic data for the ancient world are scarce. One fragment of evidence from classical Athens suggests that an 18-year-old middle or upper class male had about one chance in six of living till age 60. His modern American counterpart has about one chance in six of dying during that same span.

Those ancients who did survive to old age were tough old birds who often went on living until other ancients killed them off. It is astonishing how many Greek and Roman octogenarians met violent deaths and how very rarely one spent his last years in leisure and retirement. Age might inflict aches and pains, but Sophocles composed dramatic choruses in his 90’s; Antigonos seized the greatest share of Alexander’s empire when in his 60’s and ruled it until he was killed in battle at about age 81; Cato the Elder (who fathered a son at 80) remained one of the most active figures in Roman politics up to his death in the middle of his ninth decade.

As for those whose life spans were closer to the norm, the productivity of their brief existence often makes us, their descendants, look like prototypes of Oblomovian sloth. St. Thomas Aquinas, to cite a single instance, died in his 50th year. How many of us will read in our longer lifetimes as much as he wrote (with no word processor but a goose quill and inkstand) in his?

That the nearness of death repels laziness is no surprise. There are other, subtler psychological effects. Those who have the most potential life to lose are likely to be the least willing to risk it, and aversion to risk, once it gains a foothold in men’s habits, can little by little come to dominate their doings.

In the Age of Exploration, a majority of those who boarded ships for the New World died on the voyage. In our faltering Age of Space Exploration, a handful of deaths traumatize opinion. When the Mir got into trouble, commentators averred that, if the single American on board died, it would be politically impossible to go forward with the International Space Station - and they were probably right.

It was not just that people did not want to risk their own lives. They did not want to see even willing volunteers in jeopardy. Risk aversion, it seems, has become deeply ingrained in the national psyche. The most straightforward explanation is that, just as rich men dread robbers and tremble when others than themselves are robbed, those who feel that they have a natural right to fourscore-and-ten years easily pass from a normal fear of death to a morbid phobia. Eventually, the joy of life is stultified by precautions against losing it.

For our ancestors, so far as one can now discern, the relative shortness of life did surprisingly little to diminish human happiness. Probing the psychology of the past is treacherous, but it is surely noteworthy that depression, suicide and despair did not become visible literary themes until the 18th century nor obsessive ones until the 20th. The melancholy that accompanies the demise of a young Dickensian heroine is tinged with sweetness and hope. Nowadays, except in overtly camp performances like Love Story, the typical novelistic or dramatic response to dying, at almost any age, is rage against man and the universe. Angels in America has displaced David Copperfield and Marion Fay.

Looking into the future (as a publication connected with the World Science Fiction Convention should), everyone except the occasional environmental doomsayer predicts that longevity will continue to increase. Within the past month, reports have appeared of the first steps toward treatments that might stop the aging process in individual cells, while breakthroughs against diseases, both those that kill us and those that make old age miserable and unproductive, have become virtually routine. Non-hyperbolic medical researchers soberly anticipate that, within a few decades, living healthily to age 90 will be no more remarkable than making it to 60 in good condition is today.

Serious thought about what that would mean has so far been limited to two groups on the opposite ends of the imaginative spectrum: science fiction writers and actuaries. And, with all due respect to the former, the latter have perhaps performed the more creative analysis.

Their conclusions are more than a little counterintuitive. If this goes on - that is, if human beings live longer and grow healthier - the Earthly Paradise may not be quite at hand.

A seemingly obvious worry is an aggravated population “explosion”, but that seems less and less likely to turn into a genuine problem. Throughout the industrialized world, reductions in mortality are being more than offset by plummeting birth rates. The eminent demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, in a recent article titled “What If It's a World Population Implosion?”, pointed out that, on the basis of current data and quite reasonable assumptions (specifically including substantial increases in disability-free life expectancy), one can readily foresee “a world in which population crests and then declines forever thereafter”.

A world of that sort, with rarer entrances and exits, would compel important changes in the way that people live. As older cohorts became a larger proportion of the total population, the pressure for longer working lifetimes would eventually become overwhelming, reversing a century-long trend toward earlier retirement. Happily, better health would make work less burdensome for the elderly.

Happily for them, that is; for the younger age groups marching in their footsteps, the upshot might be prolonged frustration. A static population entails static opportunities. Barring vastly more efficient use of labor (not impossible, but not something to count on), job openings will come about through the departure of the incumbents rather than through increases in positions to be filled. If the incumbents are serving longer and longer terms, what will an ambitious 55-year-old - not to mention a kid in his 30’s - do?

Not many solutions are possible. One, as already noted, is sustained economic growth through the dedication of more capital to support each unit of labor. That would be ideal, for not only would jobs expand but more senior citizens would be able to afford to stop working (or pension systems would be able to afford to support them). If the next generation is as economically illiterate as this one, however, this hopeful scenario won’t happen.

Second, society can cope as France did in the mid-1800’s, when it experienced similar demographic trends. The young can accustom themselves to painfully slow advancement, with some finding solace in their avocations or pleasures and the rest growing into the sour malcontents portrayed by Balzac.

Finally, there is the remedy that many militaries have adopted in the face of similar problems (albeit brought about by very different causes). Subordinates can be giving paths to promotion by slicing their seniors’ jobs thinner and thinner. Thus a sense of advancement is preserved, which is good for morale but less good for efficiency.

With so few and unsatisfactory cures, this disease of longevity may simply be a chronic condition to which mankind will have to adjust, enduring the pain of adaptation. There is a more subtle effect of “healthy gerontocracy”, though, that, if it comes to pass, will be cause for deep pessimism.

The risk aversion of contemporary society, already alluded to, is trivial compared to what is probable in one dominated by the disability-free elderly. Growing old makes one naturally more cautious. Youth underestimates risks and thus recklessly hazards potentially long lives. Age, if anything, sees nine dangers out of every five. Hence, “safety first” is destined to be an increasingly popular motto. The point will come - some would argue that we are already there - when caution becomes so exaggerated as to be itself dangerous. Do you bridle when the government tells you to buckle your seat belt and not to smoke? Think ahead to the day when you won’t be allowed to take your car out of the garage if there’s too much traffic and plaintiffs’ lawyers file trillion dollar lawsuits against the chocolate industry.

Have we now reached the point of demonstrating that long life is an evil, that, as the Greek poet lamented, the best fate is not to have been born and the second best to die quickly? No. The fact that long lives are as filled with tribulation as short ones does not mean that neither is worth having lived, just that the universe does not guarantee us comfort and ease.

No one sincerely doubts that those whose efforts have prolonged life deserve gratitude and honor. What is doubtful is the facile utilitarianism that asserts that we should be grateful because a longer-lived world is a happier one. It most likely isn’t, but maybe that simply means that happiness, in the common use of the term, is not the real point of our lives.

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