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When it comes to ending life, the politics are pretty black and white — arguments about abortion and euthanasia are generally divided along ideological lines. What conservatives see as God's work, the secular left views as a matter of personal choice. But these familiar positions may soon be upended as scientists unlock the secrets of aging and push the limits of the human lifespan.
Estimates vary greatly on exactly what this research means in terms of actual years lived. Some researchers believe that technological advances will let people routinely live past 120 — others, like Aubrey de Grey, a leading gerontologist, believe that the first person to live to 1,000 has likely already been born.
If the latter sounds like the ramblings of an overly optimistic professor, then consider the less sensational fact that every six years the average lifespan in America increases by one year; in other words, even without revolutionary anti-aging breakthroughs, people will soon be living longer than many thought possible just decades ago. In fact, the U.S. government estimates that by 2050, around 400,000 Americans will be over the age of 100.
While promising on the surface, these developments will almost certainly raise important and uncomfortable questions in regards to social class, medical ethics, and basic morality.
We have already started to see tentative battle lines being drawn on the issue. A 2013 Pew poll found that 56 percent of Republicans thought life-extension technology was "bad for society," compared to only 35 percent who said it was good. The same poll found Democrats more evenly spit: 49 percent to 46 percent.
On the surface it would seem counterintuitive that conservatives, who generally are against abortion and euthanasia, would not be supportive of artificially prolonging life. But in other ways, it makes perfect sense.
After all, the party's large evangelical base has a simple, sacred objection in Genesis 6:3: "My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years." Or consider Pope Benedict's 2010 homily in which he warned against the dangers of artificially extending human life: "Humanity would become extraordinarily old, [and] there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise."
Unsurprisingly, an extreme extension of human life by technological means is likely to be viewed as antithetical to Christian, and perhaps general Abrahamic, dogma. But it is perfectly in agreement with conservative lust for individual liberty, and it is at this intersection of faith and politics that the American right will be forced to prioritize its principles. God is important, and freedom only slightly less so.
For the other side of the political spectrum the quandary is slightly different, though equally severe. Science for the left, it seems, could prove to be a double-edged sword.
Love of logic may well turn to loathing as only the rich, at least initially, are able to afford the therapies necessary to significantly extend life. Even better (or worse, depending), is that this prolonged life will allow them to accrue ever greater wealth, further exacerbating the class warfare so often cited by today's populist politicians. The Vulcan salute of "live long and prosper" may soon be more fact than fiction.
But eventually these therapies will almost certainly become more affordable, as drugs and treatments are wont to do, and the Malthusian nightmare so often prophesied yet never realized may eventually materialize: At some point the Earth will have one too many people. It is not impossible to imagine a day when the largesse of the very rich (and very old) restricts the birth rate of those from more modest means.
And all of this on top of a countervailing trend that seems to look upon old age itself as immoral and selfish. This idea, which largely explains the growing acceptance of euthanasia in some European countries, was recently espoused by ObamaCare architect Ezekiel Emanuel in a piece penned for The Atlantic entitled "Why I Hope to Die at 75."
But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world... [The Atlantic]
When examined closely, it's not so far removed from Benedict's sentiment.
And that's just it: What seem like strange bedfellows today could very well be tomorrow's allies. These therapies, if realized, will reside in politically uncharted territory, upending our hard and fast rules about who believes what.
One thing is certain, however: No matter how long humans live in the future, debates about the value of life itself will never die.
Silicon Valley could save the planet. All they need to do is combine their entrepreneurial brilliance with an enormous infusion of cash, and, more importantly, have our society grant them the cultural permission to lead us to a green future.
But we don't want that. And, frankly, that's why we peons annoy the titans of tech so much.
Why won't we hand our environmental challenges to our top technologists to solve? After all, these are among the world's most successful people at identifying unsolved problems and tackling them. And they're loaded with enough money, resources, and cache to get things done.
The reason is simple: We're afraid.
Instead we demand solutions from policymakers — not because we think they're the biggest geniuses, but because we think only the government has the legitimate authority to do big binding things that affect us all, which is what stopping climate change requires.
What's more, many of us think that only government can do the right thing in a divided world. Regardless of our partisanship or our policy preferences, we're increasingly doubtful that big goals can be met except by coercive force. In fact, we suspect that, at bottom, everything is a matter of coercive force.
Consider, for a moment, Jeb Bush. After teasing environmentalists with dreams of a "moderate" Republican — as opposed to yet another "denier" — Bush recently laughed off restrictive policymaking as a solution to our climate challenges, enthusing instead over, well, Silicon Valley.
Innovation and technology, said Bush, are "the source of a lot more solutions than any government-imposed idea and sometimes I sense that we pull back from the embrace of these things." Instead, Americans should "tear down the barriers," allowing new inventions to "accelerate in our lives to find solutions" to our humanity-wide problems.
Speaking for a host of green activists at their wits' end, Salon political writer Simon Maloy called Bush's vision "an impossibly vague nothingburger […] that gives the impression that Jeb cares about climate change as he advocates for the status quo." And indeed, that's one way the story Bush tells could wind up.
Here's another real possibility: Bush's vision could actually make enormous progress toward soliving our environmental struggles.
Why not trust our technologists to actually tackle the difficulties our scientists warn us about? Why do we put our faith in government not even to compel us to do great things, but to stop us from doing little things that add up, such as emit carbon?
We are setting our sights too low, envisioning a government that just skims some value off the top of our emissions in the form of taxes and fees. This is not nearly enough. And our government is incapable of doing the big things that actually need to be done.
At Vox, David Roberts warns that reversing the trend line of net emissions requires us "to imagine all of human society turning on a dime, beginning in 2030, deploying massive amounts of nuclear, bioenergy, wind, and solar, and doing so every year for decades." That public effort "may not violate the laws of physics," says Roberts, "but it is unlikely, given what we know about human beings, path dependence, and political dysfunction."
It's almost as if the best approach is to set aside our lawmakers' climate policy agendas and focus on rendering our old energy technologies ridiculously obsolete. That would take a ton of work, yes. It would probably take government subsides on a massive scale. But if we really wanted to, we could create an energy-industrial complex every bit as powerful, wealthy, and supreme as the military-industrial complex that grew out of World War II. Just look at what one person, Elon Musk, has been able to achieve with even modest government subsidies.
Humanity has a simple problem: We are not good enough at making and using energy. We're slow, inefficient, fearful, and unserious about how plentiful energy can be.
Why don't we turn Washington into the biggest venture capitalist in the world, and hand Silicon Valley a blank check marked "climate"? Because it makes them masters of the universe. Yes, it's all about our fear again. Even worse than lining their pockets with "public money" we envision going to poor people instead, letting our tech titans lead would make them a civilization apart: plainly higher and better than us, in a way that cuts to the heart of our egalitarian envy and pride.
Unless we get over that resentful queasiness about the new ruling techno-class we're winding up with anyway, we'll just keep choking on climate.
The information age demands fat pipes. But making fat pipes is not always as easy as it sounds. Consider our current generation of fiber optic communications. Compared to microwave systems, where every symbol communicates something like one or two bytes of data, most current optical systems are limited to one to four bits per symbol.
This hasn’t mattered so much because many lasers, each with a different wavelength—called a channel—can be used on the same fiber, and the rate at which we send those bits is astonishingly high. Single channel capacities are way in excess of 40Gb/s range—40Gb/s was in testing the last time I taught a telecommunications course, and in 2012, various companies were testing 160Gb/s per channel. These incredible capacities, however, are achieved under very stringent conditions: the optical power must remain low, and the optical properties of the fiber must be carefully controlled (something called dispersion management).
The increase from 40Gb/s to 160Gb/s also represented the switch from encoding one bit per symbol to four bits per symbol. However, these encoding systems require that there is considerably more optical power per channel, and this causes problems with the stringent conditions mentioned above. This has made increases beyond four bits per symbol difficult. Funnily enough, everyone has kind-of-sorta known how to solve the problem, but no one was willing to simply bite the bullet and do it. At least until now.
Once mercury is emitted into the atmosphere from the smokestacks of power plants, the pollutant has a complicated