Human life expectancy at birth, which remained stunningly fixed for thousands of years before suddenly doubling over the course of the 20th century, now seems destined to experience a similarly bold leap across the 21st century. When it does, it will shift human thinking about population control from its present focus on the outset of life to the increasingly delayed final curtain. The problem is that the technological advances that will make extending life expectancy possible are likely to come far faster than our political systems -- including the democracies -- can handle.
The potential outcome recalls the plot of the cable TV series “Torchwood: Miracle Day”: Without warning, a full day passes without anybody dying anywhere on the planet. Then the same thing happens again . . . and again . . . and again. People continue to get sick and suffer injuries, and they keep on aging. They just don’t die. Within months, the entire world is scrambling to handle the seemingly unbearable implications of an instantaneous population boom.
Of course, the whole point of good science fiction is to get people thinking, in the hopes that by exploring today’s fears set in tomorrow’s landscapes, readers and viewers will break out of their self-limiting mental paradigms. On that scale, the “Torchwood” plot represents the perfect “third data point that creates a plane,” with the other two classics of this genre being “Soylent Green” (1973), in which increased life expectancy leads to overpopulation, and “Children of Men” (2006), in which a mysterious end to human pregnancies leads to looming underpopulation. The common thread between all three films, again, is the shift in focus from birth to death, which becomes the key driver in stabilizing global population -- whether by limiting it or propping it up.