There’s no surer sign that life has become too comfortable for the rich than when they try to buy immortality. The first Chinese emperor enlisted scholars in his search for the elixir of eternal life and, after none was discovered, had them buried alive, figuring that if any of them was a true alchemist, he would return from the dead to share his secrets. (None ever did, but the emperor’s penchant for drinking mercury—which he believed also had life-giving properties—probably didn’t end up helping him live a long life.)
Leonard “Live Forever” Jones, a 19th-century US presidential candidate who accrued his fortune the American way—through speculation—believed that death could be overcome through prayer and fasting. Embarrassingly for his supporters, Jones died after refusing treatment for pneumonia on the grounds that illness was a moral, not a physical, concern. Later in the century, Gilded Age tycoons deified themselves through portrait-sitting, palace-building, and philanthropy, hoping this might at least sustain their image after their death, though it was then up to their heirs to maintain the memorials and the union-breaking that built them.
These acts of hubris pale in comparison, however, with the determination of today’s global elites to modify their bodies and transcend mortality. Ray Kurzweil, the computer scientist and spiritual docent to Silicon Valley, has predicted that by 2045, it will be possible to download a human brain to a computer. To make it to that year, Kurzweil drinks alkaline water, takes 100 pills a day, and spends one day a week at a clinic having supplements delivered directly to his bloodstream to preserve his flesh for the time when humankind will finally merge with machines. It may sound like a 9-year-old’s vision of the future, but Kurzweil isn’t a kid or a cultist; he’s a best-selling author who has been honored by multiple universities and three American presidents.
In Natural Causes, Barbara Ehrenreich explores the stories told by death-defying elites to make her own biological and political point: “no matter how much effort we expend, not everything is potentially within our control, not even our own bodies and minds.” In death, we will once again be equals—and so an egalitarian politics also means accepting this outcome.
At 76, Ehrenreich tells us, she is old enough to die, and over the past few years she’s given up preventive screening for breast cancer, scaled back her punishing exercise regime, and chosen to spend her time doing the things that bring her joy, like hanging out with her grandchildren. For Ehrenreich, this embrace of death is not merely a matter of biology but also of politics and ethics: “You can think of death bitterly or with resignation, as a tragic interruption of your life, and take every possible measure to postpone it,” she writes. “Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.” Accepting death, for Ehrenreich, means being able to live more fully.