End in sight

I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it? Time is chasing after all of us.

–J M Barrie, Peter Pan

It’s highly probable that somewhere in the world today a child has been born that’s going to live to 150

–Joe Hockey, Treasurer

Two thoughts.

1

Australian politics is frozen in mid backflip over the shark, and I’m still stuck on the Treasurer’s claim back in January that we need to shore up our public health system to prepare for Australians living to 150.

The precision of the Treasurer’s belief is relevant. It comes from longevity research, where 150 is indeed the number thrown about. There are strange characters in this field, and probably the strangest of them all is the bearded British eccentric and self-taught biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, who’s one source of the idea that the first human who will live to 150 is already alive today. He’s the “Chief Science Officer” and co-founder of the SENS Foundation (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and also co-founder of the Methuselah foundation. His TED talks are mesmerising.

The goal of engineered negligible senescence is to reframe age-related deterioration as a disease that can be targeted, and a problem that can be solved. Regenerative medicine isn’t short of cash, or hubris. The Methuselah Foundation has given “over $4m in funding … From tissue engineering to stem cell science, we’ve seen explosive progress in the industry, and we’re more convinced than ever that regenerative medicine will transform health care in the 21st century.”

Google has also invested heavily in longevity research through the California Life Company initiative, Calico (“We’re tackling aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries”, although “as we make early progress on our research and goals, our capacity for handling press inquiries is limited.”). Despite not having time to talk to the press, Calico is now in a $1.5b partnership with pharmaceutical research company AbbVie; extending life makes sense to the markets.

Because extending life is still medically speculative, the Palo Alto Investors LLC has set up a $1m prize focused on proof of concept. For now, the prize is hung out for those who can prove it’s possible to extend homeostatic capacity in mammals. Homeostatic capacity is the natural ability to repair after damage and recover well from illness, and if we could only stop it degrading over our lifetimes, we’d be able to kick on for much longer.

150 year old Australians turn out only to be a modest target in this startling field; the chief investor in the Longevity Prize, Dr Joon Yun, seems to have set his sights on death itself:

A normal 25-year-old has a one in 1,000 chance of dying from outside forces in a given year. If declining homeostatic capacity were not a factor, a 1,000-year healthy lifespan is theoretically achievable. The mortality rate of a healthy 15-year-old is 0.01 percent in a given year, which could theoretically translate to a 10,000-year lifespan.

To be sure, immortality is not the explicit goal of the Prize, but the successful abolition of aging would certainly make death the next target.

“We hope that, if we are successful … sustained homeostatic capacity will have the consequence of making death a statistic rather than an inevitability,” Yun said.

The ethical questions here don’t need underlining. This is the meat and potatoes of science fiction: when research succeeds in abolishing aging (or “curing death”, as Google puts it), not everyone will have access to negligible senescence technologies. There will be industries and markets and scarcity, and price will be manipulated by the usual corporate hoarding of patents. Not everyone will be a winner.

So this is why extended longevity of the 150-year kind should feature in Australian healthcare planning. It’s not because frail centenarians will be clogging up the public health system, but because the prospect of living to 150 is the kind of thing that ratchets up demand for private health solutions, puts the fear into financial self-management, and widens the gap between Australians who can pay for upmarket services, and Australians who can’t access the basics.

In other words, it’s exactly why we shouldn’t be stripping down our public health services as we wait for the miracles to come.

2

It’s been a terrible week for contemplating the horror of dying by execution, as we’ve all not looked away quickly enough from the blunt evidence of human cruelty. Suddenly our social networks are filled with images and videos of bleak and lonely deaths driven by a simple calculation: that because humans want to stay alive, and are loved with intensity by others, then human life itself can be exploited, weaponised, haggled over, and finally thrown down in the war on one thing or another.

And now two Australians are waiting to be executed in Bali for organising an attempt to shift heroin into Australia in 2005, that failed spectacularly when all nine involved were caught. They have been in prison for ten years, living their lives and waiting for this shoe to fall. One has become a pastoral leader, and the other a painter who runs art classes for other prisoners.

The apparent justification is that shooting them now, after all this time, will make others think twice about participating in the distribution of illegal drugs. Prominent Australians who have used heroin and lost children to heroin have argued against this with compassion and respect. There has been a wide and concerted campaign across the Australian media asking for clemency. Artists, musicians, lawyers, senior clerics and writers have spoken up, and are continuing to call for hope.

And yet there they are, waiting to be killed for decisions taken 10 years ago.  Their mothers are with them. I don’t know how they’re still putting one foot in front of the other, knowing the separation that’s ahead. I would not. Even the most tough-talking death penalty proponent hasn’t put forward a justification for this extreme punishment of their families, whose distress and dread is overwhelming.

So that’s why I’m in furious agreement with everyone writing, singing, speaking, holding vigils for mercy for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. It’s because they’re human, and because human mortality shouldn’t be exploited to punish or terrify, any more than it should be trivialised as a medical problem waiting to be fixed.

* the title of this post comes from ‘Nothing is Made New‘, a poem written by John Kinsella and delivered to the President of Indonesia as part of a plea for clemency for Chan and Sukumaran.

6 thoughts on “End in sight

  1. Thanks Kate. I understand that our children’s generation may be the first for many years to die younger than their parents generation as a consequence of diet etc. Maybe we should try dealing with that first. And if we all live to 150- or forever-how will the new plants get through the overgrowth? Death is part of life. Let us try and reduce suffering first. And for tha reason also i am opposed to the death penalty under any all circumstances. First because we aer all human, all products of circumstances, all with I would call “Buddha Nature”. Second, because it doesnt work and only brings more violence inot the world. Thanks for your thoughtful post😉

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  2. I think where I get stuck a bit on this question of what we should do to live longer, for example in relation to diet, is that it’s assumed that living longer is good. But if we agree that death is more than part of life, it’s actually what living things are here to do in order to enable life in a wider sense to be sustainable, then living longer also shows up differently.

    What’s really striking to me about the sudden attention to longevity in Australia’s health care debate is its blithe disrespect for our existing longevity crisis, which is the ongoing disparity between indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy. Defunding public health is exactly how to make that situation worse.

    And yes, like you I’m opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. The banal logistics are really breathtaking, and the separation between types of executions on the basis of legality doesn’t really separate them on the basis of cruelty.

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  3. A few thoughts on this post.

    1. Living for 150 years not only has medical/economic ramifications, but educational ones too. How long should you go to school if you are going to live for 150 years? Should there be a 2nd “college” experience at 65 before you enter your 2nd career? What would that look like? What classes would best prepare you to handle 125 years of adulthood, 125 years of adult disappointment, tragedy etc…

    2. I remember reading a short excerpt in Harper’s Magazine on the topic of the death penalty. When the convict was asked if he was grateful for having ten extra years of life as his appeal process played out, he said “it’s like being pushed out of a helicopter and taking 5-10 years to hit the ground.”

    That image has stayed with me ever since.

    There are times when a human being seems more like a crazed and bloodthirsty animal that needs to be put down for everyone’s safety including his fellow convicts in prison, but I think that’s the rare case. The taking of a human life is horrible experience that shouldn’t be thrust upon anyone except for in rare cases and even then I still have reservations, those reservations make me pause and consider the fragility of my convictions versus the permanence of the death penalty.

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    1. Hello, welcome. You’ve raised something very important for me. This case is haunted by opinion polls that show that a majority of those polled support the death penalty, and I find myself constantly wondering how polling can begin to address the question of fragile conviction.

      And yes, that image is haunting. It’s the cruelty of being forced to keep your end in sight, and forcing your family to do the same, that really is the most shattering thing.

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  4. Ironic the money put into staying alive so long, for what? Who can afford it? will it keep our bodies young? and what about the deaths due to illness or execution? No cure for that. Searching for a way to stay alive to 150, when Aboriginal people have a life expectancy of Australian Aboriginals is about 67 and its similar with other Indigenous peoples. How about trying to fix that, or Cancer, or even more money into mental health to make the years we have on this earth more worthwhile. Love your stuff its so thought provoking. Coll

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    1. Hello! I wonder: do you think living with a diagnosis of something that is itself life-shortening makes a difference to the way people with cancer see these situations? I’m trying to figure this out myself.

      And yes, there’s so much we could fix for so many with the money that’s going into the very long-shot that we can extend life for the wealthy few.

      It’s really made me think that mortality is actually something valuable. Because we don’t live for 150 years, it’s the one thing that gives us all authority in our lives–that we only have limited time left to decide what to do with ourselves.

      Lovely to see you here.

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