Reflections on a future free of aging

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On Saturday I attended an insightful talk by Russian scientist and aging expert Alex Zhavoronkov at Birkbeck College. The talk was titled ‘Biomedical Discoveries and the Ageless Generation’.

 

Alex talked us through the scientific breakthroughs taking place in aging research at the moment, drawing attention to successful experiments that have significantly extended the life spans of mice and house flies. He explained that our understanding of the factors that cause aging has come a long way, and that this is one of the main reasons he is so confident that the current generation of 20-40 somethings will go on to live healthy lives until 150 years old.

 

Yes, you did that right – 150. A bold prediction, but one that Alex confidently believes will come true and I’d pay attention too – he’s the expert and is really at the leading edge of this research at the moment. I won’t go in to much detail about the scientific context, but you can find out more by reading the book that Alex has recently released.

 

What I would like to do is share a few reflections I had following the talk on a possible future in which our lives are greatly extended. I’m always a bit sceptical of technological breakthroughs and all the potential they promise to transform our lives for the better. Technology has long promised this ‘life of abundance’ in which we have lots of time for leisure and family, and we are free of suffering. If anything though, I see our lives getting more stressful – indeed in Andrew Simms’ book Cancel the Apocalypse he highlights the fact that in the UK our working weeks have actually grown since the 1980s, despite all the technological development supposedly making our lives easier. The techno-optimist perspective seemed to be the dominant one though amongst the attendees. I feel that now it is more our cultural mindset and economic system that stand in the way of this easier life, rather than the technology itself. I’m not sure we’ve made much progress in these areas over the past few decades. So like any technological development, I believe prolonged lives will solve some problems, and create others.

 

First reflection: Any discussion of extending quantity of life should include a discussion of quality of life. We live in a time where ‘more is better’ is a dominant philosophy. What will we do with all these extra years? What new possibilities will they enable in our lives? A couple of friends I spoke with afterwards turned their noses up at the prospect of living an extra fifty years just to spend it all working – and this is what our economy would demand.

 

Second reflection: As someone who is rather concerned about our current overshoot of environmental resources and the consequences this will have for the future, the idea of us living longer brings some obvious worries. Of course technology could come to our rescue, but at the moment we are using up 1.4 Earths to sustain ourselves and so far technology seems to be enabling this to worsen. Ultimately, the effects of overshoot will be felt in poorer countries first, who would not be the beneficiaries of any breakthroughs in aging science. The rich will benefit, and by living longer put more demand on resources, with the impacts of this felt first in poorer countries. My concern therefore is that breakthroughs in aging science will likely increase global inequality, which is not something I am a great fan of.

 

I have to say though, I love the idea of having an extra 70 healthy years. What would you do with that time?

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Do economics and business make unsustainability inevitable?

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I believe that the most fundamental root cause of many of our current social and environmental problems lies with our institutions – primarily our institutions of economics, business and governance. Poverty, climate change, mounting debt…these can all been attributed, to greater or larger extents, to the institutions that modern civilization is built upon; institutions that are cracking and creaking as they prove increasingly insufficient for the challenges of the modern world.

Let’s look at sustainability. We have an economic system that requires constant growth in order to survive. We have a business system that has to play by these economic rules and thus also requires constant growth. This is a model of business (the corporation) whose bottom line and primary purpose is to maximise its profit. Neither of the business or economic institutions take any consideration of social or environmental impact, although this is very slowly changing. Both of these institutions in fact treat our environment as unlimited income (rather than finite capital) and, it could be argued, require natural resources in order to run effectively – in order to meet their inherent need for constant growth. Neither institution takes in to consideration the possibility of limits.

So, our economic institution, and by extension our institution of business, requires constant growth yet takes no consideration of limits. Our civilization and entire way of life is dependent on such institutions. Every nation (with the possible exception of Bhutan) and business on the planet is chasing economic growth, with almost no acknowledgement of the possibility of limits. When this is understood, it seems of little surprise that our path is so unsustainable. It seems quite clear that our impact on the planet, particularly in the form of climate change, and our inability to manage our resources sustainably is a result of the institutions we have built our world upon. Such problems represent a very serious threat. Overshooting limits has had a role in every civilization collapse in history. And here we are, building modern civilization upon institutions which take no consideration of limits. Clever.

It does not take a physicist to tell you that infinite growth in a finite system is impossible. Simple common sense is enough. And yet, this is what our institutions demand. Currently, in order to achieve sustainability we are fighting against the institutions which define modern society. They have served us well for a long time, but are becoming increasingly outdated. To succeed, it seems clear that these institutions will need to undergo significant change.

The process of learning

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I believe the way that we learn roughly looks like this:

 

Process of learning image

We can gather information about the world from a whole range of sources – from books, conversations, videos, observation etc. Then some weird, wacky and wonderful process happens in our brains, in which information is analysed, compared and integrated, and this in turn forms our understanding of the world. This can generate original ideas about the world around us, which we can try out by conversing with people, by practically applying them in the form of creating products, launching organisations etc. Ultimately, by throwing our ideas out in to the world, we will gain feedback about our ideas, which provides further information about the world and on and on it goes…

 

This ties in with my view that learning is very much an iterative trial and error process in which we basically try something out, get it wrong but by doing so gain information, and at each stage our ideas become more refined and valuable to the world. This is counter to the dominant philosophy currently held in education which only values the first step – gathering information about the world. It does this by having us read books and listen to teachers tell us about the world. We are then tested on whether we are right or wrong – on our ability to retain and regurgitate knowledge. Even as begin to reach step 2 and develop our own ideas about the world, we do so within a very limited set of criteria. At university we are systematically evaluated and analysed on our ability to evaluate and analyse! Somehow there is even a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the way we develop our own ideas about the world, by its very nature stifling creativity and learning. Steps 3 and 4 are not encouraged in schools and thus our learning process is sadly stunted.

 

My own learning about the world has accelerated since I left formal education, and this morning I was weighing up how my ideas have developed over time. At the moment I am living in Swindon and I notice that my learning is being stunted somewhat, because I am not in an environment in which I can practice the third stage; trialling my own ideas in the real world. I am consuming books at a vast rate, but in order to refine that information I need to have conversations with people – ideally people whose ideas are more developed than mine and who will challenge me and highlight the flaws in my thinking. I also need to be able to try launching initiatives of my own to see whether they have the real world value that in theory I believe they do. By doing this (and I know I need to get to London in order to do so) I will get some things right, more things wrong and overall gain feedback which will further the learning circle.

 

I’ll touch briefly here on a tension that exists between this natural learning process and the societal norms we experience. I grew up believing that to be wrong was basically akin to committing a sin, and my peers behaved in a similar manner. Making mistakes and ‘failing’ is hardly talked about in our society, but as I found in the entrepreneurial world, when it is talked about you can almost feel the relief in your peers as their shoulders visibly lighten. ‘Yes!’ they often say, ‘I made that mistake too!’. Why learn from our own mistakes if we can learn from the mistake of others? What a valuable learning experience. And why not share our own errors so that others can help see the lesson in them? To show us that our mistakes are not unnatural, but actually wholly to be expected? Amusingly, I still watch people as they vehemently argue that their point is right rather than acknowledging an opposing view and by doing so developing their ideas further. Their fear of being wrong is stunting their learning and growth, and will long continue to do so unless they can overcome it.

 

We are in a lucky position today whereby the information we can gather about the world is enormous. We have vast libraries of books, and then the biggest library of information ever known to man – that thing called the worldwide web. I notice the value of this in my own learning. I will start with a fairly broad subject, and as my ideas become refined I narrow down further and further. In a sense it can be frustrating, because just as I think that I have developed an original and valuable idea, someone will point me towards an individual or organisation who has already developed this. And so I gather more information from them, and in time I will be able to generate my own original and valuable ideas about the world. This same process has been practised by every person in every discipline in the history of humanity’s understanding about the world, as we build up our global knowledge bank. It was Einstein who said it best, ‘If I have seen a little further, it is only because I have been able to stand on the shoulders of giants’. This is how it sometimes feels, that as I read a great mind like EF Schumacher I am able to integrate his exceptionally developed ideas in to my own understanding of the world and then build further upon that – not because my mind is in anyway comparable to Schumacher’s, but because his ideas are accessible to me. I feel incredibly fortunate that libraries and the web offer me free, easy access to these ideas and these minds; this is a unique period in history that many do not appreciate.

 

By not making the most of this information, by not listening to talks by or having conversations with thinker-doers at the cutting edge of field, or by reading their writing, working alongside them etc we are essentially declining to learn anymore about the world than someone could have in the past. And even those whose ideas were developed many decades ago but still have great value like EF Schumacher and whose ideas are accessible to us, if we do not learn from them then we are declining to learn more about the world than someone could have many years ago.

 

The neatest way to sum this article up is to turn this theory of learning on to it and weighing up its place within that. It is obviously an attempt to trial my ideas in the real world. Next I will get some feedback which will further inform my ideas & knowledge. Someone may point out flaws, or more likely tell me that I’ve basically just regurgitated a theory someone else has already pioneered. In which case I’d look at their theory, assess its flaws and my ideas will be developed further.

 

And on and on it goes…

Floundering Intelligently

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So it’s been a fair old time since I last wrote anything. Amongst other things, this blog will hopefully go some way towards explaining why.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a terrific event called the Festival of Education at Wellington College. The most memorable session for me was run by an education innovator called Guy Claxton. Everything about the talk resonated with me, most of all his vision and work on progressing towards a 21st century education system – one that exists to prepare young people for the working world. He was talking about the role of teachers in schools, particularly in relation to the value held in education that it is all about being right, rather than experimenting, potentially being wrong and learning from that. He rightly pointed out that in the adult world we are often confronted with situations in which there is no clear right or wrong, and in which we don’t have a bloody clue what we’re doing. He remarked that schools should be safe spaces for teachers and students both to work through unknown, complex situations where we don’t know what is right – safe spaces to flounder intelligently.

That phrase ‘flounder intelligently’ struck a chord with me, and has rattled around my head since. To be honest, I’ve been floundering ever since the beginning of 2013. The title of the blog is somewhat ironic because although at times I’ve felt very much as though I am learning and progressing, at other times the floundering has not felt intelligent in any way, shape or form. It’s just been floundering.

What I haven’t done, is be particularly open about it. I’m writing now partly because it’s cathartic, partly because I feel the learning is important, and partly because I don’t feel we as a society are anywhere near open enough about our struggles in life – in education or as adults. Be the change you want to see and all that – smart man that Ghandi fellow. I have some inspiring friends who have been transparent about difficulties they are having (much more significant than mine), and I thought I’d follow their lead.

2013 was the first year I didn’t set goals at the beginning of. My single intention was to carry on in the direction I was headed in, which was exactly where I wanted to go. The first six months in Sydney were mind-boggingly amazing and my life was just where I wanted it to be. No more than a week in to 2013, this all started to change. A combination of internal and external changes completely caught me off guard and de-railed me.

I was dependent on the university I was working at for both my visa and living wage going forward, and that went from looking likely to very uncertain and at the least not being available for a while. Significantly, I was aware that had I been in the UK where I’m a citizen then it wouldn’t have been an issue. A lot of promising work leads then started to fall through, almost comically so in some instances. In addition to this were two very unexpected changes in me; a strong desire to lay down roots and no longer be travelling from place to place, and a loss of motivation towards most of my current work. I realised that I wanted to move back to the UK and settle in London, and that I wanted to move away from mental health work towards environment/sustainability – a field I had no experience in.

So I find myself back in Swindon (which remains as dull as ever) living with my parents and struggling away to find paying work in London. To an extent, the novelty of being back in the country with so many of my friends and my family is still strong and it’s wonderful to now know that I want to stay here indefinitely. On the other hand, I’m still quite uncertain as to the work direction I want to go in and am finding it far more difficult to create work opportunities than at any point over the last few years. A lot of things fell in to place for me from my final year at university onwards – I thought I was very much in control of where my life was headed, turns out it was more that I was very lucky; a tough realisation to absorb.

It’s what’s been going on inside though that’s been really testing. My ideas, motivation, sense of purpose, intuition…things I had held very dear and had in riches in Australia all began to fade. I had come to rely increasingly on intuition over the years as my compass and it became stronger and stronger, but then at the turn of the year it went silent and would only pop up in glimpses. It’s still fairly quiet. I went from feeling like I was on a clear course and thriving to the absolute opposite. I had become increasingly calm and balanced (a few friends in Australia joked about me being ‘zen’), but this changed too – I grew easily rattled and cycled through feeling lost, confused, desperate and useless.

That last word was probably the toughest to acknowledge. It was very frustrating feeling like I was not of much use to anyone, especially compared to Australia where I held a number of leadership roles, I could influence change, was giving talks, and had connections. It has made me reflect on how special that time in Aus was. How lucky I was.

And I realised how very little I actually know! My goodness. That’s been humbling. One of the most profound realisations I think we can have is just how remarkably little we actually know. I know next to nothing about the world and how to change it. But I do now know that I have huge amounts of learning to do.

I don’t think you can overstate the importance of acceptance – especially of that which we find hard. I should have been more open earlier, as I’m writing this now from a space where I’m starting to find clarity and move through it. I’m not sure whether it’s healthy to flounder, but it is what it is and I can’t deny that’s what I’ve been doing. We shouldn’t pretend to know all the answers or get caught up in the illusion that we are in control – life and people are unpredictable. But if we’re going to flounder – do it intelligently, reflect on the lessons, speak to others. So for now, I’m going to flounder a little more…

The limits of human understanding

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One of my favourite modules during my Neuroscience studies had almost nothing to do with the actual practice of science. This fact seemed to confuse some of the academics as to why it then existed, and I would identify this confusion as the mean reason it ended up with such a bizarre and inappropriate name of ‘Biology in Society’. In essence, it was about the development of science (not just biology) through the ages, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers.

A couple of learnings I took from this module were that our methods of understanding the universe have evolved enormously through the centuries, and also that as of the 18th century science really began to take over from religion as the de facto way of explaining just about everything.

I believe science to be of huge value but also grossly imperfect. My thinking behind this is not so much to do with science as a method, but the exponents of it… i.e. us.

The human brain has evolved a certain way over many, many years. As a result, it has given us an understanding of the universe that far exceeds any other species we share the planet with (to the best of our knowledge anyway, we have no proof that snails can’t explain the creation of the universe). We can perceive, and explain much. However, we only have so much space in the brain and so many neural connections that can be made. Evolution has sacrificed certain abilities along the way, to enable others to flourish. The parts of our brain dedicated to sensory input are vastly inferior to many other animals. The eyesight of a bird makes us look blind in comparison; it can see farther, processes motion in a way we don’t, and can even see different light spectrums that are invisible to us. There are things in the world we simply can’t perceive because our brains are not wired that way (although the tools we create can compensate in some cases). You can find examples for hearing, touch, taste, smell…

But we’ve evolved differently. Our frontal lobe is enormous compared with most of the animal kingdom (apes aside). This has given us some unique abilities and advantages. But it does not make us perfect.

The universe is deeply complex. We are simply a product of evolution. Why do we think that evolution has given us the ability to understand and explain everything? We already know that there are many things our senses can not perceive…but what else is there that we do not yet know about? Are we so special, that it just so happens that the evolution of our brains allows us to understand everything about how the universe works? Oddly, that seems to be the expectation. On the whole, as a species, we see ourselves as some master race. We’re not; we’re just different to the others. And oddly, of all the species on the planet, we seem least able to exist in harmony with our environment.

There are many fundamental concepts we have been unable to explain. The way forces act on the universe (hence the creation of the as yet unproven forces of dark matter, dark energy and dark flow). Theories that there are four , five or even six dimensions. That other universes may exist around us.

Human thinking is somewhat binary in that there either is something, or there is not. Such thinking bumps in to obstacles. Although we have theories now around the big bang, they mostly seem to posit that a couple of random particles bumped in to one another. But where did they come from? How was there space around them in the first place? Somehow, there was once nothing and then there was the universe. Try and get your head around that. How did absolutely nothing at all turn in to something? That makes no sense. And how is that once nothing existed at all? Or perhaps the universe is timeless, it has always been here. But again that doesn’t seem to fit our way of thinking…how can we analyse that? Stick that in to our formula? Our brains don’t handle the concept of infinity especially well.

A similar example is the size and shape of the universe. There must be an edge right? Whatever shape it is, again this requires that there be something (the universe) and then…what? Nothing again? What is outside of the universe? And like with respect to time, perhaps the dimension of space is also infinite. So yet again, we bump against a concept – infinity – that we struggle to comprehend.

It might just be possible that in between nothing and something is a concept that we aren’t capable of understanding. That for all that our brains can do as a result of evolution, they can’t quite figure this one out. We can’t explain everything that is going on around us in the universe, because we have limitations. The universe did not develop specifically to fit in to the paradigms of understanding of just one its countless species.

And let’s think about this for a moment…thanks to evolution we have learned to better understand the world around us. This has been an adaptive mechanism that through developments such as medicine and technology enables us to thrive as a species like none other. Our understanding of our planet is phenomenal. However, why would it be adaptive in evolutionary terms for us to understand the universe? Up until midway through the last century we had never even left our own planet. In a fierce and competitive environment in which every little bit of space in our brains has evolved to give us an adaptive advantage, why would space be wasted trying to understand concepts like the beginning of the universe which have little to no impact on our ability to survive on Earth? Take the example of infinity – the Earth is finite and full of finite limits. Understanding infinity would not help us much here.

Of course, this does beg the obvious question of why we would even try to do so, and I’m afraid I have no answer to this.

We do a mighty impressive job, but I don’t believe everything in the universe fits within our limited way of understanding and explaining things. Heck, we don’t even understand our own motives most of the time.

Time to re-think our values?

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Over the last few years I have watched enormous resources (human, financial, material) thrown at various social and environmental issues. Organisations coordinating the programs all report back with tremendous positivity about the impact they are having. And yet…at a holistic level we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I recall working on a project attempting to tackle homelessness, and we were told by the experts that homelessness has actually increased, quite remarkably, in parallel with the resources invested in tackling it. Have we really made such great progress in areas like health, education, economy, environment, poverty? There have been many leaps forward (we have met some of the Millennium Development Goals already), and yet personally I do not feel that we are making particularly impressive progress given the resource investment. Perhaps we are tackling the symptoms, and not the cause.

 

I believe to understand where all of humanity’s problems come from we must first accept a most uncomfortable truth:

 

We are the cause of every single one of them.

 

I have learned from my experience of depression as well as my time in social enterprise that we must first accept a problem in its entirety before we attempt to tackle it. Taking responsibility is perhaps also an important step, given how inclined we seem to be individually and collectively to absolve blame and point the finger elsewhere. By taking responsibility for a problem, we can then take responsibility for tackling it.

 

I am not telling you of course to take responsibility yourself for the entire 2 billion people living in poverty. A problem of such scale is not the fault of one individual, or even one nation, but the fault of billions of individuals collectively. Whether you like it or not, you have had a role to play though, as have the people you see around you. By buying materials and produce made by those living in poverty at such a reduced rate you are contributing. We buy from corporations whose greed-driven purpose is to maximise profit, by nature then exploiting those who have so little. On a systems level we are all players in the game of capitalism, which polarises wealth.

 

I see the fault for many problems we face lying within our cultural values. Here are some of the values that define mainstream society today:

Greed

Throwaway culture

Short-term interests maximised at long-term cost

Break down of close-knit communities

Quantity over quality

Demand for constant growth

Consumerism

Lack of respect for environment we wholly rely on

 

Unfortunately many of these values have spread from the ‘dominant’ west which much of the rest of the world aspires to imitate. The west looks impressive on the surface with its big shiny buildings, fancy technology and 2 cars per household, but that conceals the rotten core beneath. Record levels of obesity, stress and mental illness are hardly symbols to me of a flourishing civilization. I can think of few who feel particularly satisfied or purposeful in how they are living their lives. And all this for a lifestyle which is, quite simply, unsustainable.

 

The car crash of our misplaced values is playing out in slow motion, right before our eyes, as our economy wobbles with little sign of recovery, the climate inches ever closer to dangerous levels of warming, and ever more of us find ourselves fighting over ever fewer resources on this planet.

 

Such a state of things has been caused by contemporary approaches and contemporary values. To chart a more sustainable and prosperous course for ourselves going forward requires a new approach. It requires new values.

Why we need to drop GDP as a measure of progress

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How do we measure progress? There’s no question that the indicators we use to achieve this are of utmost importance as they underpin key high-level decisions. Since 1944, the measurement indicator we have used is GDP. I am going to work through the flaws of this measure, and suggest alternatives that would more accurately and universally reflect human progress.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) can be defined as the value of a country’s overall output of goods and services at market prices, excluding net income from abroad.* In other words, the economic value placed on the amount of stuff a country produces. GDP has become the measure of progress. Countries use it to compare how they are doing against other countries. Governments use it to compare how they are doing against past governments.

In truth, it was never intended to be used in the way it is now. Simon Kuznets, the creator of GDP, said of it that, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”** He disputed its accuracy as an indicator of standard of living. I’m inclined to agree, and I have serious reservations about GDP; honestly I find it astonishing that it is used as it is now. And that’s without even going in to the copious number of methods that governments have come up with allowing them to doctor GDP and present a falsely optimistic picture.

Pure production output fails to take in to consideration the physical or psychological well-being of the citizens, and indeed GDP has often been criticised for this recently. Some have called instead for ‘Gross National Happiness’ as a measure. I object to this, although it does have some merit. I take issue with happiness as a measure, because happiness is a fleeting emotion and my neuroscience background tells me that it exists (like any emotion) purely as a feedback mechanism rather than a long-term state of being that we can attain. I would argue that ‘Gross National Well-being’ is preferable, as our general sense of well-being is less transient than happiness. Perhaps for some people they are one and the same though and I am simply being pedantic.

GDP also fails to consider two concepts which I feel will become of increasing importance given current global trends. Those concepts are resource efficiency and environmental footprint. As we bump harder and harder against the natural limits of the planet, both of these will have to be used as measures of progress. How efficient we are at using resources and minimising waste will matter because of the growing scarcity of global resources. Countries ought to be incentivised to be as efficient as possible with the resources available to them. Similarly, we are making living conditions increasingly precarious through runaway climate change. Widespread deforestation is a danger given the crucial role that trees play in regulating the delicately balanced composition of elements in our atmosphere that we depend on. These are just two examples of environmental footprint; there are many others.

Somehow, it is in our human nature to keep on developing and moving forward; to learn and to create. Improving our sense of well-being and standard of living would seem to be at the heart of this, as we continue to make our lives more comfortable, more safe and more efficient. So this sense of well-being must remain in any measure of progress. Well-being does not go hand in hand with material wealth/output however, and yet GDP as a measure of progresses incentivises material production. By removing material production from progress indicators, you free up other means of improving well-being such as sense of purpose, sense of community, and leisure time to name a few.

So I believe a better measure of progress would incorporate well-being, resource efficiency and environmental impact. In this sense you are capturing the key indicators of progress – the country’s ability to sustain itself and its citizens’ well-being.

The Happy Planet Index developed by the London-based think tank New Economics Foundation is an excellent example of what a true measure of progress could look like – check it out. I would also recommend looking in to the recently launched Social Progress Index.

 

 

 

 

*Taken from The Business Dictionary http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/gross-domestic-product-GDP.html

**Taken from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Kuznets

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