Reflections on a future free of aging

4 Comments

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?

Do economics and business make unsustainability inevitable?

Leave a comment

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 limits of human understanding

2 Comments

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?

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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

Growth: a uniquely human pursuit?

Leave a comment

I was reflecting this morning on the ‘growth-collapse’ paradigm of human behaviour I wrote about recently. It’s hard to understand why we have developed such a transfixion on the concept of endless growth, when history (and present circumstances) suggest that it doesn’t serve us so well.

 

It seems somewhat maladaptive that by and large we are unable to within our environmental limits. Past civilizations (with a few notable exceptions) expand until they go beyond their limits, and consequently collapse. A much more adaptive response would surely be to live in equilibrium with the environment.

 

This is what has me fascinated with some of the indigenous peoples around the globe. Take the Australian aboriginals, for whom the land and environment is not something to be consumed and exhausted, but rather a gift to be thankful for. They view themselves as custodians and protectors of their environment, rather than consumers of it. Whether it is due to genes or other factors, they have developed a certain equilibrium with their surrounds that has allowed them to survive for 60,000 years whilst countless great civilizations around the world have risen and fallen. For me, this makes them a wiser and more emotionally evolved culture than the modern industrialized culture. But cultures like that of the Aboriginals are the exception, rather than the rule. Some island cultures (like Tikopia and Tonga) have come close to a clash with environmental limitations, and responded by implementing measures of population control and more sustainable agricultural techniques that have enabled them to live in equilibrium with their environment. Imagine, instead of dedicating excess resources towards growth, those resources could instead be diverted towards prosperity and wellbeing.

 

Whether this constant drive for growth is a uniquely human trait is uncertain. It is possible that other species would grow and grow if they were not subject to normal population limiting factors such as predators and disease. In fact, there are examples in which this has happened. When European settlers moved to Australia, they introduced a number of foreign species to make the environment more familiar. This proved an incredibly naïve and devastating error of judgement.

 

Australia’s ecosystem is quite unlike many of the others in the world (it has a startlingly high percentage of species unique to the continent – link http://www.dfat.gov.au/facts/flora_and_fauna.html) and is delicately balanced. When European rabbits were introduced to the country it was a disaster. They had no natural predators in Australia, and were not controlled by natural disease. And after all, rabbits do mate like…

 

Rabbit population growth boomed uncontrollably and aspects of the environment were damaged beyond repair. I recall from reading Bryson’s book Down Under, that much of the delicate inland vegetation was lost forever to the hungry stomachs of unstoppable rabbits. It was only human intervention through scientifically designed diseases that brought the population back under some sort of control.

 

Perhaps it is simply that this drive for species growth is inherent within all species, but it is the mastery humans have developed over their environment and other species that has enabled them to overcome population limiting factors. Our science and technology means that we are not under threat from predators, and we have been able to eradicate an extraordinary number of lethal diseases.

 

There’s also the point that our brains have evolved to be hardwired to tackling immediate, short-term problems that we are faced with. We are not so tuned in to complex, longer-term challenges. I’d suggest that the challenges presented by growth, unsustainable living and bumping in to limitations build up over time and until we reach tipping points, they fall in to the category of long-term challenges. Past societies only have typically only responded when lack of sustainability becomes an immediate problem (usually food shortages). So in a sense, our mastery of the environment means that we now bump in to problems that we haven’t evolved to know how to tackle – the limitations of our environment.

 

Only, this would be the first time we bump in to global limitations, rather than local limitations like past civilizations have done. What the consequences of this would be, we really have no idea. This is a unique period in human history.

 

The challenges may seem scary, but it’s a very exciting time to be around.

Denial of limits: A fatal human flaw?

Leave a comment

 

DSCF3664

This current sustainability issues that we are faced with will be a fascinating turning point for mankind. It has the potential to markedly change human behavior.

 

Our current unsustainable trajectory is not a consequence of specific environmental factors, but rather a consequence of human behaviour. All throughout history, human civilizations have collapsed due to being incapable of living in harmony with their environment – they extend themselves too far. They have consumed and consumed, until they find themselves living beyond their limits and the result is collapse (for those interested take a look at Jared Diamond’s TED talk. I’ve also just started his book, which is fantastic). However, I will be writing soon about my understanding that if collapse happened today it will be significantly different to any other example in history.

 

For whatever reason, unlike the majority of species on our planet, we are unable to form a sustainable relationship with our environment and surrounds. We grow rapidly and thus consume more rapidly. Perhaps it is our mastery of the environment (tools like medicine and technology) that enables us to escape some of the population limiting factors that other species are subject to such as disease and predators.

 

You have to wonder what this means for us in the long-term. In time, will we learn how to live within our means, or will we continue to repeat our growth-collapse paradigm? And that’s why I am so curious to see how this situation pans out. There are a few scenarios I can see in this context.

 

Scenario One: We radically change our consumptive habits and lifestyles such that we can live sustainably and within the limits of our planet (perhaps learning from certain indigenous peoples who have managed this). A transition is made (not without considerable bumps along the way) and we move away from the nature of past human societies that have caused their own downfall. Basically, we learn.

 

Scenario Two: We fail to address the environmental, economic and energy challenges we currently face and experience a collapse like past human civilizations have (albeit far more dramatic and global). The suffering and loss that follow drills home the lesson that living beyond our limits is unsustainable, as it always has been, and we adjust our behaviour accordingly. Prosperity, rather than growth, becomes the goal.

 

Scenario Three: As above, but as we learn how to utilize our (now rather more limited) resources again and there is growth, we again wind up living beyond our means. The lesson is lost and human behaviour does not change as we continue to be insatiable consumers.

 

If one were to take a Darwinian view of this, then perhaps those humans who have evolved to live within the limits of the planet will be the ones that survive and flourish. I am interested in some of the indigenous peoples (such as the Australian aboriginals) who have survived for many millennia, and for whom living in equilibrium with their environment is a fundamental part of their culture. By comparison, modern civilization fuelled by science and technology is only a few hundred years old. Is the inclination towards the growth-collapse paradigm one that makes us fundamentally flawed as a species? An obsession with growth will always cause problems in a finite world (unless you’re an economist).

 

However this all plays out, there’s no doubt that we are living through a fascinating period in human history. Our TV culture makes it easy to miss, but dig a little deeper and you realize that we are living through the greatest financial crisis (in scale) in human history, are approaching the limits of nonrenewable energy sources that we have relied on for so long. These are challenges that we have no experience of, which may sound scary, but we do all have the opportunity to shape how our future plays out – it’s just a matter of whether we choose to take that opportunity.

 

Can we reverse the habit of a lifetime (of our species) and learn to live in equilibrium with our environment? I can’t wait to see how it all plays out…