by Corinna Burkhart
I’m writing to you from a future. I’m doing this, because I don’t know any other way. I need to speak to someone who might understand.
You see, my grandfather wants to die. You might think “Oh no, that’s sad, but maybe he is old and tired, has lived enough and is ready to die.” Well you are not wrong about that. It is sad, and yes, he is old and tired and he has had a long life and he is ready to die. But being old and tired and dying don’t go together like that anymore. And that’s the problem.
In 2017 some researchers found a protein called TIMP-2 that stimulates body cells to rebuild and keep healthy.
The quest for endless life is an old one. In 2017 some researchers found a protein called TIMP-2 that stimulates body cells to rebuild and keep healthy. A protein which all humans have in their blood when they are young. Babies have a lot of it, but as we age, the production decreases. Having less and less of this protein allows us to age, but if you keep this protein at a consistently high-level, you stay young. In 2017, some newspapers reported this research for the first time, but it didn’t really cause much of a stir. By now, those results have changed humanity “for the better” – at least this is the conclusion that pours out of the mainstream.
Back to my grandfather: he is 130-years old now and thinks he has seen enough. He remembers how it was when old people just died. He told me a lot about it. Sounds quite nice, I have to say. Granddad started the protein treatment when he was already 60. I started when I was 21, which is the normal starting age now. It is considered the best physical age to stay in: one is fertile, has high-brain capacity, yet is physically fully grown and strong. It is considered the best age to stay in for work and reproduction. We call it “starting”. You are born and then, 21 years later, you “start”, almost like you hadn’t even lived before. As if you were maturing and then, when you are ripe, you get your preservatives. There are also early starters, some choose to do that as well. Looking like a teenager had been a trend some years ago. And there are all those who started later in their life, when the whole thing went mainstream. That was about 60 years ago.
Granddad was among the first to try the treatment. He had this panic, he says, that life would be over too soon and that there were so many things left undone. He wanted to travel and still be fit when he retired so he could go hiking and fishing with his grandchildren. At the time, he and grandma had well paid jobs and could afford trying this new, promising forever-young therapy that some companies had started to offer.
Things have gone wild since those days.
Back then, most people just went to a private hospital once a month for a transfusion. You remember, the TIMP-2 concentration in the blood is higher the younger you are, so people initially got blood transfusions from newborn, healthy babies. This blood was voluntarily donated in doses that would not harm the baby, or so it was said. But you can imagine the treatment being available only for a limited amount of people and at a high cost.
Granddad and grandma were real adventurous in those days, ready to try something radical. People around them thought it was a bit crazy, but many secretly wished they could afford it themselves. As time went on, it became more and more prominent and more affordable. It was especially popular among affluent people in their late fifties. The idea of “starting again” once the children had grown-up and moved-out sounded wonderful. Having more time to do all the things left undone. Having time to find yourself again. That was the mood back then, or so my granddad says.
It turned out that poor families in Latin America were being tricked to believe that their babies had died shortly after birth, when in reality, those babies had been farmed for blood.
Then the first scandals happened. It turned out that poor families in Latin America were being tricked to believe that their babies had died shortly after birth, when in reality, those babies had been farmed for blood. That was, of course, a huge controversy. The run for the treatment declined for a while. But the wish to live forever was too strong and such stories are easy to forget if forgetting is convenient. Similar crimes happened again and again, but nobody really wanted to know about it. They are very likely still there, the baby farms that is, just more well-hidden.
In Europe the whole thing took off much later. It was illegal for a long time. Some rich people traveled to the US or Asia for treatment, but in Europe it went mainstream only when laboratories could generate the protein. No babies involved. But even if available cruelty-free, the treatment remains expensive.
For granddad and grandma, it got expensive anyway. You can imagine the treatment like an addictive drug: it is not something you do once and pay for once, but you need to keep doing it again and again. It is easy to afford when you have a well-paid job, but it requires that you maintain your income in order to maintain your standard of living. So in the end, my grandparents needed to keep working in order to afford the treatment. The idea of a long retirement soon dissolved. Of course, having time had been the original promise. Live long enough to live all your dreams, or so the advertisements said. Reality is more of a nightmare. Work longer and harder and dream forever of those days spent traveling, playing with your grandchildren, having time for an endless bucket list. I actually grew up with my grandparents being fit and healthy, spending wonderful Sundays hiking. But during the week, they worked just like my parents.
One way to stop the cycle is to die. But that is not that easy either.
Many people take out loans nowadays to afford the treatment. Like my parents, they also took out a loan for me. It’s like investing in education: by keeping young, healthy and fit, you hope that you’ll earn enough to pay back the loans. Breaking out of that cycle should be possible, shouldn’t it? It’s actually very difficult. One way to stop the cycle is to die. But that is not that easy either. You will not just die after taking that stuff for ages, at least not of natural causes. Suicide is becoming an option, but doing that before you are debt-free is a huge taboo. I mean, you wouldn’t need to mind people talking once you’re dead, but you don’t want to leave your family with all that grief or all that debt.
For those who just can’t or don’t want to commit suicide, having a mortal accident is really the only other option for dying early. My grandmother died in a car accident on her way back from work, she was 118. Granddad retired the same day and stopped taking the medicine a couple of years later. It was a wakeup call. A bad one. He did some traveling without really enjoying it. But for the past 10 years he has wanted to die. He is fed up. It didn’t turn out like he had wanted. Killing himself is not an option for him though. And the strategy of taking high risks, doing things like rock-climbing without safety measures or driving into hurricanes and tornadoes, more often than not leaves people paralyzed or otherwise injured but not dead.
You might still be wondering what the fuss is about. Life is longer, you get more time to do stuff. Even if you have a longer working life, you still get more holidays more weekends and life’s rush-hour is stretched out over a longer period of time. All this is possibly true, but what if long life only equals longer drudgery, longer suffering? We live long, but for what?
Life is very, very stressful. You have endless to-do lists. Grandpa said back in the days you could always say “No I won’t do this now, I only got 24 hours every day, I can’t do everything”. That doesn’t work anymore. The day still has only 24 hours, but there are so very many 24 hours. People feel rushed, all the time, pressured to do all they can imagine doing. This is not how I wanted to live when I started the treatment at 21.
Competition is also very high. There are a lot of people who need to and are able to work. There is high unemployment and many homeless people as well as a panic not to end up in such a situation. Without a job, you can forget about the treatment, which means you’ll age, which means you are less likely to get a job. It’s a downward spiral. And consequently people do anything to keep their jobs, like working crazy hours for bad pay with almost no holiday. And the debt for the treatment is not the only financial burden many take on: people also take loans for education, houses, and cars. If you want a loan to buy a house, the bank will make you sign a document that you’ll take the treatment until you’ve paid off the loan.
Just imagine your life, but longer. A very long struggle of not getting worse.
Nowadays, life has become a struggle against things getting worse. How does that sound? Familiar? Just imagine your life, but longer. A very long struggle of not getting worse. I imagine, that when you know you’ll age, you might get to a point where you manage to change something. I imagine there might be a point when you realize that this is not how you want to spend the rest of your limited days. That must be so empowering. But now, there is always another day to start changing your life. And changing is uncomfortable, so most never change.
All that I have described so far concerns only the most affluent. A common belief is that those poorer countries need to develop and grow their national GDP so that more people can access health care and the endless-life treatment, which will further grow the economy. The same old song, just with another verse added. There is a company that got rich with an endless-life businesses that has since started a foundation that runs programmes in Africa to help people to afford the treatment. They call it charity and development aid. You could also call it a cruel investment.
Despite all of this madness, there are some who don’t take the treatment anymore or who never took it at all. They are called “oldies” and are treated like outcasts. Most of them live together in villages in the countryside. The oldies don’t make an effort to isolate themselves, but they end up quite isolated simply by the way they choose to live. I’ve thought about it myself, but it would require leaving my friends and family behind. And somehow, for some reason, I want to stay connected with what is going on, even if I don’t like it.
Back then you were fighting for a life within ecological and social limits. Now we are fighting to get limits to life itself.
I am part of a movement that calls itself STOP. We criticize the idea that life is all about longer and more, drawing ideas and inspiration from sources on post-development, degrowth, and social justice, which is what brought me to your blog. After all, the Internet doesn’t forget. Back then you were fighting for a life within ecological and social limits. Now we are fighting to get limits to life itself.
I have recently stopped the treatment myself. It is very new for me. I’m 54 now, but still have around seventy years to live, seventy years to dedicate myself to a world in which we can learn to die once again.
Corinna Burkhart is a PhD candidate at the Department of Human Geography in Lund, Sweden. She is active around degrowth since 2012 and tries to think outside the box, sometimes through writing fiction.
This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.
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