Another Life: On having no desire to live for ever

I would like to hang around to see final episodes of US’s bizarre rush into trumpery

My old dad  left me his restless work ethic, along with a dodgy heart. Armed with both, I’ve been sorting the seeds for another year in the polytunnel

My old dad left me his restless work ethic, along with a dodgy heart. Armed with both, I’ve been sorting the seeds for another year in the polytunnel

 

Besides his widely quoted line about the malignity of your mum and dad, Philip Larkin wrote waspishly about the end game of growing old:

“What do they think has happened, the old fools,/

To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose/

It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,/

And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember/

Who called this morning . . ?”

There’s more, and none of it encouraging. Depending on how much claret I drink tonight, such horrors may descend at three o’clock tomorrow morning, first day of the quite incredible 2017 and a few weeks ahead of my 84th birthday.

I cheer on my 92-year-old British brother, back from a hospital trip to play whist with his mates (someone brought mince pies) and he’s already driven across the city for a Christmas game of bowls.

My old dad went quietly into that good night at 71, after a stiff day in the garden. He left me his restless work ethic, along with a dodgy heart. Armed with both, I’ve been sorting the seeds for another year in the polytunnel. One big difference between us, perhaps, was how he saw the world that would outlive him.

Like his father and many fathers before him, he surely believed himself part of the progress of humankind. If he considered evolution at all, it would have been to suppose that people were some final, prize-winning design to which the rest of nature must bow.

Most adaptable

We are certainly the most adaptable, self-consciously ingenious species, conditioned to the never-ending novelty on which capitalist economies depend. We take pride in propping up a longer lifespan and, lately, lend a ready ear to propositions that humans might live for ever – even if, perhaps, on some other, less polluted, planet.

One guru of immortalism, gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, believes “a decisive level of medical control” over the ills of ageing is already within reach and that “the whole point of maintenance is that it works indefinitely”. Someone who will live to 150, he thinks, may already have been born (“Who wants to live forever?” in Science News, July 4th, 2011). Other, more conservative, authorities, sifting world statistics, think our species has settled within reach of 115. (“Evidence for a limit to the human lifespan” at Nature.com/articles/nature19793.)

Research abounds on the biochemistry of human decline, such as DNA damage and cellular stress from the increasingly man-made environment. Mammal lifespan, varying so enormously from pygmy shrews (two years) to elephants to humans, may be fixed by simple genetic control over how the body uses oxygen.

A new form of gene therapy has straightened up elderly, stooping mice and added a third to their lives. Dialysis of human blood may sift out ageing proteins. Even eating a lot less in later years might stretch things out a bit.

A more reasonable objective than trying to live forever, it is argued, is “the compression of morbidity” into the very last years of life. But even the most developed societies already find supporting and repairing a rising flood of elderly people an increasingly challenging challenge. The better medicine gets, the higher the costs of hospitals and community care.

Live forever

Having liberally shared in such progress, I still have no desire to live forever. The dogs to which the world is going are snarling far too loudly to believe it would be much fun. Given perpetual human maintenance, world population would spin even further out of control, provoking even more wars over dwindling resources. Even more baddies would win even more often and stay on top for longer, and insupportable boredom will drive even more to suicide.

I don’t much want to learn quantum physics or even Chinese, however much time there is. I would quite like, however, to hang around long enough to take in the final episodes of America’s bizarre lemming-rush into trumpery. Whether or not the man ever really thought that man-made climate change was a Chinese hoax, he knew he had an audience addicted to tales of unreason, fake news and conspiracy.

Along with a cabinet of fossil fuel magnates and environmental saboteurs, Trump has pledged to cut the funding for what he calls “politicised science”, such as Nasa’s research into climate change and its impacts on Earth. Climate scientists, appalled to be targeted as a malign “elite”, egg each other on to fight back. I try to hold all this at distance, as if watching “Decline and Fall” played out as reality TV.

And I am still far from ready, you’ll be pleased to hear, to stop the world and get off. So anyway – Happy New Year!

Michael Viney’s Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks

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