Author Archives: Kristen Lowe

Immortality: who needs it?

Each day, unbelievable amounts of human energy are channeled into prolonging life.  We pour millions of dollars and unending hours into seeking medial advents that may fend off death, not only for people who face an immediate risk of dying, but for humanity at large. Prolonging, extending, and improving life in the face of death is the paramount pursuit of humanity.

The concept of immortality has intrigued civilization for ages. Starting with the earliest recorded societies in which immortality often served as the delineating characteristic of gods from men, humans have always elevated and pursued immortality. For most of human history, such aspirations have been just that: aspirational. But as technology advances rapidly and human society achieves unthinkable  technological and medical feats such as resuscitation, we may be closer than ever to truly finding immortality. While there may no immediate indicator that  immortality is at our fingertips, given the rate of scientific progress in the twenty-first century, the advent of extreme life-prolonging technology should not come as a surprise should it occur.

However, while immortality in the abstract may seem to be the ultimate achievement, most of us don’t want it. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, over 60% of Americans wouldn’t want to live past 90 years old, and another 30% hope to never make it past 80. 51% of adults also indicated that not only would they not want to extend their own live, but also felt that life-extending technology would be net-bad for society. Commonly cited concerns include inequity in the distribution off life-extending technology and an accompanying exacerbation of unjust resource allocation,  fear of bearing witness to more deaths and losses as a result of having more time to live, and the potential of just being bored. Regardless of reason, a majority of Americans have no interest in extending the duration of human length.

While there are many ethical and practical concerns that come along with the possibility of life extension and even eventual immortality, such concerns may require immediate and pressing discussion. Scientists now estimate that some newly-born children will live to be well beyond one-hundred, and with such imminent possibilities, it is critical that our society start tackling questions of how to address extended life head on. Particularly as current rates of resource consumption threaten even the possibility of stable population management and preservation, accommodating longer lifespans may threaten the population at large by expediting resource depletion. Moreover, in America, healthcare for the elderly is already in a state of financial and organization disarray, covering too few and being stretched too thinly. If living longer forces people into living in deteriorating states for longer, medical budgets will undoubtedly be tested.

While life-saving and prolonging technologies have consistently proven to be some of the  most incredible inventions, such technologies may one day outpace our social and moral frameworks that must accommodate them. In order to prevent that from occurring, scientists and ethicists should bring discussions of life extension into the public realm so we can all begin to consider the prospects of longer or even immortal life and whom/what it might be good for.

Death, Warfare, and the Violence Continuum

On the morning of October 14th, the Newsweek homepage had four top stories: one about a plane crash killing two people in Los Angeles, one about a bridge collapsing in Johannesburg and killing two people, one about the democratic debates, and one entitled “U.S. Could Benefit From the Death of a Top Iranian Commander in Syria”. The final article is what you might anticipate — an explanation of how the recent death of Iranian military general Hossein Hamedani might allow the US to exploit Iran’s temporary distraction and disorganization in order to gain military traction in places like Syria and Yemen. While perhaps timely and important news, the article gave me pause. How, in the same week that our nation has been mourning the deaths of Americans lost to gun violence within our borders, analyzing accidental deaths caused by plane crashes and bridge accidents, and hosting political discussions about all of the above, could  we simultaneously be celebrating the death of others embroiled in military conflict? What separates tragic losses from strategic ones? Why, if preventable death matters so much to Americans, does war operate outside of the realm of legitimate inquiry into preventable death?

Death has always been a political topic. Hot-button issues such as gun control, health-care policy, physician assisted suicide, and others all reveal the way in which American politics are strongly infused with a reverence for life and a drive to protect Americans from death. However, while the American public obsesses over spectacular instances of death and death within its borders, as identified in an  American Public Health Administration Report, militarism and war have become increasingly prevalent causes of death in places around the world. According to the report:

“The World Health Organization (WHO) Commission on the Social Determinants of Health pointed out that war affects children’s health, leads to displacement and migration, and diminishes agricultural productivity. Child and maternal mortality, vaccination rates, birth outcomes, and water quality and sanitation are worse in conflict zones. War has contributed to preventing eradication of polio, may facilitate the spread of HIV/ AIDS, and has decreased availability of health professionals. In addition, landmines cause psychosocial and physical consequences, and pose a threat to food security by rendering agricultural land useless”

Such facts should not come as a surprise. One need look no further than the five o’clock news or CNN twitter page to discover that American wars and imperial projects around the world have caused egregious accounts of combatant and civilian deaths not only through wartime violence, but through the pernicious environments created by war. However, as our populous and elected officials vigorously interrogate ways to prolong and protect American life, they simultaneously encourage and defend our global military entrenchments, ensuring death for others. Gun violence, breast cancer, and car accidents captivate the American conscience and engender a sense of common commitment to the prevention of death while targeted strikes, un-collected land mines, military accidents, and environmental damage caused my US military occupations kill thousands of people. From Iraq, to Djibouti, to Somalia, to Japan, the US military is an active contributor to undue civilian death. So why are these deaths not on our political radar?

Common acceptance of militarism, of the military as a bringer of peace, and of US primacy as a source of stability and safety  are heavily embedded into American culture. The same public health report provides the following insight:

“Militarism is intercalated into many aspects of life in the United States and, since the military draft was eliminated, makes few overt demands of the public except the costs in taxpayer funding. Its expression, magnitude, and implications have become invisible to a large proportion of the civilian population, with little recognition of the human costs or the negative image held by other countries. Militarism has been called a ‘psychosocial disease,’ making it amenable to population-wide interventions”

While more and more people are learning about population health issues and threats to human life, fewer are being forced to call into question the implications of US foreign policy and the risks it entails for civilians around the world. Influenced by the military industrial complex’s infection of academia, policy, and media, those who trouble themselves over death and dying often fail to expand their frame of reference to interrogate the US’ complicity in the production of death, passively consuming geo-strategic explanations of the “utility” of the death of others. Accidental death in LA is a tragedy; accidental civilian deaths in Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia are an invisible but ongoing reality, and the death of enemy combatants and opposing forces are “opportunities.”

The passivity and comfort with which the American public consumes news about death in wartime is anything but benign. The acceptance of military deaths as part of a strategic set of calculations that operate outside of standard civilian concerns carries heavy implications for the ways we accept or reject militarism and the ways we relate to and construct individuals in American war zones.

News articles like the one on Hamedani’s death may just seem like reporting, but such representations of death as “strategic” subtly entrench cultures of accepting some deaths as legitimate, and militarism as an ideological sacred cow. Failures to inquire into and take action to prevent unnecessary death caused by war thus becomes justified by an implicit and untouched understanding of the preservation of US life (and the life of the nation state as an entity), as more valuable than lives lost in the form of collateral damage. Questioning the way in which we consume representations of justified or strategic deaths in war may be crucial to understanding how to better prevent unnecessary loss of life beyond America’s borders, death caused and championed by the American media and political apparatus.