Kane: Spending priorities in a world with polio


Noah Kane, Columnist

Humanity’s hunt for eternal life dates back to at least 2,500 B.C. with King Gilgamesh’s unsuccessful quest for a life-giving plant. More than 4,000 years later, J.K. Rowling published “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Life expectancy has certainly increased in the interim, but Rowling’s instant classic remains relegated to the “fantasy” shelf.

Still, immortality, once the stuff of myth and legend, feels within reach in the 21st century. We live in a world where we can land a probe on a comet 6.4 billion miles away and where a few well-timed motions of the thumb can summon twelve pizzas. Sure, living forever is a lot to ask, but is it really so out of the question?

The field of cryonics answers this question with a definite “maybe.” Essentially, cryonics is the process of freezing a deceased human body in order to preserve it for reanimation — that is, if we ever develop the technology to bring people back to life. In addition to the risk that the procedure might not work, cryonics is expensive. Whole-body preservation can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $200,000 — plus a $100-$600 annual fee ad resuscitatum. As a college student with an interest in the nonprofit sector, this price tag makes me shudder. But for the ultra-wealthy, a couple million dollars (and a few centuries of waiting) is attainable. Despite my skepticism that cryonics will ever work, I can’t help envying those who are financially able to give it a try.

The problem is that we not only live in a world where you can buy a luxury car for the upfront cost of cryogenic preservation, but also one in which diseases like polio still exist. More than 600,000 people died of malaria in 2012 — the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Roughly the same number of Americans died on both sides of the Civil War, a bloody conflict that lasted four long years. Entirely preventable diseases — sicknesses that the “first world” hasn’t experienced in decades — plague the developing world. And effective treatments and even cures exist for many of them.

Imagine how much more progress we could make toward an epidemic-free planet if the current patrons of cryonics centers had invested their money in vaccination delivery and development. Given the current state of global health, making a $200,000 bet on one’s own immortality is a highly egotistical and morally questionable act. Even more ludicrous is the fact that the wealthy aren’t the only beneficiaries of cryonics: their pets are, too.

Of course, lambasting a few incredibly rich and inconsiderate people is not nearly as productive as it is satisfying. The reality is that cryonics and other life-extension technologies are the subject of significant research and financial attention. Experiments conducted at the University of Pittsburg in 2005, Massachusetts General Hospital in 2006 and Stanford University in 2010 have all taken stabs at reanimating the corpses of dead animals. Google — a multinational corporation with millions in assets — launched Calico, a new venture charged with lengthening the human lifespan, in 2013.

It would be unfair, however, to paint this work as entirely unproductive. For example, short-term cryonics could be very useful in trauma wards. Stabbing victims could be temporarily frozen and then reanimated after doctors treated their wounds. Still, I believe that sound policy — like better gun safety regulations, or antipoverty programs that help lift people out of communities torn by violence — could be more effective because they address the root of the problem.

When weighed against the high likelihood that investment in the fight against preventable diseases in the developing world would reduce or even eliminate such ailments there, the dream of immortal life does not deserve to be a reality — not yet.

Noah Kane is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].