As you might remember, we have recently posted about the Longevity Film Competition, an initiative by HEALES, ILA, and the SENS Research Foundation that encourages supporters of healthy life extension to produce a short film to popularize the subject.
Didier Coeurnelle is a jurist and the co-chair of HEALES, the Healthy Life Extension Society promoting life extension in Europe, as well as a long-standing member of social and environmental movements.
We got in touch with Didier, who serves as co-director of the competition, to ask him about the initiative and to share his thoughts on advocacy in general.
Didier, let’s first introduce you to our readers; can you tell us your story as a supporter of healthy life extension?
For decades, I gave a big part of my income to fight hunger in the world. I was giving this money against hunger as well as against easy-to-avoid diseases. One day, a little over 10 years ago, I asked myself, “Which diseases are easy to avoid?”, and I discovered that most “modern” deaths come from diseases related to old age and that there are people who try to stop these diseases. What convinced me to be active was “The fable of the dragon-tyrant” by Nick Bostrom. Now, I give a big part of my income to defeat aging (and a smaller part against world hunger).
You are the co-founder and a board member of HEALES; can you summarize the history of your organization for us and tell us about its activities?
When I “discovered” life extension, my first activity was to invite Aubrey de Grey to meet friends and activists. He came to Brussels and also to France. I met Sven Bulterijs, a Dutch-speaking, young Belgian longevity activist, who was only 19 then. He convinced me to create an NGO. Aubrey convinced us to meet each month. I decided to write a monthly newsletter in French called “La mort de la mort” (now also available in English). We organized a few activities (conferences, stands, etc), and then, after a few years, we decided to organize a big 3-day conference. It happened in 2012, 2014, and 2016 and will happen again soon on November 8-10.
How was the idea of the Longevity Film Competition born?
The idea was born about four years ago. We have scientists working for longevity as well as activists working in many fields, but we do not have so many artists. When you see fiction or even documentaries concerning life extension, in most cases, they give a negative view. Video is probably the best way to inform and entertain people nowadays. So, we decided to organize the first competition in 2015.
What was the most interesting aspect of the first edition of the competition? Were there any unexpected insights?
We were worried that we did not have many candidates, but during the last days, 8 people sent us something useful. The winning video and some other videos have a nice personal touch.
What are the conditions of this year’s contest? Are there any limitations on who can take part?
There are no limitations except that, of course, judges cannot compete nor can their children, siblings, parents or spouses. The film must be about one of the themes approached in the next question. The full rules are on https://longevityfilmcompetition.com/rules/.
The themes for this year’s edition of the competition are the false dichotomy between aging and disease, the Tithonus error, the appeal to nature fallacy, and the concern that rejuvenation biotechnologies will be a privilege for the rich. Can you tell us why you chose these particular topics?
These aspects are many of the criticisms that are too often heard. For each of these four questions, explaining rationally why it is an error can be useful. However, we are not only rational beings. One (animated) image is often worth a thousand words.
Besides sharing the winning submissions on social media, do you plan to organize screenings in order to maximize visibility of the future winning movies?
Sure. First, we will have some symbolic action on the first of October, which is the international day of older people and the international day of longevity. We also hope to get the attention of some press. I’m not sure if it will work; they are not so used to spreading positive news. However, sometimes, things change.
Let’s talk about advocacy in general. You have been an advocate for quite some time now; how successful do you think collective advocacy efforts have been over the years?
Not enough yet and not fast enough. The “pro-aging” narrative is, sadly, powerful. Defeating aging looks “too good to be true” and makes people feel uneasy. However, there are changes. For example, in the French-speaking world, sometimes we see articles about “amortalité” (life without senescence) in the press; a few years ago, you would see only articles speculating about billionaires wanting “immortality” (which makes people afraid).
In November, HEALES will organize the next Eurosymposium on Healthy Ageing (EHA), and we can already see many famous names from the research field on the list of speakers. However, unlike ordinary scientific conferences, EHA and Undoing Aging each have a section focused on advocacy. Why did you decide to include it?
I think most scientists wanting big progress for longevity know that having public opinion on our side will help. Also, PR is useful in order to raise money. However, many scientists feel uneasy about these issues. That’s why we decided to have a day dedicated to social aspects. Not all scientists will stay for the last day, and we will also try to reach a larger public on the last day.
Another aspect is that Brussels is the European capital. One of our goals is to convince people there. Let’s be honest: there is a long way to go. However, for a year or two now, some European civil servants who have been promoting “healthy aging” (we know it is an oxymoron) seem to be very interested in big data on health and scientific research. We will be keeping an eye on these developments.
You don’t need to convince people that saving the lives of children is a good thing to do; however, you do need to convince them that saving elderly lives is a good thing. Why do you think this difference exists?
Nor do you need to convince people that defeating cancer or Alzheimer’s disease would be good, but death by old age is a step too far. For me, the fundamental reason is a variant of Stockholm syndrome called the terror management theory. Death by old age is awful and unavoidable. We must think that longevity is not better, otherwise it would be too awful to die. This process is unconscious.
How far do you think we are from the point when people won’t need persuading anymore, if ever?
Aubrey de Grey said it will be when a mouse becomes “immortal”, because people will feel that rejuvenation therapies will be available soon. I think that it could be sooner if more and more scientists start to speak out more about it.
With some luck, the effects of first-generation rejuvenation therapies, such as senolytics, will be tangible soon. Assuming that the effects are measurably positive, how do you think the world will react to the news, and how do you think that this will affect advocacy?
It would be interesting even if senolytics have only a moderate effect. I think some groups who are not in the “longevity camp” will start asking to use them. Maybe, in some countries, they will even start asking for reimbursement from social security programs. Some groups on the other side will probably ask not to use these products or will stress risks, but it will be especially difficult for “deathists” to fight against senolytics, which are, in a way, very classical drugs.
The general public can be especially unreceptive to the message of life extension; in your experience as advocates, what is the most effective way to convey it?
There is not one way; there are many ways. Explaining scientific progress, debunking false negative ideas, sharing positive news, and sometimes using short and radical messages but also sometimes long and detailed information.
Lobbying efforts, such as those of the Biogerontology Research Foundation, have resulted in WHO introducing the new “aging-related” extension code for the International Classification of Diseases. Do you think that lobbying efforts might prove successful with politicians as well, leading, for example, to making aging research a key point of their political agendas, or is it still too early for that?
It will not be easy to convince politicians. However, I think that the idea of a moonshot project for longevity can be appealing for some. Offering the possibility to be one of the first to propose a big project can be interesting
Do you have a personal message to offer our readers?
First, evidently, please compete (or tell artists who could compete), but more generally, be vocal and promote a positive idea of longevity by sharing news and making declarations while avoiding pseudoscience. Today is the best day in the history of humanity to be alive, but 110,000 people will die of old age. New therapies can change this, and it can happen faster with our actions.
We would like to thank Didier for taking the time to answer our questions, and we look forward to watching this year’s competition winners!