For this month’s column, I have been asked to write about how to start a viable and well-attended local life extension group. I suppose the reason I am qualified to write on this subject is because I have been working on precisely that for the past three years, ever since I first learned about life extension and cryonics. However, I certainly didn’t know how to do such a thing when I started out, so as much as I would love to provide a step-by-step recipe for the successes we have had in Vancouver, so much has been done by trial and error that the best I can do is communicate some of the things I believe have been instrumental in what we have managed to accomplish so far with Lifespan Society of British Columbia. So, without further ado:
Indulge your obsession… at least at first. If you are still in that highly energetic, early phase in your interest for life extension, just go with it! Read everything you can about the topics that interest you, including what the critics and detractors have to say, so that you can credibly educate others on the subject. Learn the answers to the typical objections—but be gentle when you repeat them, you don’t want to scare people off by treating them like they’re stupid for not being so sublimely rational as you are. Aim to become the person others are referred to in order to learn more about cryonics/ SENS/supplements/your topic of choice.
Make yourself available. It’s easy— just offer to take people out for coffee! Even once you have a group going, many people will find the idea of going to a group composed entirely of unknown people somewhat intimidating (I know I do!). If people reach out to you about life extension or cryonics, tell them about your group but also offer to meet them for coffee/beer/whatever. Many of Lifespan’s current members are people I had a one-onone conversation with about life extension and cryonics over the last three years.
Listen. One major piece of advice I have for anyone interested in life extension advocacy is to really listen to the people you talk to about these subjects, and learn to understand why they are interested. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that their reasoning, their philosophy, their politics are either the same as yours, or else wrong. Of course many of us tend to think that way privately, but if you allow yourself to be permeable to other viewpoints (even as you intentionally challenge mainstream beliefs by holding your divergent beliefs publicly), you could be surprised by others’ capacity to grab onto new ways of thinking. Arguing with the intent to have someone change their mind publicly is almost always a losing battle, and is more about the arguer’s ego being around to see its own triumph of reason than it is about the desired effect of changing the way people think. Ask questions and answer questions, but do so softly and humbly.
Reach out and meet up. One of the earliest things I did after becoming interested in cryonics was make contact with someone through the Cryonics Society of Canada mailing list, who I knew lived reasonably close to me, and offer to host him and any other likewise interested people he knew from the area to meet me in the boardroom of my condominium to discuss local developments. The majority of us are still involved with what became Lifespan Society, and are still meeting regularly three years later. I really think in-person meetings are key, even if the group starts small and it seems like the same discussion could be done over email. If you don’t know anyone in your area yet, check out the regional sections of larger forums, like longecity.org, or by posting an invitation to meet on a mailing list. There is also a list of regional cryonics groups at the back of this magazine, which is a good place to start.
Don’t just talk. Now, I would say that this movement is still in a sufficiently early stage that simply meeting live and talking about it is progress, but even the most passionate supporters can get bored sitting around a table discussing the same points over and over. So the next step is to build some kind of activity around the conversation (the true content) to adhere to. As an example, at Lifespan we host movie nights where we screen documentaries, videos of conference presentations, or even just thematically-related films, and then discuss them afterwards. These have proven very popular. We also had a night out at the theater recently, when the opportunity arose to see a play that touched on themes of radical life extension, transhumanism and the Singularity. We also hold nature walks and hikes, which, as a life extension group, puts our money where our mouth is by integrating some physical activity into our meetings.
Start a local mailing list, or online forum. Larger mailing lists and social networks are fantastic places to learn and to meet people, but once you reach a critical mass in your local meetings, it will become unwieldy to coordinate these via direct emails (people getting dropped from the cc’s, etc.). Get yourself a space where you can talk about local issues with local people without worrying about spamming outsiders. Some people who may not be as comfortable discussing these topics on large public fora may open up on a smaller, locally-oriented list as well. Google and Yahoo groups are both good for this, though if you’re fairly privacy-oriented, you may want to look for alternatives.
Set goals. The group’s keeners will want to be able to make progress on particular ideas, and while public meet-ups are very valuable for growing your network, they are not the best venue for objective-driven meetings with agenda, etc., because every newcomer ends up needing to be brought up to speed before they can contribute meaningfully. Sometimes also the topic of discussion may be of a sensitive nature, or there might be people who would like to attend, but are a reluctant of being publicly affiliated with “controversial” ideas, and would rather there was someone playing gatekeeper to the more serious meetings. Float a date, book a room (or if you have a big enough space yourself, volunteer your place), and circulate agenda items on your local mailing group.
Infiltrate your local university. Obviously, in this case it helps if you happen to be a university student, as I was when I first became aware of life extension. But if you aren’t a student, nor do you know one, you could strategically host a public meet-up at a venue on campus and advertise there. Students are often looking for volunteer experience for their resumes, and many universities have a club ‘incorporation’ system which grants student organizations access to club grants, and use of university venues at reduced rates or even free. Undergraduate students are comparatively easy to get excited about life extension, probably because they haven’t been in the “system” long enough to become doctrinally entrenched and hyper-skeptical. If anything, the revolution in medicine that Aubrey de Grey’s and others’ visions of life extension represent makes science feel exciting again, giving students a taste of what it might have felt like to be a budding scientist during the Space Race.
Infiltrate other groups. Find related groups, such as humanists, transhumanists, or rationalists, and start attending their meetings. There are very good arguments for separating life extension advocacy from all the “-isms” it has historically been attached to, but that said, groups devoted to these ideologies are still good places to meet people who are more likely than the average person on the street to get excited about life extension. The cross-pollination can work both ways, exposing your existing members to a forum where they can discuss things they may be interested to talk about, but that is outside the scope of your life extension group.
If you are under 30, and interested in cryonics, I would highly recommend getting funding arrangements in place, for all the usual reasons of course, but also to attend the Teens and Twenties cryonics gathering in Florida. Having attended in 2010, I can say with certainty that you are unlikely to meet a more interesting group of young persons. The gathering draws young scientists and researchers, philosophers, actors, musicians, and cryonics professionals, and there are scholarships available for cryonicists under 30 to pay full or partial costs of travel and attendance, generously provided by the Life Extension Foundation.
Find something to rally around. One of the most challenging aspects of life extension activism is that it is such a broad concept in the first place (even before considering the differences of opinion as to what exactly counts as life extension within the community itself!). Here in B.C., our need to better clarify what exactly the notorious anti-cryonics law means for cryonicists in the province, and our desire for the government to justify its existence have, since the inception of our local community, served as rallying points around which the other parts have coalesced. But a good rallying point doesn’t have to be reaction against government intervention. Perhaps there is someone in your area in a situation like Kim Suozzi, or Aaron Winborn, who is interested in cryonics, but due to circumstances (likely immediate need) cannot afford it. Whatever your objective, if you can convince the larger community of its value, you may find that they have a sufficient stake in what you are doing to provide much-needed financial support.
Get Help! At some point, it will simply not be possible for you to do everything yourself. If you are in school, or working, you will need help keeping meetings and events happening, and growing. Start developing these kinds of relationships early on, so you never get to the point of burning out—or even if you do, there are others able to take the reins for a while. And then, once you’re ready, incorporate! Not only is this a sign that you have officially ‘arrived’ as an organization, but it’s also a good idea if your activities are starting to get more attendance, and especially if they’re getting more… adventurous (from a liability perspective). It’s also difficult to attract significant funding without a corporate identity and bank account. Take advantage of free or low-cost local resources available to fledgling nonprofits. The local university chapter of Pro Bono Students of Canada was immensely helpful to Lifespan early on, connecting us with lawyer supervision for drafting our incorporating documents, as well as doing some legal research for us on the B.C. anticryonics law.
Conclusion. In writing this, I came to realize how many of the suggestions I have could be lumped under the heading of “networking.” I don’t consider myself to be a very effective networker—and if someone asked me for my feelings on networking in the abstract, I would probably tell them I positively abhor it… and that is usually the truth! But in life extension I found a topic that captivated me so completely that I did quite a lot of networking over a relatively short period of time without really realizing it. So I guess it all goes back to the top item in the list: indulge your obsession (within reason). Fuel your passion, and the rest will come naturally.
First published as a regular column called In Perpetuity in Cryonics Magazine, September 2013.