Economists! Look to the inward giant!

Epigenetics is going to be the next economic growth sector. This is what any young ambitious economist ought to be building into his picture of the years ahead if he really wants to make his or her mark.

There can be little doubt about the enormous importance of epigenetics. The main reason for saying this is that epigenetics is already showing promise as being the key to the health of the bulk of the population. By “bulk”, I mean people between the ages of around 30 (that is, mature adulthood) and around 70 or 80 or even 90 in some cases (that is, old age before inevitable senility sets in). I speak of the mid-life diseases such as diabetes or heart problems or cancers among many, many others. These are the ones which are the most difficult, and the most expensive, to treat β€” or, with very few minor successes, have been attempted to be treated so far.

We are afflicted so abundantly with mid-life diseases for one simple reason. Our genes have never been selected for long enough in the past to give us natural immunity to diseases which occur in this age bracket. For by far the most of our existence in our scavenging and hunting days on the open savannah (200,000 years at least), very few humans ever lived beyond 30 years of age. Predation, accidents, warfare and epidemics saw to that. During our civilized existence (10,000 years at most), a few started living beyond 30 years of age. To all intents and purposes, mid-life diseases didn’t exist. There was no need for the natural environment to select appropriate genes for immunity.

In the West, health care is already the fastest growing political pressure on governments. Along with jobs and education, it is high priority in all political manifestoes which seek to bribe the electorate to vote for this party or that. The same political pressure is falling on governments in both the most avowedly “free enterprise” countries such as America, and the most socialist, such as the Nordic countries. But, together with other pressure groups of a more internal nature, such as defence departments, governments bureaucracies and privileged corporations, governmental backs are already bedning and straining. Every single Western government, elected by popular vote, is now technically bankrupt if future welfare benefits for the old and the poor are fully costed.

Even considering present attempts to cope with mid-life diabetes alone, several eminent medical spokespeople on both sides of the Atlantic are saying that, before too long, governmental health schemes cannot be supported out of taxation. It’s no use blaming obesity or poor state education (in failing to teach healthy eating), because both of these are proving to be as intractable and complex as the disease itself. When we think of all the other mid-life diseases β€” and many other complex surgical procedures that the electorate expect to be provided with β€” then, for many decades yet, the writing is on the wall for the generally peaceful politics as we have known it for the past century or so.

Mid-life diseases are not yet a problem for the Chinese government. The top priority of the mass of their people are consumer goods. More than anything else, they want what they think is the generally “good life” of the West as they see it on the television. So long as the nine-person Politburo can keep on supplying the consumer goodies then they won’t have our sort of health dilemma for a decade or two yet.

The science of biology and plain vanilla genetics has been dynamited in the last few years by the discovery of epigenetics. We now know that our standard human genes are not only given an almost infinite number of possible variations (making each one of us unique at birth), but that the variations themselves are capable of an almost infinite number of further tweakings and permutations (causing each one of us to become even more different according to the daily environments in which we live). They’re also heritable. It is these epigenetic tweakings which cause mid-life diseases.

I really need to say no more. Cures for mid-life diseases are already proving to be extraordinarily complex. Mid-life diseases are going to take decades and centuries before, one by one, they’re going to be treatable. And the getting-there is going to be expensive.

The subsidiary reason for the growth of epigenetics is that there will be no further economic growth in the West based on brand new consumer goods as incentives. We’ll continue to have a plethora of embellishments and marginal improvements, such as all-dancing, all-singing mobile phones or kitchen/bathroom make-overs (and an infinite recycling of clothes fashions!) but there’s nothing iconic on any consumer’s shopping list. In any case, in our increasingly locked-in urbanized way of life we don’t have the time, space or energy for any more uniquely-new consumer goods even if they existed in a corporate R&D lab. (If a lone inventor is tooling over a wonderful idea in his garage, you can be sure that corporate and venture fund talent scouts are aware of them.) Scores of major corporations have large accumulations of profits they don’t know how to invest.

In short, even if politicians dare not say so (and most career economists if it comes to that), we have reached the end of the sort of economic growth which has been consumer product led for the last 300 years. The present recession in the West will rove to be merely an introduction to a new era. Any new economic growth is going to depend on new producer goods and new consumer services such as health and education. Of the latter, we can already see that epigenetics, both in research and application is going to be a giant, far larger than anything so far spent on cars, television or mobile phones.

Keith Hudson

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