"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Life Expectancy in Our Apocalyptic Age


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A Niagara of books have poured off the presses in recent years extolling the ever expanding opportunities available to the elderly and retirees. “80 is the new 60”, we are told. “Start a new business.” “Follow your dreams.” The AARP magazine carries pictures of aging movie stars, in their 60’s, 70’s, and sometimes 80’s, facelifts intact, smiling with perfect teeth, extolling the virtues and pleasures of aging.

Dianne Keaton at 70

There is some truth to this. Americans are retiring with greater health, wealth, and opportunities than ever before. Rarely acknowledged, however, is the black-hooded figure, circulating through this party, striking down revelers, sometimes mid-sentence, to the horrifying glances of other revelers. No one is exempt, and the most susceptible are those who cannot afford the books and magazines trumpeting geriatric wellbeing. Since the onset of the pandemic, however, much of the chatter about the joys of aging has subsided and the disparities and injustices in health, wealth, and happiness are now glaringly apparent.

Statistical Life Expectancy

We do, nonetheless, live in extraordinary times. The statistical definition of life expectancy is the average, across all births, of how long a person may expect to live at birth. Life expectancy, for most of human history, has remained remarkably constant. Based on the best estimates from the historical record, life expectancy, across all civilizations, from ancient Greece and Rome, to the Inca and Teotihuacan empires, to Renaissance Italy and medieval Japan—indeed, up  to the mid 19th century, was around 30 years.1 These data lead to the obvious conclusion that 30 years is the biological limit of life expectancy for the human species. Every species has its lifecycle and this is ours.

Dramatic changes, however, occurred in the last 150 to 200 years. In 1850, life expectancy was 38 years; in 1900, 48 years; in 1950, 66 years; in 2000, 77 years.

This change in life expectancy for the world shows an even more startling increase. Prior to 1900, life expectancy was 30 years. By 2013, it had risen to 72 years. The global average today is higher than it was in any country in 1950. Life expectancy for the entire human population has doubled in 200 years! This is an astonishing improvement in human life.2

Why? Science. A radically new way to understand the material world, based on doubt, systematic methods of experimentation, and material explanations that can be objectively verified, was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. When this method began to be applied to medical conditions in the 19th century, astonishing discoveries and advances occurred. We now have the power to intervene in the course of nature, able to change our biological destiny.

The full benefits of this power are not equally distributed in the United States. Communities of color who have been targets of systemic racism and injustice, and those living in poverty have significantly lower life expectancies. We must ask ourselves, “Why?”

Semantic Life Expectancy

Life expectancy also has a semantic meaning: What do we expect from life? What do we anticipate for our future? What possibilities are open to us? Semantic life expectancy also has remained relatively constant throughout most of human history. The answer to the question, “What do you expect from life?”, was simple: Our fate is the same as our parents; and their fate was the same as their parents. Our birth determined our destiny, and little changed from generation to generation. And this fate was likely grim. 95% of the population were laborers, surfs, peasants and poor. Life was toil, suffering, degradation, and hardship. The most important semantic life expectancy in a nasty, brutish, and short life, was the question of afterlife expectancy; what fate awaits beyond this mortal coil of suffering.

Now, in our current times, the semantic question, “What do we expect from life?”, extends beyond the confined straightjacket of our birth, embracing possibilities unimaginable to our ancestors. Our youth is shadowed by the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, we experience “identity crises”, and spend the first 18 years of our life, and oftentimes much more, going to school; many of us spend almost the entire life expectancy of earlier times preparing for life.

We enjoy a surfeit of food, which is delivered to “super” markets in fleets of tractor trailers, miles of railroad cars, and a flotilla of ocean tankers from distant places, offering a cornucopia of choices. We travel at breakneck speeds across town, across the country, and across oceans. In our heated and air conditioned homes, we turn facets to shower and to drink purified water. Music, information, and entertainment to amuse and inform us are at our fingertips, 24/7. We enjoy comforts that would have made even royalty of bygone eras jealous. And after 30 or so years of work, many of us retire to enjoy 20 or more years of labor free life, embrace, “80 is the new 60”, and ponder: “What do I want to do with my life?”

This dreamscape is not evenly distributed. The semantic life expectancy of those outside the circumference of health, wealth, and opportunity is much grimmer and bleaker. The happy talk about the “Golden Years”, and the wrinkle-free faces and cheerleading smiles of aging celebrities are marketed to a select group; the fate of the impoverished and communities of color who have been targets of racism are airbrushed out of the picture. Again, we must ask ourselves, “Why such disparities?”

The answer to this troubling question about semantic life expectancy is, not surprisingly, the same as for statistical life expectancy: both result from the lack of good health care, nutrition, housing, education, opportunity, and employment.

The 19th century not only ushered in a dramatic rise in statistical life expectancy, but another startling growth: the size of the population.

This growth begins around 1850. We would expect that a population growth like this would usher in mass starvation and universal misery. It has not.

The exponential increase in life expectancy and in population trace almost identical paths. These have been accompanied by a host of other exponential growths, referred to in scientific circles as the “Great Acceleration”.3

Earth Systems Trends 1750-20104

This graph captures the costs on the earth’s biosystems of our long life of luxury, and includes atmospheric composition, stratospheric ozone, the climate system, water and nitrogen cycles, marine ecosystems, land systems, tropical forests, and terrestrial biosphere degradation. You can see the initial jump out of the steady state beginning in 1850, about the same time as the jump in statistical life expectancy, and biosphere destruction picks up steam into the 20th century

Great inequities lie behind these trends as well. Currently, 18% of world’s population controls 75% of world’s wealth, and consumes much of the world’s resources. The biggest consumer of the world’s resources is us in the United States.

Socioeconomic Trends 1750-20105

This second graph traces trends in the socioeconomic factors contributing to our affluent life and includes economic growth, primary energy use, fertilizer use, large dams, water use, paper production, transportation, telecommunications, and international tourism. These make our remarkable lives possible.

The great acceleration of socioeconomic changes, as we can see in this graph, is much steeper than the prior one. It took a century of environmental exploitation to build the infrastructure that enabled the abrupt, explosive growth in socioeconomic benefits. The appearance of science and modern medicine, the dramatic rise in statistical life expectancy, the rapid industrialization, steep acceleration of socioeconomic factors, and transformation of semantic life expectancy are all interconnected, all of a single piece of a profound, historically unprecedented alteration in human life.

This all came together around 1950, as this second graph indicates. After WWII, the United States emerged as the only combatant nation untouched by bombs or invasion, the economy humming at war time production, and possessing a GDP that was equal to the entire rest of the devastated world. Rarely, if ever, in human history has so much of the worlds wealth resided in one country.

We have been living in this historically anomalous time, in this historically anomalous place, where many of us have enjoyed the bountiful life expectancies of our unique and narrow place-time envelop that could not even have be dreamed of by most humans who have ever walked this planet.

And it is ending. The entire edifice that undergirds our privileged life is unsustainable. The bill has come due on the costs: the biosphere is being degraded beyond repair, species are being exterminated at a rate unseen for 65 million years, essential resources are being depleted, and our planet is irrevocably changed. We are in the midst of rapid and profound changes to the entire biosphere that no previous single generation in human history has experienced.

There will not be a return to “normal”, as normal was decidedly not normal.

The pandemic is simply a baby-step dress rehearsal for the cataclysmic changes rushing toward us. The pandemic provides a preview of how capable we are to effectively respond to a known, impending catastrophe. We, in the United States, have failed. Miserably. We can’t even get cooperation on the simple inconvenience of wearing a mask. This response is a sign of a deeper unraveling of American society.

Furthermore, the life expectancies for our children and grandchildren are being dramatically altered. So too, for those of us who have come of age in the midst of 9/11, the 2008 financial meltdown, in the shadow of global warming, and, now, the pandemic.

Ethical Life Expectancy                        

Embedded in the statistical and semantic meanings of life expectancy is a third meaning: Ethical.

We now have the power to intervene in course of nature, able to change not only our biological destiny, but of that of the entire planet. It is a fearsome power with equally fearsome responsibilities. We live in an apocalyptic age. There are 2 meanings for this term. The one we are most familiar with is “the impending destruction of the world”. The second is the original Greek meaning: “A revealing of things not previously known”. This meaning beckons a response, poses a challenge to confront a new reality, to forge new paths, to plant seeds for new possibilities from the ashes of the of what has been lost.

Both definitions apply. We face the impending destruction of the world. We also are beckoned—courage, vision, and an unprecedented marshaling of the talents, energy, and collaboration of the entire human community are urgently needed.

Each of us must choose. We are at a high leverage point in time where actions now will have huge consequences for the future—even if there will be a future for our children and their children. The onrushing catastrophe of biosphere destruction, the appalling disparities and injustices between the wealthily privileged few and the impoverished many, and the societal unraveling, pose a most dire moral challenge:

What are we going to do about it?”        

More pointedly: “What am I going to do about it?  

And, “What are you going to do about it?”6

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  1. One big reason for it being so low is the dangers of childbirth. Prior to the 19th century, it is estimated that ½ of babies died in childbirth or shortly after. It was also dangerous for mothers, as 1-2% died giving birth, and the more children women had, the higher their chances of dying. If you made it out of childhood, you then faced the deadly gauntlet of illness, disease, injury, infection, war, violence, and starvation. Life was, indeed, “nasty, brutish and short.”
  2. See https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy for a graphic, time lapse depiction of the world’s changing life expectancies.
  3. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-2nqd6-ZXg for a brilliant lecture by Dr. Brian Enquist on the Great Acceleration.
  4. By Bryanmackinnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
  5. By Bryanmackinnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
  6. This post is the text from a Platform address given to the Ethical Society of St. Louis on August 23, 2000 https://ethicalstl.org/.

2 Comments

  1. Linda Biegen

    Unsettling essay and times we live in, Brian. We are “privileging” ourselves out of existence. The outcry to reset the course may go unheeded by those privileged and powerful to make the moral choice. The shocking bit is to many this outcome for earth was not unforeseen, but how on our doorstep it now is.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      You are so right, Linda. Thank you.

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