Thursday, June 12, 2008

We live in a world running out of food, out of fuel, and out of room.
Yet the tone of a June 11 Associated Press report that life expectancy in the United States has passed 78, ``as top diseases decline,'' demonstrates an eerie detachment from the consequences of scarcity.
The AP marched out complaints that the United States wasn't doing as well as other countries. Expectancy in Japan, Switzerland and Australia is even higher, the report noted.
Samuel Preston, ``co-chairman of a National Research Council panel looking at why America's life expectancy is lower than other nations,' '' is quoted as saying, "The international comparisons are not that appealing, but we may be in the process of catching up."
The implicit end message is: The older and greater number of people to consume food, deplete soil, burn fossil fuels and project greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the better.
I have no problem with people living longer. We have a moral obligation to care for people, and sustain them toward the end of their lives, if that's what they desire.
Still, public policy has to bring in an emphasis on population control. We are really good at extending endings, as we should be. We don't have the first idea of how much better we must be at limiting the number of beginnings.
So the AP story was not entirely good news. It was news about the continued clotting of highways and the continued deterioration and inflated pricing of housing. Of course, declining populations will mean fewer workers to pay into Social Security and Medicare, which will eventually go insolvent. But we'll still need these programs. Funding the programs will require reduction in military spending, which will mean figuring out ways to solve problems without resolving to war. Wars tend to be conflicts over scarce resources; we must stop needing so many fossil fuels. We must start developing alternative energy technologies, in such a way that they are readily cheaply available, and beginning a massive program of construction of public transportation. It must be done immediately with a New Deal-type scale and articulated sense of emergency. There is no getting around this.
Life expectancy, according to the report, is defined as ``the period a child born in 2006 is expected to live, assuming mortality trends stay constant.''
``Mortality trends,'' one way or another, won't stay constant over the next 78 years anyway, making life expectancy really nothing more than a silly notion to be toyed with. I am deathly afraid that mortality trends will be affected for the worse by the worsening environment. My nephew was born in 2006, and of course I hope he lives a good long time.

Samuel H. Preston
None of this is to be disrespectful to Dr. Preston. He is hardly interested in filling the world with people and warfare and misery.
The Frederick J. Warren professor of demography at the University of Pennsylvania, Preston has studied the effects of economic growth on health, and the effects of the Iraq War on veterans.

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