Saturday, November 16, 2013

Getting Old Beats the Alternative

Alex Zhavoronkov, The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy

I’ve received some criticism for this week’s review of Alex Zhavoronkov’s The Ageless Generation, from others who’ve read the book. Some criticism has been public, some private. Most of it, however, purports that I’ve misrepresented Zhavoronkov’s science, particularly his rebuttal of claims that human overpopulation has catastrophic environmental consequences. I usually don’t answer such criticisms, but this topic matters enough, I’ll make an exception.

Zhavoronkov attempts to forestall environmentalist arguments at around the one-quarter mark by citing Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and Fairfield Osborne’s Our Plundered Planet, famous tracts written before most living readers were born, purporting humanity’s imminent demise due to overpopulation. Ehrlich in particular remains a popular kicking boy for technological cheerleaders, because his dire scaremongering failed to materialize. Naysayers face only one setback: Ehrlich’s apocalyptic prophecy didn’t fail.

Okay, we don’t live on a planet desertified by overpopulation, although human population has doubled since Ehrlich’s book debuted in 1968. The Pope hasn’t certified birth control, our seas aren’t dead, and massive die-backs haven’t commenced. Ehrlich’s alarmism proved founded on poorly sublimated racism and sketchy understanding of human demography. This makes Ehrlich, and his fellow neo-Malthusians, look like screaming Chicken Littles at best.

But many of Ehrlich’s forecasts have transpired, though in less horrifying terms. In India, ancient forests have been clear-cut for firewood. China, for the first time in history, became a net food importer in 2008. Famine has been averted by broadening democracy and improved agricultural technology, but that technology relies on petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides, and oil-burning heavy equipment. And petroleum is not infinite.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 seethes with articles about damage humans have inflicted on nature. Not potential damages projected by mathematical models or computer simulations, but real damage that has already happened, and continues right now. Species extinction, habitat blight, resource depletion, and environmental degradation which will take millennia to repair: it’s all happening now. And we’re causing it, you and I.

It doesn’t have to happen this way. Amending how we utilize resources, including human labor, could not only change the consequences we inflict upon our environment, it could improve human quality of life. According to the UN World Health Organization, ensuring girls have adequate education between ages 10 and 14 leads to smaller family sizes, reduced resource consumption, and greater prosperity. This is a matter of will, not technology.

I reiterate, Zhavoronkov’s prognostications on increased human life expectancy are both solid and exciting. I look forward eagerly to seeing what possibilities arise when humans reliably exceed the century mark. But such changes will have ripples outside standard economics. Zhavoronkov never says anything outright wrong in his entire book. But he suffers from excessively narrow focus, excluding important questions that exceed his domain.

Even within his domain, Zhavoronkov’s reasoning reveals limitations. An NBC report this week reveals that chronic disease, not old age, has driven up American medical costs, the exact opposite of Zhavaronkov’s claim. This sounds like an argument for universal health care, not redefining old age. Considering that children as young as ten now receive treatment for what we once called Adult-Onset Diabetes, public health at all ages should receive greater priority.

And while Zhavoronkov’s right that we must revamp our public pension system, what happened to private pensions? In 1975, half of all workers had some form of employer-funded old-age pension; today, that number stands at about one-sixth, mostly public sector workers. Private workers mainly have employee-funded 401(k) accounts. After the Enron collapse of 2001 and housing bubble collapse in 2008 hollowed out many 401(k) accounts, that’s hardly an adequate exchange.

I wanted to avoid this, but I’ll continue. Extending workers’ productive lives past eighty sounds fun for lab researchers, professors, entrepreneurs, or lawmakers. But in two years at the factory, I’ve visibly aged. My beard has gone patchy grey, I have crows’ feet, and I’ve become bald. My voice has grown hoarse, I have tendonitis in my right wrist and arch, and after an eight-hour shift, I limp. Some kinds of work age you terribly. The idea of doing this work as a great-grandfather is horrifying.

Alex Zhavoronkov presents a prospect for revitalizing American and international society, by keeping people productive longer. This sounds great. But such changes have consequences beyond themselves. We cannot change something so fundamental as productive lifespan, and expect the future to essentially resemble the past. I’d rather plan for the most likely consequences now, than get blindsided after it’s too late to change our minds.

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