Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Roll Over, Richard Linklater — We're Still Dazed & Confused (About Climate Change) Today

Climate change may be too complex to fathom. Uncertainty is the name of the game. However, this blog refudiates climate change denialism. If this is a (fair & balanced) defense of the scientific method, so be it.

[x HNN]
Don't Blame Climate Change Deniers
By Ira Chernus

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The old joke, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it," is no laughing matter any more. It's dead serious. Yet the United States seems politically paralyzed on this most vital issue.

It's easy to blame the climate change deniers. But it's wrong. In Gallup's most recent poll only 18% of us denied climate change. In a CBS poll, only 11% were outright deniers.

The vast majority of Americans are well aware that there's a real problem. More than four out of five agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening now or surely will happen soon. And a solid majority believe that what they read in the news about climate change is either accurate or underestimates the problem.

Nevertheless, Americans put the climate almost dead last on the list of problems facing the nation.

30% of Americans believe climate change is here or on the way but simply do not worry about it. Virtually the same percentage believe it's already happening or will in their lifetimes but doesn't pose any serious threat to them.

Another public opinion study [PDF], by scholars at Yale and George Mason (Y/GM), found Americans falling into rather clear-cut categories. The "Cautious" and "Disengaged" — neither true believers nor deniers — add up to exactly 30%. A sizeable majority of them believe climate change poses a high risk to future generations. Yet virtually none of them "have thought a lot" about climate change.

The biggest political stumbling block is not the deniers. It's all those ignorers. How can so many ignore what they know is coming?

The Y/GM study found one crucial reason: uncertainty about the facts. Though most of the ignorers see a danger looming, few are really sure that it's happening now. Only about a third of them think that scientists agree on the facts. About four out of five say they "need more information to form an opinion." Nearly all say they could "easily" change their minds.

Don't be too quick to blame the 30% though. Even those the Y/GM study calls the "High Involvement Public" show surprising levels of uncertainty and apathy. About two-thirds of the "Concerned" say they're sure climate change is happening now. Yet four out of five say they need more information to make up their minds and 70% could "easily" change their minds. And only a tiny 13% have thought about it "a lot."

Among the thin sliver of the public (16%) who are "Alarmed" — who all know climate change is happening and poses a danger to future generations — roughly half say they need more information, and nearly a quarter are open to changing their minds. More than one-third have not thought "a lot" about the issue, and only about a third have expressed their concern to any public officials.

Which means (I'm embarrassed to admit) that I'm a pretty typical American. For years I've written thousands of words on a wide range of subjects. Yet I've rarely addressed climate change, even though I've known that it's happening and poses unthinkable danger.

When I look in the mirror and try to figure out why I've avoided the issue, what I see staring back at me is that word unthinkable. When I write I try to be sure I know what I'm talking about. When it comes to climate change, the science seems so complex, so daunting, so far over my head that I hesitate to say or even think anything. I can never feel certain.

And I know that even the best scientists have to deal with uncertainty. They understand, as Elizabeth Kolbert recently noted in the New Yorker, that "while it is possible that the problem could turn out to be less serious than the consensus forecast, it is equally likely to turn out to be more serious."

That's why one of my friends, who is on the UN's Nobel-Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, taught me long ago to call the problem "climate chaos." She and her colleagues are sure that climate change is happening. But they also know that the dangers to human life come from the unpredictable, erratic, and often massive weather events that it causes (like the storm that dropped some 20 inches of rain in just a few days on her neighborhood, triggering unprecedented flooding).

Moreover, my friend tells me, climate scientists have been talking about all kinds of uncertainties for years. Recently she organized a conference on "Uncertainty in Climate Change Research: An Integrated Approach," because "uncertainty is present in all phases of climate change research."

Even climate change philosophers deal with uncertainties that make our national conversation on the issue chaotic. Dale Jamieson points out that we can't be sure who to blame: "A lot of our thinking about policy tends to be oriented around a sort of good guy-bad guy polarization. Climate change is an issue that doesn’t fit very neatly into that stereotype. ... We’re all involved in contributing to the problem to some extent and we’re all involved in suffering from the problem to some extent."

The noisy climate change deniers bear some of the responsibility, of course, but surely not all. The fossil fuel corporations are a big part of the problem, too. Yet, as Paul Krugman recently wrote, "it’s not mainly about the vested interests. ... The monetary stakes aren’t nearly as big as you might think."

Then there are the huge greenhouse gas emissions from poorer countries, especially China and India. Can we really say they are part of "the enemy" on this issue, when we Americans emit so much more per capita? Millions of us in the U.S. drive our cars, and use more energy than we need, every day. We have met the enemy and they is us.

The evildoers in this tale are such a vast, diverse, vaguely-defined mass of people they're virtually invisible.

If we think of carbon dioxide as the enemy, it's also invisible: "tasteless, odorless — it doesn’t present to our visual systems," as Jamieson says. David Ropeik, an expert on risk perception, agrees. The public doesn't worry because the threat "doesn’t feel immediate/imminent. It doesn’t feel…well…real. It’s more of an idea, a concept, an abstraction."

And we can't even be sure how big a problem carbon dioxide is. Methane may be the major culprit here.

Moreover, the effects of climate change are creeping up on us so slowly that they, too, are largely invisible. If this is an apocalypse, it's an agonizingly gradual one, the kind we just don't know how to think about or even believe in, much less deal with.

All in all, when I try to grasp the chaotic truth about climate change, I think I've got good reason to feel unsure and confused.

So I ask myself: Is there anything I know pretty much for sure? I know that in politics "a narrative is the key to everything," as Democrat polling guru Stanley Greenberg once wrote. The Yale/George Mason scholars agree that if there's any chance of motivating the ignorers to get involved, new narratives are a key:

"Narratives foster involvement with a story and characters, and prior issue involvement is unnecessary for drawing the audience's attention. Memory of narrative content tends to be high ... and studies find that the persuasive effects of fiction can be as high as for non-fiction."

I know that the best politicians of every stripe — from FDR to Reagan, from Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz — are always great storytellers. Of course they aren't novelists. Though they may lie when it's useful, the stories they rely on most to get themselves elected and their policies enacted have to include some dose of real facts. Yet those facts have to be embedded in a simple, emotionally powerful narrative rooted in familiar cultural traditions.

The best politicians understand that shared stories are the glue that hold communities together. People cling to comfortable narratives because they want to cling to the other people in their comfortable group. Research now shows that even among the small minority who actually deny climate change, many probably know the scientific facts. They deny them mainly to reinforce their status as "true conservatives" — the group bond that gives them a sense of identity.

Here's another thing I know pretty much for sure: The dominant narrative of climate change activists isn't working well enough. " We are absolutely certain," that narrative insists. "Virtually all scientists agree. Unless we act urgently we are doomed." What could be simpler or more emotionally gripping?

Nevertheless, this story has not in made much headway in the American political arena. The group Gallup calls "Concerned Believers" has held steady at only 39% for the last 14 years. And, as we've seen, not many of them are moved to consistent action or even apprehension. Hence the lack of political action.

Maybe that's because most of them, like the "Cautious" and "Disengaged," aren't impelled by a narrative that relies on a claim of absolute certainty. As long as climate change activists don't have any other kind of story to offer, they aren't likely to win any big political victories.

That doesn't mean the activists should throw out their prevailing narrative. Because here's another thing I know for sure: Every good political campaign needs niche marketing. There's still a sizeable minority of the U.S. population that believes the claims of scientific certainty, and they should hold on to their story.

The people I worry about are in all those other niches, the ones who will respond only to stories that begin with "No one knows for sure, but ..."

Then I ask myself, "Why worry?" I study and write about political narratives all the time. It should be fun to find some that allow for uncertainty. And it should be easy. In fact there's lots to choose from already.

A Republican stalwart, Henry Paulson, says flatly: "It is true that there is uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of these risks ... We’ll never know enough to resolve all of the uncertainties. " But "we must not lose sight of the profound economic risks of doing nothing." Good businessmen don't wait for certainty. They calculate the odds and then take action.

That story about benefits to the marketplace from an all-out attack on climate change is growing. And it's bipartisan. Tom Steyer, perhaps the nation's wealthiest climate change activist, funds Democratic candidates and NextGen Climate, whose slogan is: "Act politically to avert climate disaster and preserve American prosperity."

EPA head Gina McCarthy took a similar tack when she announced the Obama administration's proposals for limiting coal plant emissions: "The plan will create demand for designing and building energy-efficient technology ... It spurs ingenuity and innovation. ... All this means more jobs” — regardless of how big the threat really is.

However it's a gamble whether such a naked bid to economic self-interest will have a big impact, when so many Americans often vote against their own best economic interests.

A recent experiment tested a more idealistic message. Conservatives, in particular, proved more favorable to safeguarding the environment when they were told that "it is patriotic." Most moderates and even many liberals may respond to that kind of call too.

The Pentagon has long been touting its version of that story. Its latest Quadrennial Defense Review "identified climate change as one of our most significant national security problems"; at least that's the way the commander-in-chief read the report. Obama agreed with the Joint Chiefs that "climate change could end up having profound national security implications."

Look at it this way, and suddenly uncertainty is even less of a problem. Whenever American public opinion has believed that a potential risk to our nation and our way of life loomed the horizon, no matter how small, we've never waited for absolute certainty. We acted first and got all the facts later.

Sometimes we've prepared for war — and even gone to war — no matter how slim the odds of real threat, because when it comes to protecting our homeland we take no chances — as today's events in Syria and Iraq make painfully clear.

Risk analyst Ropeik is pessimistic. He thinks the patriotic vein won't be tapped deep enough to yield political results unless we "feel we were at war — bullets-flying ... NOW 'I am in Danger' war." He might be right; the "Climate Patriots" meme has been around for several years without garnering very much attention (perhaps because it's been yoked to a meme of absolute scientific certainty).

But political narratives are germinating, unnoticed, all the time. Occasionally, unpredictably, one bursts into powerful prominence. People were talking about abolishing slavery, for example, for more than a century before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Christopher Hayes, for one, thinks we need a new abolitionism, though he knows it will be a tough fight.

Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the nation (in his first inaugural address) to "wage a war" against the Great Depression as if "we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe," Americans have united to resist all sorts of non-military dangers — poverty, drugs, cancer, and even fat — as long as the campaign was dubbed a "war."

They've also learned to pay big bucks for research and development in wartime that led to all sorts of unexpected and profitable technological breakthroughs. So the economic benefit, patriotism, national security, abolition, and war stories might all fit together in a tale I suggested recently: a gradual apocalyptic transformation from the possibility of catastrophic risk to the possibility of a far better world.

On the other hand, maybe the best to hope for is an endless a war of containment, like the cold war. For decades most Americans assumed that the apocalyptic communist threat could never be vanquished; we'd be staving it off forever. National security was reduced to risk management in a world of permanent uncertainty.

Now the U.S. government is funding an international project treating climate change precisely as an exercise in risk management. These scientists call it "a problem imbued with deep uncertainty." Their first, still unanswered question is "How large are the uncertainties?"

All these narratives — and surely there can be lots more — can start with the words, "No one knows for sure. But why take chances?" Any one of them might, or might not, be a political game-changer.

In any event, looking over all the climate change narratives, there's one last thing I know for sure: The dominant story of the American mass media, "doom-sayers versus deniers," is far too narrow to reflect the true complexity of the political landscape.

So I say let a thousand narratives bloom. Or at least plant a thousand seeds, and see which ones bloom into political successes. No one can be certain about the future.

All we can do is keep nurturing all those stories and embrace the uncertainty. Because the political landscape of climate change, like the climate itself, is bound to be chaotic at least for a while. Right now, it seems to me, the more chaotic the better. Ω

[Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and — most recently — author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity (2008). Chernus received a BA from Rutgers University (Philosophy) and also an MA (Religion) and a PhD (Religion) from Temple University.]

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Today's Delicious Thought: Charles & David Koch In Gitmo Solitary Confinement

Has ISIS become the 21st century equivalent of Communists in the Great ISIS Scare? The Dumbos (before there were Morons) saw Communists behind every tree, under every bed, and hiding in every closet.The hot new TV show will be "I Was An ISIS jihadist for the FBI." All it took were a few videos of beheadings to make ISIS an existential threat. However, the best of today's 'toon came in the next-to-last panel with the idea that Charles and David — the Koch brothers and sons of Red-baiting Fred Koch — would end up in orange jumpsuits in Gitmo as fellow-travelers with ISIS climate terrorists. If only.... If this is is (fair & balanced) yearning, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
Climate Of Terror
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly. Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002. When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001. More recently, Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning.]

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

"X" Marks The Spot: The Dumbos/Morons Have Pin-Sized Brains!

Career diplomat George F. Kennan wrote "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (1947) and the essay appeared under the pseudonym "X." Long before Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park (1990), "X" or George F. Kennan imagined a dinosaur species — Americanasaurus; a large and lumbering creature with a brain the size of a pin. This description fits the large number of Dumbos/Morons in our midst today. If this is a (fair & balanced) description of the Red State inhabitants and their wannabes, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
ISIS And George Kennan's "Americanasaurus"
By John Cassidy

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In an interesting Syria post at Foreign Policy‘s Web site, Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator, quotes George Kennan, the progenitor of the policy of containment, on the tendency of democracies to ignore external threats until, eventually, they overreact. Having just raised the possibility that the Obama Administration’s decision to expand the war on ISIS may have been partly driven by public opinion, I think it’s worth reproducing Kennan’s quote in full:

But I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath—in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.

In addition to being a foreign-policy realist, Kennan was an unapologetic √©litist. These days, few commentators would use the sort of language he did. But, now that we have seen how the United States and other Western polities have dealt with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham over the past couple of years, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the Princeton patrician may have been on to something.

As the jihadi army rampaged its way through northeastern Syria and then moved over the border, into Fallujah and other towns and cities in western Iraq, most Americans (and most Britons and most French people) resolutely ignored it. Even when ISIS took Mosul, Iraq’s second city, obsessing about its black-clad cutthroats remained a minority pursuit.

Now, of course, the dinosaur is on its feet and taking offensive action. In my previous post, I cited some opinion-poll data; here is some more. According to Gallup, sixty per cent of Americans support the U.S. bombing raids in Syria and Iraq, and thirty-one per cent disapprove. That approval figure is a bit lower than what other surveys have found—an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that seventy-one per cent approved. Still, Gallup found that backing for Obama’s strategy extends across party lines. The level of support among both Democrats and Republicans is virtually identical: sixty-four per cent versus sixty-five per cent. (Independents, interestingly enough, appear to have more doubts: just fifty-five per cent of them approve.)

At this early stage, the U.S.-led war against ISIS is confined to air attacks. Although General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that he might, at some point, ask the President for permission to send in ground troops, most analysts don’t foresee an American invasion. Miller, while registering some well-founded concerns about the assumptions and beliefs surrounding the military campaign, says: “We’re clearly not yet on the verge of plunging into another pointless Americanasaurus charge much like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”

It is to be hoped that Miller is right. But if you think that public opinion would rule out another ground war, you may be indulging in wishful thinking. Gallup’s survey staff asked this question: “Would you favor or oppose the United States sending ground troops to Iraq and Syria in order to assist groups in those countries that are fighting the Islamic militants?” Fifty-four per cent of respondents said that they were opposed: that’s a majority. But forty per cent said that they were in favor—a figure that, among Republicans, jumped to sixty-one per cent.

These figures hardly suggest that the American public is implacably opposed to fighting another ground war. If anything, they point to the fluidity of public opinion, and to the impact that individual events, such as the release of videos showing Westerners being beheaded, can have on sentiment. As the air war goes on and the ISIS fighters get more desperate, it’s reasonable to assume that more of these horrid images will emerge, and that Western governments will use them to rally the public. Public support for military escalation may well increase.

In an article accompanying the release of Gallup’s survey, Jeffrey M. Jones and Frank Newport pointed out that this sort of thing often happens: “Support commonly increases from the time military action is first discussed as an option until it is taken. For example, 23% of Americans favored U.S. military action to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait in August 1990. By January 1991, just before the U.S. began the Persian Gulf War, 55% were in favor. Immediately after the U.S. began the war, 79% approved of it.”

Ultimately, we know, the public tends to tire of foreign wars, especially if they drag on. In a fascinating post drawing on Gallup’s archives, Peyton M. Craighill, of the Washington Post‘s "Storyline" blog, examined how Americans have answered a question that the polling firm has asked for decades about whether the United States made a mistake in sending troops to various war zones.

At the start of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, fewer than one in four respondents to the Gallup survey believed it was a mistake to send in U.S. military forces. Thereafter, though, this number steadily increased. By the time the wars had been going on for two or three years, more than fifty per cent of respondents said that the decision to wage them had been an error. The one exception was Afghanistan, where, after three years of war, the percentage of people describing the decision to dispatch U.S. forces as a mistake was still pretty small. Since then, though, this figure has grown: by 2012, it was close to fifty per cent.

These findings don’t have any definitive implications. Not all wars end badly. In 1999, there was strong backing for Bill Clinton’s strategy of using NATO air power to support the pro-independence forces in Kosovo. As the fighting dragged on, the level of public support declined somewhat, but it stayed above fifty per cent until the conflict ended and the Serbian troops withdrew. If the U.S.-led coalition routs ISIS in fairly short order, American casualties are kept to a minimum, and some sort of post-conflict settlement is cobbled together in Syria and Iraq, this could be another Kosovo war rather than another Iraq.

That’s about the best we can hope for. But, like Kennan, you have to wonder. Ω

[John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He has written many articles for the magazine, on topics ranging from Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke to the Iraqi oil industry and the economics of Hollywood. He also writes a column for The New Yorker’s Web site. His latest book is How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities (2009). Cassidy received a BA from Oxford University as well as an MA (journalism) from Columbia University and an MA (economics) from New York University.]

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Today, A Modest Proposal For The Mess O'Potamia

If the Wahhabi scum want blood in Iraq and Syria, let's give it to 'em. Notify the Saudi and Qatari governments that they have 7 days from the date of notification to clear all living things from Mecca and other Islamic holy places. On that date, the United States will create a air-space quarantine over the holy places. Then, the B-52s will fly over and deliver nukes to the holy places, rendering them unfit for human proximity for centuries. Let the sands glow in the dark forever. The scum who behead captives under the black flag will witness the beheading of Islam. No more talk. No more symbolic gestures. IF this is (fair & balanced) repudiation of radical Islam, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Obama Can Still Earn His Nobel
By Timothy Egan

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You remember 2009 and the glow from Oslo — Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize winner. Wow. Less than a year into his presidency, he joined an elite group: Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama. And for what? As near as anybody could tell, it was the only Nobel ever given for future good intentions.

Now the president with the world’s most prestigious badge of nonviolence is forced to become the warrior again, killing religious extremists as he bombs his seventh Muslim country — one more, as Stephen Colbert noted with a rewards punch card, and he’s earned a free falafel.

But look ahead, with optimism, and you can see a design for long-term peace behind the president’s plan to simultaneously kill fanatics and force a religion to confront the sources of that fanaticism. With his blunt speech at the United Nations on Wednesday, Obama put on notice the Sunni Muslim nations that have allowed Sunni barbarians to spread.

He made it clear that it is a warped religious ideology — “the cancer of violent extremism” — that is behind the slaughtering of innocents, raping of young girls, beheading of aid workers and tourists. Yes, it was a lecture, with finger-pointing. It’s time for the duplicitous Saudis, the look-the-other-way Qataris, “those who accumulate wealth through the global economy and then siphon funds to those who teach children to tear it down,” to stop trying to have it both ways. He called out their “hypocrisy,” without naming names, because everyone knows who they are.

Sure, it’s just a speech. Words, following and preceding airstrikes. But as a speech, it was a stunning departure from the usual platitudes without a plan. The leader who didn’t have a strategy for dealing with Islamic State nihilists a few weeks ago just dropped an idea bomb on the rest of the world. The “Muslim” president — a falsehood still held by nearly 25 percent of Republican voters — gave the Muslim world a blueprint for saving itself.

Until this week, most Western leaders have been afraid to say what Obama said at the United Nations. Sunnis dominate Islam, a religion of 1.6 billion people. The worst terror in the world today is being waged on behalf of a small, violent cult of death that is nominally Sunni. By enlisting at least five Sunni-majority nations in his campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, Obama has taken the first step to get Islam to do what it must do. (It would help to have Turkey, the only Muslim nation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and a Sunni-majority country, fully aboard with the 50 countries in the campaign to quash ISIS.)

“No god condones this terror,” Obama said. “No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil.” There again, his language was unvarnished, without filter or diplomatic dither.

Many in Obama’s own party heard only the echoes of George W. Bush. “Evil-doers,” coming from Bush, was a punch line. Cue up Will Ferrell and Jon Stewart. O.K., parallels granted. But Bush’s war in Iraq was nation-toppling born of hubris, followed by nation-building born of ignorance. Obama’s direct action against ISIS is designed to keep entire communities of “infidels” from being slaughtered by a cult under a black flag. His actions will save Muslims, the primary victims of Middle East terrorism, from other Muslims. It’s also in America’s interest, for those isolationists who think we should never try to stop overseas massacres on our watch.

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Obama, the peace prize winner, is the only person who could rally the civilized world against a caliphate of violence. Who else would do it? The pathetic, hapless and corrupt Iraqi Army, built with American tax dollars? The United Nations? The Kurds? They will fight, but only for their interests and their territory.

The military campaign, as always, is the easy part, and fraught with careful-what-you-wish-for peril. War crimes trials, the sooner the better, for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and any name that can be clearly linked to a face behind the mask of an ISIS executioner should proceed with the support of the coalition Obama has put together.

But to earn his Nobel, Obama has to follow through till the end of his presidency, to pressure the Sunnis to police their own. This is their cancer, now spreading to the rest of the world. No need to make it bigger than it is. The absurdly alarmist voices in our country — Lindsey Graham, with his fear that we’re going to “all get killed back here at home,” and the senate candidate Scott Brown, who said “radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country” — are myopics, staring out at the world from holes in the blankets over their heads.

More succinctly, as Obama stated, this fight is about what happens when religion goes bad. “There should be no tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they’re Jewish, or because they’re Christian, or because they’re Muslim,” he said. “It’s time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source, and that is the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.”

Of course it’s a long shot. Of course it’s a pipe dream. Of course it goes against all the backward trends in the Islamic world. But in one of the best speeches of his presidency, Obama has shown the world a path to a peace that may outlast him. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Roll Over, Mies van der Rohe: Today's Post Is A Minimalist's Delight

Earlier, a chum from Up North asked why this country has gone stupid. If this blogger knew why, he would support a dose of the antidote for every Dumbo/Moron and their offspring. Just when it seems that the Dumbos/Morons couldn't get any dumber, they go below any expectations. If this is (fair & balanced) despair at the nation's prospects, so be it.

[x The Nation]
What The Global-Warming Deniers Thought Of Those In The "People’s Climate March"
By The Deadline Poet (Calvin Trillin)

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We doubt the statistics upon which they’ve dwelt.
It’s best to do nothing and see if we melt. Ω

[Calvin Trillin began his career as a writer for Time magazine. Since July 2, 1990, as a columnist at The Nation, Trillin has written his weekly "Deadline Poet" column: humorous poems about current events. Trillin has written considerably more pieces for The Nation than any other single person. A native of Kansas City, MO, Trillin received his BA from Yale College in 1957. He served in the army, and then joined Time.]

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

All We Are Saying Is... Give Eudaimonia A Chance

The death march continues in this blog with a consideration of how our culture views death and dying. If this is a (fair & balanced) morbid post, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
How Fear Of Death Could Make You Splurge
By Anna North

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If you’re trying to sell something, consider putting a tombstone in your ad. It might seem macabre, but a new study suggests that thinking about death makes people eager to buy.

Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard reports that the psychologist Enny Das and her co-authors showed participants several fake ads, some death-themed and some not. In a particularly grim experiment, they offered each subject the opportunity to see his or her own name and birth date on a gravestone, as part of an ad for a newspaper (tagline: “How long do you want to wait? Take a trial subscription to X now for only 9.95 per month”). The subjects were actually more positively disposed to this ad than to one that featured a boy innocuously waiting by a mailbox; they also said the tombstone ad would make them more likely to subscribe.

Mr. Jacobs notes that “this counter-intuitive dynamic is best explained by Terror Management Theory, an extension of the seminal ideas of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. According to this school of thought, humans buffer their fear of mortality by attempting to transcend death, either literally (via belief in an afterlife) or symbolically (by devoting your life to a larger cause that will live on).”

Buying a newspaper is, of course, a worthy and noble use of money (Mr. Jacobs, for his part, suggests that mourners at your funeral might speak particularly highly of you if you subscribe to Pacific Standard). But it’s not a donation to charity — does it really count as devoting yourself to a larger cause?

Turns out, it may not matter — in another experiment, Ms. Das and her team tested the effect of death-related ads for healthy or unhealthy drinks (the ad for the unhealthy one included the blunt admission that it contained “lots of caffeine and alcohol”). The morbid ads were just as effective for the unhealthy drinks as for the healthy ones, implying that a product may not need to be wholesome to capitalize on our fear of the abyss. The authors write, “These findings further suggest that it may be the act of buying per se, regardless of products’ ability to boost consumer self-esteem, that alleviates consumers’ existential fears.”

Why might buying soothe us, regardless of what we buy? The authors speculate: “In a materialistic world, where consumption, money, and possessions are important cultural values, buying into a good deal may affirm the fact that one is a valuable member of society, and this may alleviate a fear of death.”

It’s tempting to take the study as a warning: If you’re feeling particularly in touch with your own mortality, beware of sales pitches. But Ms. Das told "Op-Talk" in an email that consumers might have a hard time guarding against the death-sell, because our reactions to morbid advertising may be unconscious:

“The fact that most of these processes occur outside of conscious awareness make them harder to control. Consumers may consciously claim and seriously believe that they are totally unaffected by an ad that uses death to sell a product but still be influenced by it at the unconscious level; they don’t like the ad but still end up buying the product.”

“The best tip to guard oneself,” she added, “is then to keep close track of your expenses when confronted with terrifying images (ads) or events (e.g., terrorist attacks), even if you are convinced that these images/events have no power over you.”

Whether or not it costs us money, some argue our fear of death — and of talking about it — is holding us back in other ways. Caitlin Doughty, an undertaker and the author of the new book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory (2014), told The Atlantic that her goal was “to create an environment where people aren’t afraid to admit they’re morbid, and have questions about death — what’s going to happen to their corpse, what their funeral is going to look like, what a decomposing body looks like, how cremation works. These are all totally natural questions, 2.5 million people die in the U.S. every year after all, but we’ve built up this idea that talking about death is deviant. Death is not deviant, it’s actually the most normal and universal act there is.”

And in a much-discussed essay, also at The Atlantic, Ezekiel J. Emanuel declares he will not seek to extend his life past age 75. He writes:

“Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.

“I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop.”

Rather than trying to put death off indefinitely, he argues, he’s embraced the idea of a predetermined end to life (though, he notes, he won’t commit suicide at 75 — just stop accepting most medical treatment). And, he says, more people should at least consider doing the same:

“What I am trying to do is delineate my views for a good life and make my friends and others think about how they want to live as they grow older. I want them to think of an alternative to succumbing to that slow constriction of activities and aspirations imperceptibly imposed by aging. Are we to embrace the ‘American immortal’ or my ‘75 and no more’ view?”

Are we a nation of myopic death denialists, ignoring the inevitable to the potential detriment of our time on earth? If so, we may not be alone — Ms. Das told "Op-Talk": “Fearing death is unique to humans, and this fear is universal. All humans fear death, that’s the downside of being able to think.”

But for all our fear of dying, there may be a part of us that’s drawn to it. Ms. Doughty says she became an undertaker because “I was fascinated by mortality. Most people are, even if they don’t admit it.”

And at the end of their paper, Ms. Das and her team offer another possible reason participants might have liked the build-your-own tombstone ad so much: “People tend to enjoy others’ creative explorations of life’s more negative facets, such as lost love, danger, or death.” They explain:

“Exploration of such themes may produce a deep, so-called eudaimonic — as opposed to hedonistic — type of enjoyment that is considered more substantive, and is generally more heart felt. Eudaimonic enjoyment perceptions explain why people like sad songs, books, and movies, and possibly also why ‘sick’ jokes are often considered funnier that other jokes. Perhaps participants perceived the tombstone ad as a — mildly — sick joke, and liked it.”

Death may be terrifying, but maybe facing it, even in the form of an ad, can bring us some relief. Ω

[Anna North is a staff editor for NYT "Opinion" and "Op-Talk." Prior to joining The Times, she was Culture Editor at Salon, Senior Editor at BuzzFeed, News Editor at Jezebel. North received a BA (English) from Stanford University and an MFA (Creative Writing) from the University of Iowa.]

Copyright © 2014 The New York Times Company

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Today, We Hear It For The Immortals

Last week, this blogger entertained a challenging take on longevity from The Zekester ( Ezekiel Emanuel, MD; he longs for an end at age 75. Today, this blog sees a contrary take on longevity: immortality for all! If this is a (fair & balanced) contrast between views of lengevity, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
What Happens When We All Live To 100?
By Gregg Easterbrook

Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing

created at TagCrowd.com

For millennia, if not for eons—anthropology continuously pushes backward the time of human origin—life expectancy was short. The few people who grew old were assumed, because of their years, to have won the favor of the gods. The typical person was fortunate to reach 40.

Beginning in the 19th century, that slowly changed. Since 1840, life expectancy at birth has risen about three months with each passing year. In 1840, life expectancy at birth in Sweden, a much-studied nation owing to its record-keeping, was 45 years for women; today it’s 83 years. The United States displays roughly the same trend. When the 20th century began, life expectancy at birth in America was 47 years; now newborns are expected to live 79 years. If about three months continue to be added with each passing year, by the middle of this century, American life expectancy at birth will be 88 years. By the end of the century, it will be 100 years.

Viewed globally, the lengthening of life spans seems independent of any single, specific event. It didn’t accelerate much as antibiotics and vaccines became common. Nor did it retreat much during wars or disease outbreaks. A graph of global life expectancy over time looks like an escalator rising smoothly. The trend holds, in most years, in individual nations rich and poor; the whole world is riding the escalator.

Projections of ever-longer life spans assume no incredible medical discoveries—rather, that the escalator ride simply continues. If anti-aging drugs or genetic therapies are found, the climb could accelerate. Centenarians may become the norm, rather than rarities who generate a headline in the local newspaper.

Pie in the sky? On a verdant hillside in Marin County, California—home to hipsters and towering redwoods, the place to which the Golden Gate Bridge leads—sits the Buck Institute, the first private, independent research facility dedicated to extending the human life span. Since 1999, scientists and postdocs there have studied ways to make organisms live much longer, and with better health, than they naturally would. Already, the institute’s researchers have quintupled the life span of laboratory worms. Most Americans have never heard of the Buck Institute, but someday this place may be very well known.

Buck is not alone in its pursuit. The University of Michigan, the University of Texas, and the University of California at San Francisco are studying ways to slow aging, as is the Mayo Clinic. Late in 2013, Google brought its trove of cash into the game, founding a spin-off called the California Life Company (known as Calico) to specialize in longevity research. Six months after Calico’s charter was announced, Craig Venter, the biotech entrepreneur who in the 1990s conducted a dramatic race against government laboratories to sequence the human genome, also founded a start-up that seeks ways to slow aging.

Should research find a life-span breakthrough, the proportion of the U.S. population that is elderly—fated to rise anyway, considering declining fertility rates, the retirement of the Baby Boomers, and the continuing uplift of the escalator—may climb even more. Longer life has obvious appeal, but it entails societal risks. Politics may come to be dominated by the old, who might vote themselves ever more generous benefits for which the young must pay. Social Security and private pensions could be burdened well beyond what current actuarial tables suggest. If longer life expectancy simply leads to more years in which pensioners are disabled and demand expensive services, health-care costs may balloon as never before, while other social needs go unmet.

But the story might have a happy ending. If medical interventions to slow aging result in added years of reasonable fitness, life might extend in a sanguine manner, with most men and women living longer in good vigor, and also working longer, keeping pension and health-care subsidies under control. Indeed, the most-exciting work being done in longevity science concerns making the later years vibrant, as opposed to simply adding time at the end.

Postwar medical research has focused on specific conditions: there are heart-disease laboratories, cancer institutes, and so on. Traditional research assumes the chronic later-life diseases that are among the nation’s leading killers—cardiovascular blockage, stroke, Alzheimer’s—arise individually and should be treated individually. What if, instead, aging is the root cause of many chronic diseases, and aging can be slowed? Not just life span but “health span” might increase.

Drugs that lengthen health span are becoming to medical researchers what vaccines and antibiotics were to previous generations in the lab: their grail. If health-span research is successful, pharmaceuticals as remarkable as those earlier generations of drugs may result. In the process, society might learn the answer to an ancient mystery: Given that every cell in a mammal’s body contains the DNA blueprint of a healthy young version of itself, why do we age at all?

Counting yeast

“Here in our freezers we have 100 or so compounds that extend life in invertebrates,” says Gordon Lithgow, a geneticist at the Buck Institute. He walks with me through labs situated on a campus of modernistic buildings that command a dreamlike view of San Pablo Bay, and encourage dreamlike thoughts. The 100 compounds in the freezer? “What we don’t know is if they work in people.”

The Buck Institute bustles with young researchers. Jeans and San Francisco 49ers caps are common sights—this could be a Silicon Valley software start-up were not microscopes, cages, and biological-isolation chambers ubiquitous. The institute is named for Leonard and Beryl Buck, a Marin County couple who left oil stocks to a foundation charged with studying why people age, among other issues. When the institute opened, medical research aimed at slowing aging was viewed as quixotic—the sort of thing washed-up hippies talk about while sipping wine and watching the sunset. A mere 15 years into its existence, the Buck Institute is at the bow wave of biology.

In one lab, researchers laboriously tamper with yeast chromosomes. Yeast is expedient as a research subject because it lives out a lifetime before an analyst’s eyes, and because a third of yeast genes are similar to human genes. Deleting some genes kills yeast; deleting others causes yeast to live longer. Why deleting some genes extends life isn’t known—Buck researchers are trying to figure this out, in the hope that they might then carry the effect over to mammals. The work is painstaking, with four microscopes in use at least 50 hours a week.

Buck employs Lilliputian electrocardiogram machines and toy-size CT scanners to examine the internal organs of mice, since the goal is not just to make them live longer but to keep them healthy longer, with less cancer or heart disease. Researchers curious about aging mainly work with mice, worms, flies, and yeast, because they are small and easily housed, and because they don’t live long, so improvements to life expectancy are quickly observable. “Twenty years ago it was a really big deal to extend the life span of worms. Now any postdoc can do that,” says Simon Melov, a Buck geneticist. Experiments funded by the National Institute on Aging have shown that drugs can extend a mouse’s life span by about a quarter, and Buck researchers have been able to reverse age-related heart dysfunction in the same animal. Think how the world would be upended if human longevity quickly jumped another 25 percent.

The rubber will meet the road with human trials. “We hope to find five to 10 small molecules that extend healthy life span in mice, then stage a human trial,” says Brian Kennedy, the Buck Institute’s CEO. A drug called rapamycin—being tested at the institute and elsewhere—seems closest to trial stage and has revolutionary potential. But in addition to being ethically fraught, human trials of a life-extension substance will be costly, and might take decades. The entry of Google’s billions into the field makes human trials more likely. Calico is tight-lipped about its plans—the company agreed to let me visit, then backed out.

What do whales know that we don't?

Anti-aging research is not without antecedents, some of which offer notes of caution. A generation ago, Linus Pauling, a winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, proposed that megadoses of vitamin C would retard aging. It turned out that at megadoses, vitamins can become toxic. If you take vitamins, swallow the amounts recommended by the Food and Drug Administration.

A decade ago, a biotech start-up called Sirtris sought to devise drugs that mimic the supposed health-giving properties of red wine. GlaxoSmithKline bought Sirtris for $790 million in today’s dollars, money the company may wish it had back: Sirtris experiments have yet to lead to any practical product.

About 15 years ago, Bruce Ames, an accomplished scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, proposed that acetylcarnitine, which regulates the mitochondria of cells, combined with an antioxidant, might retard aging while treating mild Alzheimer’s. Antioxidant has become a buzzword of supplement marketing and Dr. Oz–style quackery. Too much antioxidant would be unhealthy, since oxidation is essential to the body’s respiration. Ames thought he had found a compound that safely moderates the pace at which cells use themselves up. He began dosing himself with acetylcarnitine, and continues to work at Berkeley, at age 85; whether he would have enjoyed such longevity anyway is unknowable. Pharmaceutical companies have shown little interest in Ames’s idea—because it occurs naturally, acetylcarnitine cannot be patented, and, worse from Big Pharma’s standpoint, the substance is inexpensive.

Today, lab results show a clear relationship between a restricted-calorie diet and longevity in mice. That eating less extends the life spans of small mammals is the strongest finding of anti-aging research to this point. A restrictive diet seems to put mouse cells into a state vaguely similar to hibernation; whether caloric restriction would work in people isn’t known. A campaign against calories might seem to possess broad practical appeal, since what’s recommended—eating less—costs nothing. But if the mice are any indication, one would need to eat a lot less, dropping caloric intake to the level at which a person feels hunger pangs throughout the day. “Caloric restriction is a fad diet in Northern California,” Melov told me. “We had a caloric-restriction group come in to visit the institute. They did not look at all healthy.”

Recently, separate teams at Harvard, Stanford, and UC San Francisco reported that transferring the blood of adolescent mice into old, declining mice had a rejuvenating effect on the latter. The thought of the old rich purchasing blood from the young poor is ghoulish on numerous levels. The research goal is to determine what chemical aspect of youthful blood benefits mature tissue. Perhaps compounds in adolescent blood excite dormant stem cells, and a drug could be developed that triggers the effect without transfusion.

The Buck Institute and other labs have been looking for health-span DNA that may exist in other mammals. Whales are a lot less likely than people are to get cancer. Polar bears consume an extremely high-fat diet yet don’t develop arterial plaque. If the biological pathways for such qualities were understood, a drug might be designed to trigger the effect in people. Mimicking what nature has already developed seems more promising than trying to devise novel DNA.

In worms, genes called daf-2 and daf-16 can change in a way that causes the invertebrates to live twice as long as is natural, and in good vigor. A molecular biologist named Cynthia Kenyon, among the first hires at Calico, made that discovery more than two decades ago, when she was a researcher at UC San Francisco. By manipulating the same genes in mice, Kenyon has been able to cause them to live longer, with less cancer than mice in a control group: that is, with a better health span. The daf-16 gene is similar to a human gene called foxo3, a variant of which is linked to exceptional longevity. A drug that mimics this foxo3 variant is rumored to be among Calico’s initial projects.

A long time has passed since Kenyon’s eureka moment about worm genes, and she’s still far from proving that this insight can help people. But the tempo of the kind of work she does is accelerating. Twenty years ago, genetic sequencing and similar forms of DNA research were excruciatingly time-consuming. New techniques and equipment have altered that: for instance, one Silicon Valley lab-services firm, Sequetech, advertises, “Go from [cell] colony to sequence” in a day. The accelerating pace of genetic-information gathering may come in handy for health-span research.

The Buck Institute became cautiously optimistic about rapamycin when its life-extension properties were noticed in yeast. Lab mice dosed with rapamycin are dying off more slowly than they would naturally, and many of the old mice appear energetic and youthful. Devised to prevent rejection of transplanted organs, rapamycin seems to alter some chemistry associated with cellular senescence. (More on that later.) If the drug turns out to delay aging in people, it would be the greatest off-label pharmaceutical use ever. But don’t ask your doctor for a prescription—health-span therapy based on rapamycin is years away, if it ever happens. Kennedy, the Buck Institute CEO, does not dose himself with rapamycin, whose side effects are not understood.

Smoke, eat red meat, live to 100

Researchers at the Buck Institute are lean: society’s obesity problems are not in evidence there. Everyone takes the stairs; elevators are viewed as strictly for visitors. If there is a candy machine on the 488-acre grounds, it is well hidden. I met some researchers for lunch in a glass-and-chrome conference room (Buck’s buildings were designed by I. M. Pei and fairly shout “Give me an architecture award!”). Lunch was an ascetic affair: water and a small sandwich with greens; no sides, soda, or cookies. Kennedy says he seldom eats lunch, and runs up to 20 miles weekly. Yet, even doing everything right by the lights of current assumptions about how to stave off aging, at age 47, Kennedy has wrinkle lines around his eyes.

Except with regard to infectious diseases, medical cause and effect is notoriously hard to pin down. Coffee, salt, butter: good, bad, or neither? Studies are inconclusive. Why do some people develop heart disease while others with the same habits don’t? The Framingham Heart Study, in its 66th year and following a third generation of subjects, still struggles with such questions. You should watch your weight, eat more greens and less sugar, exercise regularly, and get ample sleep. But you should do these things because they are common sense—not because there is any definitive proof that they will help you live longer.

The uncertainty inherent in the practice of medicine is amplified when the subject is longevity, because decades might pass before anyone knows whether a particular drug or lifestyle modification does any good. Scrutinizing the very old has not been the gold mine some researchers hoped it would be. “Lifestyle studies of centenarians can be really puzzling,” Kennedy says. “They smoke more and drink less than we might guess. Few are vegetarians. Nothing jumps out as a definitive cause of their long lives.”

Among the first wide-scale efforts to understand gerontology was the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, begun by federal researchers in 1958 and ongoing. Its current director, Luigi Ferrucci, says, “The study has determined that disabilities among the elderly often have warning signs that can be detected in youth, and this insight might lead to early-life interventions that decrease late-life chronic disease. But on some of the big questions, such as whether longevity is caused mainly by genes or mainly by lifestyle and environment, we just have no idea at all.”

Studies of twins suggest that about 30 percent of longevity is inherited. This is one of the factors that make researchers optimistic—if 30 percent of longevity is inherited, perhaps laboratories can design a compound that causes anyone’s blood chemistry to mimic what happens in the bodies of those who were born with the DNA for long life. “But when we sequence the genome, only 1 percent seems linked to longevity,” Ferrucci told me. “The other 99 percent of the presumed genetic effect is unexplained.”

At medical conferences, Ferrucci likes to show physicians and researchers an elaborate medical profile of an anonymous patient, then ask them to guess her age. “Guesses are off by as much as 20 years too high or low,” he says. “This is because medically, we do not know what ‘age’ is. The sole means to determine age is by asking for date of birth. That’s what a basic level this research still is at.”

Aging brings with it, of course, senescence. Cellular senescence, a subset of the overall phenomenon, is a subject of fascination in longevity research.

The tissues and organs that make up our bodies are prone to injury, and the cells are prone to malfunctions, cancer being the most prominent. When an injury must be healed, or cancerous tissue that is dividing must be stopped, nearby cells transmit chemical signals that trigger the repair of injured cells or the death of malignant ones. (Obviously this is a simplification.) In the young, the system works pretty well. But as cells turn senescent, they begin to send out false positives. The body’s healing ability falters as excess production of the repair signal leads to persistent inflammation, which is the foundation of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and other chronic maladies associated with the passage of time. Cars wear out because they cannot repair themselves; our bodies wear out because they lose the ability to repair themselves. If the loss of our ability to self-repair were slowed down, health during our later years would improve: a longer warranty, in the auto analogy.

“If we can figure out how to eliminate senescent cells or switch off their secretions,” says Judith Campisi, who runs the Buck Institute’s research on this topic, “then we could prevent or lessen the impact of many chronic diseases of aging. It’s not a coincidence that incidence of these chronic diseases increases sharply after the age of 50, a time when senescent cells also increase in number. If you believe, as many scientists do, that aging is a prime cause of many chronic diseases, it is essential that we understand the accumulation of senescent cells.” Rapamycin excites longevity researchers because it seems to switch off the repair signal mistakenly sent by senescent cells. Mayo Clinic researchers are studying other substances that dampen the effects of cellular senescence; some have proved to keep mice fit longer than normal, extending their health span. Many elderly people decline into years of progressive disability, then become invalids. If instead most people enjoyed reasonable vigor right up to the end, that would be just as exciting for society as adding years to life expectancy.

Big medical efforts tend to be structured as assaults on specific conditions—the “war on cancer” and so on. One reason is psychological: a wealthy person who survived a heart attack, or lost a parent to one, endows a foundation to study the problem. Another reason is symbolic: we tend to view diseases as challenges thrown at us by nature, to be overcome one by one. If the passage of time itself turns out to be the challenge, interdisciplinary study of aging might overtake the disease-by-disease approach. As recently as a generation ago, it would have seemed totally crazy to suppose that aging could be “cured.” Now curing aging seems, well, only somewhat crazy.

The escalator debate

The life-expectancy escalator has for nearly two centuries risen about three months a year, despite two world wars, the 1918 influenza pandemic, the AIDS epidemic, and the global population’s growing sevenfold—the latter deceptively important, because crowded conditions are assumed to more readily communicate disease. Will life-span increases continue regardless of what may happen in biotech? The yea position is represented by James Vaupel, the founder of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research; the nay by Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In 2002, Vaupel published an influential article in Science documenting the eerily linear rise in life expectancy since 1840. Controversially, Vaupel concluded that “reductions in mortality should not be seen as a disconnected sequence of unrepeatable revolutions but rather as a regular stream of continuing progress.” No specific development or discovery has caused the rise: improvements in nutrition, public health, sanitation, and medical knowledge all have helped, but the operative impetus has been the “stream of continuing progress.”

Vaupel called it a “reasonable scenario” that increases will continue at least until life expectancy at birth surpasses 100. His views haven’t changed. “The data still support the conclusions of the 2002 paper. Linear rise in life expectancy has continued,” Vaupel told me earlier this year. In a recent report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the age-adjusted U.S. death rate declined to a record low in 2011. Today the first four causes of death in the United States are chronic, age-related conditions: heart disease, cancer, chronic lower-respiratory diseases, and stroke. As long as living standards continue to improve, Vaupel thinks, life expectancy will continue to increase.

On the opposite side of this coin, Olshansky told me the rise in life expectancy will “hit a wall soon, if it hasn’t already.” He noted, “Most of the 20th-century gains in longevity came from reduced infant mortality, and those were onetime gains.” Infant mortality in the United States trails some other nations’, but has dropped so much—down to one in 170—that little room for improvement remains. “There’s tremendous statistical impact on life expectancy when the young are saved,” Olshansky says. “A reduction in infant mortality saves the entire span of a person’s life. Avoiding mortality in a young person—say, by vaccine—saves most of the person’s life. Changes in medicine or lifestyle that extend the lives of the old don’t add much to the numbers.” Olshansky calculates that if cancer were eliminated, American life expectancy would rise by only three years, because a host of other chronic fatal diseases are waiting to take its place. He thinks the 21st century will see the average life span extend “another 10 years or so,” with a bonus of more health span. Then the increase will slow noticeably, or stop.

Whether human age may have a biological limit does not factor into this debate. A French woman who lived from 1875 to 1997, Jeanne Calment, had the longest confirmed life span, at 122. She’s obviously an outlier, and while outliers don’t tell us much, they do hint at what’s possible. Her age at death was well beyond the average life span that either Vaupel or Olshansky are contemplating in their analyses. And in any case, various experts, at various times across the past century, have argued that life span was nearing a ceiling, only to be proved wrong.

Diminishing smoking and drunk driving have obviously contributed to declining mortality. Homicide has fallen so much—shootings aren’t necessarily down, but improved trauma response saves more victims—that murder is no longer among the top 15 causes of death in the United States. Other health indicators seem positive as well. All forms of harmful air and water emissions except greenhouse gases are in long-term decline. Less smog, acid rain, and airborne soot foster longevity—the old are sensitive to respiratory disease—while declining levels of industrial toxins may contribute to declining cancer rates. Life expectancy can be as much as 18 years shorter in low-income U.S. counties than in high-income counties, but Obamacare should correct some of that imbalance: Romneycare, enacted in 2006 and in many ways Obamacare’s precursor, reduced mortality in low-income Massachusetts counties. These and many other elements of Vaupel’s “stream of continuing progress” seem to favor longevity. So does climate change: people live longer in warm climates than cold, and the world is warming.

Popular attention tends to focus on whether what we gulp down determines how long we live: Should people take fish oil and shop for organic probiotic kefir? The way our homes, families, and friendships are organized may matter just as much. Thomas Perls, a professor at Boston Medical Center who analyzes the genomes of centenarians, notes that Seventh-Day Adventists enjoy about a decade more life expectancy than peers of their birth years: “They don’t drink or smoke, most are vegetarians, they exercise regularly even when old, and take a true weekly day of rest.” But what really strikes Perls about Seventh-Day Adventists is that they maintain large social groups. “Constant interaction with other people can be annoying, but overall seems to keep us engaged with life.”

For years, the American social trend has been away from “constant interaction with other people”—fewer two-parent homes, fewer children per home, declining participation in religious and community activities, grandparents living on their own, electronic interaction replacing the face-to-face in everything from work to dating. Prosperity is associated with smaller households, yet the large multigeneration home may be best for long life. There are some indications that the Great Recession increased multigeneration living. This may turn out to boost longevity, at least for a time.

The single best yardstick for measuring a person’s likely life span is education. John Rowe, a health-policy professor at Columbia University and a former CEO of Aetna, says, “If someone walked into my office and asked me to predict how long he would live, I would ask two things: What is your age, and how many years of education did you receive?”

Jay Olshansky’s latest research suggests that American women with no high-school diploma have experienced relatively small life-span increases since the 1950s, while the life expectancy of highly educated women has soared since then. Today the best-educated Americans live 10 to 14 years longer than the least educated, on average. “Nothing pops out of the data like the link between education and life expectancy,” Olshansky says. “The good news is that the share of the American population that is less educated is in gradual decline. The bad news is that lack of education seems even more lethal than it was in the past.”

Education does not sync with life expectancy because reading Dostoyevsky lowers blood pressure; college is a proxy for other aspects of a person’s life. Compared with the less educated, people with a bachelor’s degree have a higher income, smoke less, are less likely to be overweight, and are more likely to follow doctors’ instructions. College graduates are more likely to marry and stay married, and marriage is good for your health: the wedded suffer fewer heart attacks and strokes than the single or divorced.

Many of the social developments that improve longevity—better sanitation, less pollution, improved emergency rooms—are provided to all on an egalitarian basis. But today’s public high schools are dreadful in many inner-city areas, and broadly across states including California. Legislatures are cutting support for public universities, while the cost of higher education rises faster than inflation. These issues are discussed in terms of fairness; perhaps health should be added as a concern in the debate. If education is the trump card of longevity, the top quintile may pull away from the rest.

Aging and politics

Society is dominated by the old—old political leaders, old judges. With each passing year, as longevity increases, the intergenerational imbalance worsens. The old demand benefits for which the young must pay, while people in their 20s become disenchanted, feeling that the deck is stacked against them. National debt increases at an alarming rate. Innovation and fresh thinking disappear as energies are devoted to defending current pie-slicing arrangements.

This isn’t a prediction about the future of the United States, but rather a description of Japan right now. The Land of the Rising Sun is the world’s grayest nation. Already the median age is 45 (in the U.S., by comparison, it is 37), and it will jump to 55 by 2040. As Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, has noted, median age in the retirement haven of Palm Springs, California, is currently 52 years. Japan is on its way to becoming an entire nation of Palm Springs residents.

Japan’s grayness stems from a very low fertility rate—not enough babies to bring down the average age—and strict barriers against immigration. The United States remains a nation of immigrants, and because of the continual inflow of young people, the U.S. median age won’t go haywire even as life expectancy rises: the United Nations’ “World Population Prospects” estimates that the U.S. median age will rise to 41 by mid-century.

Nonetheless, that Japan is the first major nation to turn gray, and is also the deepest in debt, is not encouraging. Once, Japan was feared as the Godzilla of global trade, but as it grayed, its economy entered a long cycle of soft growth. In 2012 the centrist Democratic Party of Japan, then holding the Diet, backed a tax whose goal was not to pay down what the country owes but merely to slow the rate of borrowing. The party promptly got the heave-ho from voters. Last year Japan’s public debt hit $10 trillion, twice the nation’s GDP.

Sheila Smith, a Japan specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me, “Young people in Japan have some of the world’s worst voter-participation rates. They think the old have the system so rigged in their favor, there’s no point in political activity. The young don’t seem excited by the future.” News accounts of young Japanese becoming so apathetic that they’ve lost interest in having sex sound hard to believe, but may bear some truth.

Young urban Japanese surely are aware that their elders are ringing up bills to be handed to them, but they’re also aware that if funding for the retired is cut, Grandma may want to move into their very small apartment. As life expectancy rises, a Japanese person entering the happy-go-lucky phase of early adulthood may find that parents and grandparents both expect to be looked after. Because the only child is common in Japan’s newest generation, a big cast of aging people may turn to one young person for financial support or caregiving or both. Acceding to public borrowing may have become, to young Japanese, a way to keep older generations out of the apartment—even if it means crushing national debt down the road.

That America may become more like Japan—steadily older, with rising debt and declining economic growth—is unsettling. From the second half of the George W. Bush administration until 2013, U.S. national debt more than doubled. The federal government borrowed like there was no tomorrow. The debt binge, for which leaders of both political parties bear blame, was a prelude to the retirement of the Baby Boomers. Tomorrow has a way of coming.

Suppose the escalator slows, and conservative assumptions about life expectancy prevail. In a 2009 study, Olshansky projected future demographics under the “hit a wall” scenario. The number of Americans 65 or older, 43 million today, could reach 108 million in 2050—that would be like adding three more Floridas, inhabited entirely by seniors. The “oldest old” cohort, those 85 and older, may increase at least fivefold, to more than 6 percent of the U.S. citizenry. Olshansky projected that by 2050, life expectancy will extend three to eight years past the age used by the Social Security Administration to assess the solvency of its system, while forecasting that by 2050, Medicare and Social Security will rack up between $3.2 trillion and $8.3 trillion in unfunded obligations. (State and local governments have at least another $1 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities.) These disconcerting numbers flow from the leading analyst who thinks that the life-span increase is slowing down.

When President Obama took office, Social Security’s trustees said the current benefits structure was funded until 2037. Now the Congressional Budget Office says the year of reckoning may come as soon as 2031. States may be “funding” their pension obligations using fuzzy math: New York issues promissory notes; Illinois and New Jersey sell debt instruments distressingly similar to junk bonds. Many private pension plans are underfunded, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which on paper appears to insure them, is an accident looking for a place to happen. Twice in the past three years, Congress has voted to allow corporations to delay contributions to pension plans. This causes them to pay more taxes in the present year, giving Congress more to spend, while amplifying problems down the road. Social Security’s disability fund may fail as soon as late 2016. Medicare spending is rising faster than Social Security spending, and is harder to predict. Projections show the main component of Medicare, its hospital fund, failing by 2030.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next decade, all federal spending growth will come from entitlements—mainly Social Security and Medicare—and from interest on the national debt. The nonpartisan think tank Third Way has calculated that at the beginning of the Kennedy presidency, the federal government spent $2.50 on public investments—infrastructure, education, and research—for every $1 it spent on entitlements. By 2022, Third Way predicts, the government will spend $5 on entitlements for every $1 on public investments. Infrastructure, education, and research lead to economic growth; entitlement subsidies merely allow the nation to tread water.

If health span can be improved, the costs of aging-related disability may be manageable. Not that long ago, vast sums were spent on iron lungs and sanitariums for treatment of polio: preventing the disease has proved much less expensive than treating it. If chronic ailments related to aging can be prevented or significantly delayed, big-ticket line items in Medicare might not go off the rails.

But if health span does not improve, longer life could make disability in aging an economic crisis. Today, Medicare and Medicaid spend about $150 billion annually on Alzheimer’s patients. Absent progress against aging, the number of people with Alzheimer’s could treble by 2050, with society paying as much for Alzheimer’s care as for the current defense budget.

Many disabilities associated with advanced years cannot be addressed with pharmaceuticals or high-tech procedures; caregivers are required. Providing personal care for an aged invalid is a task few wish to undertake. Already many lists of careers with the most job openings are headed by “caregiver” or “nurse’s aide,” professions in which turnover is high.

As longevity increases, so too does the number of living grandparents. Families that once might have had one “oldest old” relative find themselves with three or four, all expecting care or money. At the same time, traditional family trees are being replaced with diagrams that resemble maps of the London Underground. Will children of blended families feel the same obligation to care for aging stepparents as they feel for biological parents? Just the entry of the phrase birth parent into the national lexicon suggests the magnitude of the change.

With Japan at the leading edge of lengthening life expectancy, its interest in robotics can be eerie. Foxconn, the Asian electronics giant, is manufacturing for the Japanese market a creepy mechanized thing named Pepper that is intended to provide company for the elderly. More-sophisticated devices may be in store. A future in which large numbers of very old, incapacitated people stare into the distance as robot attendants click and hum would be a bad science-fiction movie if it didn’t stand a serious chance of happening.

The problem of aging leadership

As the population ages, so do the political powers that be—and they’re aging in place. Computerized block-by-block voting analysis and shameless gerrymandering—Maryland’s new sixth congressional district is such a strange shape, it would have embarrassed Elbridge Gerry—lock incumbents into power as never before. Campaign-finance laws appear to promote reform, but in fact have been rigged to discourage challengers. Between rising life expectancy and the mounting power of incumbency, both houses of Congress are the oldest they’ve ever been: the average senator is 62 years old; the average representative, 57.

A graying Congress would be expected to be concerned foremost with protection of the status quo. Government may grow sclerotic at the very time the aging of the populace demands new ideas. “There’s already a tremendous advantage to incumbency,” one experienced political operative told me. “As people live longer, incumbents will become more entrenched. Strom Thurmond might not be unusual anymore. Many from both parties could cling to power too long, freezing out fresh thinking. It won’t be good for democracy.” The speaker was no starry-eyed radical: he was Karl Rove.

Now think of the Supreme Court as life expectancy increases. The nine justices on the first Court sat an average of nine years; the last nine to depart, an average of 27 years. John Paul Stevens, the most recent to retire, was a justice for 35 years. If Clarence Thomas lives to the actuarial life expectancy of a male his current age, he could be a Supreme Court justice for 40 years.

The Framers would be aghast at the idea of a small cadre of unelected potentates lording it over the body politic for decades. When the Constitution was written, no one could have anticipated how much life span would increase, nor how much power the Supreme Court would accrue. If democracy is to remain vibrant as society ages, campaign laws must change to help challengers stand a chance versus incumbents, and the Constitution must be amended to impose a term limit on the Supreme Court, so confirmation as a justice stops being a lifetime appointment to royalty.

A new view of retirement

In 1940, the typical American who reached age 65 would ultimately spend about 17 percent of his or her life retired. Now the figure is 22 percent, and still rising. Yet Social Security remains structured as if longevity were stuck in a previous century. The early-retirement option, added by Congress in 1961—start drawing at age 62, though with lower benefits—is appealing if life is short, but backfires as life span extends. People who opt for early Social Security may reach their 80s having burned through savings, and face years of living on a small amount rather than the full benefit they might have received. Polls show that Americans consistently underestimate how long they will live—a convenient assumption that justifies retiring early and spending now, while causing dependency over the long run. 

James Vaupel has warned that refusing to acknowledge longevity’s steady march “distorts people’s decisions about how much to save and when to retire” and gives “license to politicians to postpone painful adjustments to Social Security.” Ronald Reagan was the last president to push through legislation to account for life-span changes. His administration increased the future eligible age of full Social Security benefits from 65 to 66 or 67, depending on one’s birth year. Perhaps 99 percent of members of Congress would agree in private that retirement economics must change; none will touch this third rail. Generating more Social Security revenue by lifting the payroll-tax cap, currently $117,000, is the sole politically attractive option, because only the well-to-do would be impacted. But the Congressional Budget Office recently concluded that even this soak-the-rich option is insufficient to prevent insolvency for Social Security. At least one other change, such as later retirement or revised cost-of-living formulas, is required. A fair guess is that the government will do nothing about Social Security reform until a crisis strikes—and then make panicked, ill-considered moves that foresight might have avoided.

Americans may decry government gridlock, but they can’t blame anyone else for their own decisions. People’s retirement savings simply must increase, though this means financial self-discipline, which Americans are not known for. Beyond that, most individuals will likely need to take a new view of what retirement should be: not a toggle switch—no work at all, after years of full-time labor—but a continuum on which a person gradually downshifts to half-time, then to working now and then. Let’s call it the “retirement track” rather than retirement: a phase of continuing to earn and save as full-time work winds down.

Widespread adoption of a retirement track would necessitate changes in public policy and in employers’ attitudes. Banks don’t think in terms of smallish loans to help a person in the second half of life start a home-based business, but such lending might be vital to a graying population. Many employers are required to continue offering health insurance to those who stay on the job past 65, even though they are eligible for Medicare. Employers’ premiums for these workers are much higher than for young workers, which means employers may have a logical reason to want anyone past 65 off the payroll. Ending this requirement would make seniors more attractive to employers.

Many people may find continuing to work but under the lower-stress circumstances of part-time employment to be preferable to a gold watch, then idleness. Gradual downshifting could help ease aging people into volunteer service roles, where there’s never any end of things to do. The retirement track could be more appealing than traditional retirement. A longer health span will be essential to making it possible.

Longer life as directed evolution

Understanding the evolutionary biology of aging might help the quest for improved health span. Each cell of the body contains DNA code for a fresh, healthy cell, yet that blueprint is not called on as we grow old. Evolutionists including Alfred Russel Wallace have toyed with the idea of programmed death—the notion that natural selection “wants” old animals to die in order to free up resources for younger animals, which may carry evolved genetic structures. Current thinking tends to hold that rather than trying to make older animals die, natural selection simply has no mechanism to reward longevity.

Felipe Sierra, a researcher at the National Institute on Aging, says, “Evolution doesn’t care about you past your reproductive age. It doesn’t want you either to live longer or to die, it just doesn’t care. From the standpoint of natural selection, an animal that has finished reproducing and performed the initial stage of raising young might as well be eaten by something, since any favorable genetic quality that expresses later in life cannot be passed along.” Because a mutation that favors long life cannot make an animal more likely to succeed at reproducing, selection pressure works only on the young.

A generation ago, theorists suspected that menopause was an evolutionary adaptation exclusive to the Homo genus—women stop expending energy to bear children so they can care longer for those already born, as mothers and grandmothers. This, the theory goes, increases children’s chances of survival, allowing them to pass along family genes. Yet recent research has shown that animals including lions and baboons also go through menopause, which increasingly looks more like a malfunction of aging cells than a quality brought about by selection pressure. As for the idea that grandparents help their grandchildren prosper, favoring longevity—the “grandmother effect”—this notion, too, has fared poorly in research.

The key point is: if nothing that happens after a person reproduces bears on which genes flourish, then nature has never selected for qualities that extend longevity. Evolution favors strength, intelligence, reflexes, sexual appeal; it does not favor keeping an organism running a long time. For example, a growing body needs calcium, so nature selected for the ability to metabolize this element. In later life, calcium causes stiffening of the arteries, a problem that evolution has no mechanism to correct, since hardened arteries do not occur until it’s too late for natural selection to side with any beneficial mutation. Testosterone is essential to a youthful man; in an aging man, it can be a factor in prostate cancer. Evolution never selected for a defense against that.

Similar examples abound; the most important may be senescent cells. Natural selection probably favors traits that reduce the risk of cancer, because cancer can strike the young before reproductive age is reached. Senescence doesn’t occur until evolution is no longer in play, so natural selection has left all mammal bodies with a defect that leads to aging and death.

If senescence could be slowed, men and women hardly would become immortal. Violence, accidents, and contagious disease still would kill. Even if freed of chronic conditions, eventually our bodies would fail.

But it is not credulous futurism to suppose that drugs or even genetic therapy may alter the human body in ways that extend longevity. Brian Kennedy, of the Buck Institute, notes, “Because natural selection did not improve us for aging, there’s a chance for rapid gains. The latest BMWs are close to perfect. How can an engineer improve on them? But the Model T would be easy to improve on now. When young, genetically we are BMWs. In aging, we become Model Ts. The evolutionary improvements haven’t started yet.”

A grayer, quieter, better future

In the wild, young animals outnumber the old; humanity is moving toward a society where the elderly outnumber the recently arrived. Such a world will differ from today’s in many outward aspects. Warm-weather locations are likely to grow even more popular, though with climate change, warm-weather locations may come to include Buffalo, New York. Ratings for football, which is loud and aggressive, may wane, while baseball and theatergoing enjoy a renaissance. The shift back toward cities, initiated by the educated young, may give way to another car-centric suburban and exurban growth phase.

The university, a significant aspect of the contemporary economy, centuries ago was a place where the fresh-faced would be prepared for a short life; today the university is a place where adults watch children and grandchildren walk to Pomp and Circumstance. The university of the future may be one that serves all ages. Colleges will reposition themselves economically as offering just as much to the aging as to the adolescent: courses priced individually for later-life knowledge seekers; lots of campus events of interest to students, parents, and the community as a whole; a pleasant college-town atmosphere to retire near. In decades to come, college professors may address students ranging from age 18 to 80.

Products marketed to senior citizens are already a major presence on television, especially during newscasts and weathercasts. Advertising pitched to the elderly may come to dominate the airwaves, assuming there still is television. But consumerism might decline. Neurological studies of healthy aging people show that the parts of the brain associated with reward-seeking light up less as time goes on. Whether it’s hot new fashions or hot-fudge sundaes, older people on the whole don’t desire acquisitions as much as the young and middle-aged do. Denounced for generations by writers and clergy, wretched excess has repelled all assaults. Longer life spans may at last be the counterweight to materialism.

Deeper changes may be in store as well. People in their late teens to late 20s are far more likely to commit crimes than people of other ages; as society grays, the decline of crime should continue. Violence in all guises should continue downward, too. Horrible headlines from Afghanistan or Syria are exceptions to an overall trend toward less warfare and less low-intensity conflict. As Steven Pinker showed in the 2011 book Better Angels of Our Nature, total casualties of combat, including indirect casualties from the economic harm associated with fighting, have been declining, even as the global population has risen. In 1950, one person in 5,000 worldwide died owing to combat; by 2010, this measure was down to one person in 300,000. In recent years, far more people have been killed by car crashes than by battle. Simultaneously, per capita military expenditure has shrunk. My favorite statistic about the world: the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that, adjusting to today’s dollars, global per capita military spending has declined by one-third in the past quarter century.

The end of the Cold War, and the proxy conflicts it spawned, is an obvious influence on the subsiding of warfare, as is economic interconnectedness. But aging may also be a factor. Counterculture optics notwithstanding, polls showed that the young were more likely to support the Vietnam War than the old were; the young were more likely to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, too. Research by John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, suggests that as people age, they become less enthusiastic about war. Perhaps this is because older people tend to be wiser than the young—and couldn’t the world use more wisdom?

Older people also report, to pollsters and psychologists, a greater sense of well-being than the young and middle-aged do. By the latter phases of life, material and romantic desires have been attained or given up on; passions have cooled; and for most, a rich store of memories has been compiled. Among the core contentions of the well-being research of the Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman is that “in the end, memories are all you keep”—what’s in the mind matters more than what you own. Regardless of net worth, the old are well off in this sense.

Should large numbers of people enjoy longer lives in decent health, the overall well-being of the human family may rise substantially. In As You Like It, Jaques declares, “Man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” The first five embody promise and power—infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, and success. The late phases are entirely negative—pantaloon, a period as the butt of jokes for looking old and becoming impotent; then second childishness, a descent into senile dependency. As life expectancy and health span increase, the seven ages may demand revision, with the late phases of life seen as a positive experience of culmination and contentment.

Further along may be a rethinking of life as better structured around friendship than around family, the basic unit of human society since the mists of prehistory. In the brief life of previous centuries, all a man or woman could hope to accomplish was to bear and raise children; enervation followed. Today, life is longer, but an education-based economy requires greater investments in children—contemporary parents are still assisting offspring well into a child’s 20s. As before, when the child-rearing finally is done, decline commences.

But if health span extends, the nuclear family might be seen as less central. For most people, bearing and raising children would no longer be the all-consuming life event. After child-rearing, a phase of decades of friendships could await—potentially more fulfilling than the emotionally charged but fast-burning bonds of youth. A change such as this might have greater ramifications for society than changes in work schedules or health-care economics.

Regardless of where increasing life expectancy leads, the direction will be into the unknown—for society and for the natural world. Felipe Sierra, the researcher at the National Institute on Aging, puts it this way: “The human ethical belief that death should be postponed as long as possible does not exist in nature—from which we are now, in any case, diverging.” Ω

[Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is the author of The Leading Indicators (2012) and The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America (2013). Easterbrook received a BA (political science) from Colorado College and an MA (journalism) from Northwestern University.]

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