Our plummeting life expectancy is an extraordinary event that flies in the face of past historical patterns. We are dying younger than any other industrialized nation, according to David Wallace-Wells in a recent NYT article: We are “dying younger than in China, Cuba, the Czech Republic or Lebanon.”
According to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, recent research suggests our country may be in extreme peril. He emphasizes it is the most disturbing data on America he was seen in a long time and “especially scary remembering that demographics were the best early warning on the collapse of the U.S.S.R.”
Past studies have emphasized that those most likely to be dying earlier were non-college white men in middle age, often by suicide or opioid overdose, which became known as “deaths of despair.” But new research tells a different story: Middle-age mortality is no longer singularly responsible for lowering our life expectancy. As John Burn-Murdoch reveals in The Financial Times :
Except for superrich Americans, “individuals at every income percentile are now dying sooner than their counterparts in Britain, for instance. For the poorer half of the country, simply being an American is equivalent to about four full years of life lost compared with the average Brit.”
Firearms account for almost half this mortality disparity with England, but the percentage of older folks dying is not increasing. What’s growing is the deaths of children and teenagers!
“The horror is that…the average American kindergarten at least one child can expect to be buried by his or her parents. The country’s exceptionalism of violence is more striking among the young but extends into early adulthood; …Americans’ chances of dying are, by some estimates, more than twice as high, on average, as their counterparts’ in Britain and Japan.”
“As summed up by Summers, “the United States is moving not forward but backward, at unprecedented speed, and now the country’s catastrophic mortality anomaly has spread to its children.” To my way of thinking, this state of affairs can be best understood by the work of the remarkable 19th-century sociologist Emile Durkheim.
He believed that “social consciousness” was a real and essential force. “It is only by tapping into these collective social realities that individuals can “understand each other.” A thriving society, by definition, has a highly developed social consciousness which is what gives life meaning for individual members. Anomie happens when this collective consciousness splinters: life loses its meaning, suicides increase, society flounders, going belly-up if no remedies are taken.
Based on the statistics already cited, can be be any doubt we are suffering from anomie in America.
The culprits are numerous, but one fundamental cause is flying under the radar. Perhaps I am just a modern-day Luddite, but I believe technology plays a significant role in our malaise. I agree with Sacaras, publisher of The Convivial Society newsletter, who believes “the culture of technological modernity, while undoubtedly improving the lot of humanity in important ways, has become, in other respects, inhospitable to our species.”
He quotes Wendell Berry from his book Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition: “What I am against-and without a minute’s hesitation or apology-is our slovenly willingness to allow machines and the idea of the machine to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures.”
We are all becoming widgets on the assembly line of commerce. A good example was my recent plane trip from hell (which I detailed in last week’s column). We have no choice when we fly: Airlines require us to conform to the efficiencies of mass production rather than what’s suitable for flesh-and-blood people.
Another example is having a robot answer your phone call — something that is now becoming ubiquitous — which relays your request, after an delay, to another flunky who has no clue how to help. Our lives are increasingly determined by what’s best for the machine, not what’s good for us and our human community.
I’ve watched machines progressively take over our lives over the last 50 years. Now AI is accelerating this trend into unknown territory: taking us to places acceptable only to software programmers and bureaucrats suffering from OCD. Wendell Berry anticipated this development 25 years ago and predicted we would soon have to make a choice:
“It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”
Photo caption “Saying Goodbye” CC Jean Stimmell: 2016 in SF
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by E. Durkheim, New York: The Free Press, 1965. Page 485