Tuesday, 10 September 2013

How come you’re still alive?

Here is the most important news of the last 150 years: You’re alive when you should be dead!

The most important difference between the world today and 150 years ago isn’t airplane flight or nuclear weapons or the Internet. It’s lifespan. We used to live 35 or 40 years on average …, but now we live almost 80. We used to get one life. Now we get two.

Cool, huh. Which gives you more time to handle all those neat #FirstWorldProblems.

This whole ‘second lifetime’ is a gift from our industrial civilisation. And, given how much our industrial civilisation is so regularly abused and so blithely taken for granted, blessed are the scribes like Slate’s Laura Helmuth who bother to ask the question Why Are You Not Dead Yet?, and then answer it so succinctly.

You may well be living your second life already. Have you ever had some health problem that could have killed you if you’d been born in an earlier era? Leave aside for a minute the probabilistic ways you would have died in the past—the smallpox that didn’t kill you because it was eradicated by a massive global vaccine drive, the cholera you never contracted because you drink filtered and chemically treated water. Did some specific medical treatment save your life? It’s a fun conversation starter: Why are you not dead yet? It turns out almost everybody has a story, but we rarely hear them; life-saving treatments have become routine. I asked around, and here is a small sample of what would have killed my friends and acquaintances:

  • Adrian’s lung spontaneously collapsed when he was 18.
  • Becky had an ectopic pregnancy that caused massive internal bleeding.
  • Carl had St. Anthony’s Fire, a strep infection of the skin that killed John Stuart Mill.*
  • Dahlia would have died delivering a child (twice) or later of a ruptured gall bladder.
  • David had an aortic valve replaced.
  • Hanna acquired Type 1 diabetes during a pregnancy and would die without insulin.
  • Julia had a burst appendix at age 14.
  • Katherine was diagnosed with pernicious anemia in her 20s. She treats it with supplements of vitamin B-12, but in the past she would have withered away.
  • Laura (that’s me) had scarlet fever when she was 2, which was once a leading cause of death among children but is now easily treatable with antibiotics.
  • Mitch was bitten by a cat (filthy animals) and had to have emergency surgery and a month of antibiotics or he would have died of cat scratch fever.

After a while, these not-dead-yet stories start to sound sort of absurd, like a giddy, hooray-for-modernity response to The Gashleycrumb Tinies. Edward Gorey’s delightfully dark poem is an alphabetical list of children (fictional!) who died gruesome deaths: “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs/ B is for Basil assaulted by bears.” Here’s how modern science, medicine, and public health would amend it:

    M is for Maud who was swept out to sea … then brought back to shore by a lifeguard and resuscitated
    by emergency medical technicians.
O is for Olive run through with an awl … but saved during a four-hour emergency surgery to repair her
    collapsed lung.
S is for Susan, who perished of fits … or who would have, anyway, if her epilepsy hadn’t been diagnosed
    promptly and treated with powerful anticonvulsant drugs.

Over forty? Then if you’re not dead yet—and from some of the comments that appear here, some NotPC readers must be—you have industrialised medicine, nutrition, housing, water reticulation, wastewater, hygiene, food preservation and living standards to thank for not just giving you that life over forty, but giving you one to enjoy. 

In other words, what you have to thank for your “second life” is our industrial civilisation, unique in human history, on the back of which the human environment has been getting better and better. (Which, really, is the real point of industrial civilisation.)

So you could say that every one of us who survived childbirth, and every one of us over forty today, has a belching smokestack to thank for being alive.

Think of that next time you drive past one.


1 comment:

  1. We used to live 35 or 40 years on average …, but now we live almost 80. We used to get one life. Now we get two.

    That is misleading. Past low average life expectancy's are all about high infant mortality, getting past five has always been half way to sixty.

    The important benefit of modern engineered hygiene in water and sewerage and medical innovation (mostly vaccination) is that more of us get to have a life at all, not that those who do get one twice as long.


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