A Rebellious 70-Something Speaks for His Generation
--and For the Future
For all you Millennials, arrested-adolescent
Gen-Xers, and Boomers who still believe America is the land of endless opportunity and endlessly spacious skies,
I have bad news.
As the commencement speaker said at that high-school graduation ceremony
a few months ago, "You are not special." If you continue to take your country, your
planet's environment, your health, and your unquestioned intelligence for granted, as most of you do, you are headed
for a kind of regret in your old age that even that Arizona sheriff whose name needs no further publicity could wish on you.
Most sadly, if you continue to hold the kind of patronizing view of people who are older than you
that has been implicit in almost everything you say or do, you will be reinforcing a form of cultural ostracism
that will ultimately turn that regret to a dawning sense--even as your sense of life fades--that your life has been a cruel
hoax. Either you will die prematurely or you, too, will become an older person who is ostracized.
I can explain why I speak for a generation that has been culturally exiled, I need to ask your indulgence in a short rant:
1. Like most American men, I'm fairly addicted to sports news.
But I can't help noticing how sports media assume that for athletes, life is over at age 40, more or less--and typically
begins to decline at 35. Of course, if the actions of athletes are measured in moments and secondes, that's
true. No 50-year-old can run the length of a football field fast enough to chase down an athletic 30-year-old,
so there are no 50-year-olds in the NFL--or NBA, or Major Leagues, or X-Games. But does that necessarily make 50- or
60- or 70-year olds an inherently inferior athlete, as all of the sports reporting implies? Well, is a bulldog
an inferior breed of dog because it can't run as fast as a greyhound? No! It's simply a different animal
with different capabilitgies. And that's what an older athlete is compared with a young one: a different animal.
And there's abundant evidence that while older athletes have less power and speed than young ones, they have more of certain
other attributes that are important to human wellbeing and survival. The average 70-year-old, for example is more likely
to reach age 90 than the average 50-year-old is. A certain number of those who reach 50 will die--whether of heart disease,
diabetes, dementia, alcoholism, murder, war, or accidents arising from poor judgment--before they ever get to 70. The
70-year-olds, whether by skill or luck, have all succeeded in surmounting those barriers to longevity.
Almost by definition, 70-year-olds have better survivor skills than Boomers or Gen-Xs--yet in the media largely run by younger
people, the septuagenarians are condescendingly treated as weak.
I don't like it that people
my age aren't treated as the "different animal" that we are, and that some of us have trained hard to be.
I may be the kind of animal that can't play wide receiver in the NFL, but I can run for eight hours at a pace that 99.9
percent of American 50- or 40-year olds couldn't keep up for one hour. And by the way, I'm not
special either. There are lots of men and women my age or older who do things like this. We're not responsible
for the fact that millions of our contemporaries have essentially given up on life (an AARP publication notes that 70
percent of Americans over 50 are abdominally obese) and are turning to gristle. Maybe a big factor is that the
mainstream opinion-makers, especially the sportswriters and pundits, are themselves so gristled and settled that
they assume dead flesh just comes with the territory of old age. The result is that people who do grow in vitality and
wisdom as they grow older are publicly invisible.
2. Mentally, as well as physically,
old peope are now widely assumped to be less competent than the Boomers who run the country, who in turn are coming to be
regarded as less dynamic or competent than the GenXes who run Facebook or Twitter. It's true, of course, that millions
of peopkle in their 70s or older are in the grip of dementia or Alzheimer's, but it's also assumed that those afflictions
are only the sand end of a long decline into which all older people slowly slide: as we age, our memories become spotty; our
perceptions a bit blurry; our creativity exhausted; our ability to calculate slowed. There's emperical truth in
this, but the public perception of that truth is as stereotyped and misbegotten now as mainstream perceptions of "Negroes"
or "Queers" were a half-century ago. What's rarely seen or acknowledged, now, is that as some
faculties weaken in older people, others strengthen. There was a time, not so long ago, when old people were valued
for their wisdom and judgment. Now, those attributes have become just antiquated words, like epitaphs on gravestones.
3. Most terribly, and ironically, more than any other group it is we old people who
have done this to ourselves--and in exiling ourselves from the world of bright minds and intelligent discourse, we have tragically
condemned all the generations that follow us,. Why? In previous millennia, a dark age could be succeeded by an
enlightened one; and a dying generation was normally succeeded by a newly robust one. Now, for the first time
in our past million years of evolution, that is no longer true. In the past 66 years, since I was a little
boy of four, and since a newly invented app called "Little Boy" wiped out a city in one second, the physical powers
commanded by my generation of expanded so enormousy that the natural regenerative capacities of our planet Earth have been
overwhelmed, It was our hubristic obsessions with ever shorter-term rewards and ever greater productivity--on a planet
of finite resosurces--that has transmogrified our biosphere into a deeply ailing planety that is now physically and biologically
too ill to recover in time for those once inevitable enlightments and regenerations to occur again anytime soon, Climatic
change and biodiversity loss, and tyhe capacityy of the planet to support a population of 7 billion-going-on 10 billion people
are happening too fast for our bright 30- or 40-soimething offspring and their wunderkind children--our clueless grandchildren--to
do anything about.
So, end of rant. And with that background in mind, let me briefly conclude
with a less strident voice about what it really is to be my age, which with good nutrition and exercise and a little
luck you will be too--and maybe more quickly than you expect. As you get older, the minutes (and days, and years)
go by ever faster in your perception, which may be why for us, so many more of those minutes go by in the time it takes
us to run a 10k or marathon.
I've noticed that colleges and univesities have recently been
putting more emphasis on technical training and job skills (especially in the rise of for-profit businesses like the "University
of Phoenix"), while cutting back on so-called liberal arts--history, social sciences, the philosophy of science, literature, and
the arts. But those of us who are old enough to have studied the literature of Western civilization in college may recall
how our professors pointed out that one of the keys to understanding human nature is recognizing--as our literature teaches--that
tragedy is not the same thing as disaster. Disasters are events like earthquakes destroying towns, or other inexplicable
events that we also call "acts of God." Tragedies are the often terrible and ironic unintended consquences
of human strengths. But sometimes, there's a connection between presumed natural disaster and unrecognized
tragedy: What we assumed to be an act oif God was in fact an act of man.
And that's where
my generation comes in. My generation is the most tragic generation in the history of the human species. There have been,
say, 2,000 generations since the rise of Homo sapiens. Mine has been (so far) the strongest of them all, in terms of
scientific and technological advances beyond their predecessors, and capacity to control and manipulate the physical environment.
(The Boomer, GenXes, X-boxers, and prepping-for-Harvard-at-age-five generations have done amazing and incredibly
You-Tube-worthy things, but have not yet rivaled the invention of the hydrogen bomb, discovery of DNA, engineering of organisims,
or travel to the moon, all done by people now older than 70 or dead.) But with all those discoveries
have come a growing litany of disasters. My generation has a lot to brag about, but now--if we're honest--far more
to regret. So far, this "old-people" generation, which if you are in your 30s, 40s, or 50s, includes your
parents, is the most technically advanced generation (compared with their immediate predecessors) in human history, and
also, now, the most morally destitute. And curiously, your attitude toward us reflects a pervasive obliviousness in
both of those respects: Despite the brilliance of our achievements, you regard us as mentally failing; and despite the crimes
against humanity we've committed, you treat us with patronizing tolerance. If you were more astute, you would respect
us for our powers but deeply condemn us for our transgressions.
So, what do I want? Two things:
(1) a message to my generation and (2) a message to the generations (including our own children's) who will inherit the
residue of our tragedy. The message to my own generation: If you're going to take advantage of our costly medical
interventions, subsidies, and comforts to stay alive in your dotage, get back to the work of using your brains as you
once did, only now to reverse the catastrophic course you've set our species on. And to those who follow us: Don't.
Make a new course for yourselves and your children, before it's too late.
For human civilization, it may be too late now.
This isn't prediction, it's science. And the science is hard to fault.
on "Connections" at the top of this page
The Death of News, and Growing Cluelessness
Click on "Naked Emperors" at top of this page
The most urgent questions we humans face now are virtually never discussed in our media, churches,
schools, or expanding culture of consumption. This site leapfrogs those institutions to explore those questions.
Our civilization is like a train that has run off its tracks at accelerating speed, with the brakes broken and the engineer
asleep. Below is a quick summary of the hypothesis that this site explores, followed by two
critical questions to which it seeks answers--I hope with your help.
1. Over a span of thousands
of millennia before civilization began, our early-human ancestors developed
traits of extraordinary endurance, patience, and ability to envision what we could not yet see with
These were the traits that eventually enabled us to build civilization --to adapt to rapidly changing conditions
and to plan for future adaptations as well.
3. Yet, in our thrall with what we have created, we are rapidly abandoning the very qualities
that enabled us to build civilization in the first place -- and in doing so, we risk losing it all. We have abandoned
endurance for a sprint economy, and patience in favor of ever greater speed in all things. We are abandoning
our ability to envision and plan, in favor of immediate gratification.
4. The overwhelming evidence of physical, biological, ecological, and climate science has warned us,
repeatedly, that time is short for reconnecting with the life of the Earth on which we evolved. If we want civilization
to survive, regenerate, and have any chance of thriving beyond the next half-century, we will have to rediscover and recapture the
qualities that brought us to the dance.
The Two Questions arising from that hypothesis:
1. What is the nature of those primordial
traits -- endurance, patience, and capacity to envision -- that enabled us to build civilization and must now be regenerated
if we are to have a sustainable human presence in the future? Some of the answers come to us from neuroscience,
evolutionary biology, and paleoanthropology. Some come from the experience of modern practitioners of endurance and
patience -- ultrarunners, slow-food advocates, practitioners of meditation, and many others. Some of thse perspectives
can be found on the blog: http://enduranceandsustainability.blogspot.com.
What are the connections between the fitness and endurance of individuals and the sustainability of human society?