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Lions Roar : Nov 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2007 81 upon and who find themselves less entangled in the shortsighted avarice and competition of the marketplace. Even when seniors band together in a lobbying effort like the AARP, the spirit of the enterprise is not that of a vested interest out to profit to the hilt. Of course seniors defend their claim to entitlements. Social Security and Medicare were promised to them, and, for some, that promise is all they have in life. But nobody involved in that effort is out to make a personal fortune from Social Security pay- ments and medical insurance. They are more likely concerned about not being burdens on their children. The effort is a com- passionate and cooperative one that invokes very different values than the predatory behavior that prevails in the market. That, at least, is the possibility as we examine the rising cost and cultural influence of a longevous population within the ecological context of late industrial society. Identifying aging as an ecological force has significant political implications. What happens when we place a dif- ficult issue like senior entitlements in an ecological perspective? It may sud- denly take on a fresh, more hopeful character. Ecologizing a problem el- evates it above the usual adversarial format. It is no longer a matter of bad luck, nor is there anybody who must be blamed. It becomes our common fate, our common project—our chance to learn from nature and serve the planet by living within its limits. When, for example, we discover that major rivers can be subjected to only so much man-made straightening before their floods become unman- ageably violent, we realize that we have learned a lesson about the nature of things. We see that it is foolish to curse our fate in such matters, as if we wished that rivers might be designed differently. By the same token, once we discover that it is the fate of an industrial population to age and to alter its values in the direction of its elders, we realize that we are dealing with a pattern of life that cannot be altered by some clever political maneuver or quick budgetary fix. This is a new way to look at longevity. We begin with demo- graphics, but then we seek to integrate the ideas and ideals, the values and views that people take with them into their senior years. Within such a perspective, matters that are often treated in a purely statistical manner assume a very different force. Death, for example. Normally, the death rate appears in demographics as a simple calculation: so many deaths per thousand. That calculation nev- er includes life expectancy as a factor; life expectancy is a sepa- rate calculation, often of no interest to demographers. Thus, if a death rate of 15 to 16 per thousand is given, one cannot tell from the figure who is doing the dying and who is doing the surviv- ing. Is it infants, adolescents, young mothers, old people? But if demographers pay little attention to that question, politicians may give it close scrutiny. In contemporary China, one suspects there is a deliberate effort by the state to shorten the lives of the elderly by inadequate care in order to save the costs and divert them toward development. The question “who (predominantly) is the population?” clearly makes a difference to the society’s future. To take an extreme case, in medieval Europe at various times, between one-third and one-half of the population lived within a monastic discipline. Life in the monasteries and convents was celibate and abstemi- ous, or at least as much so as human nature allows it to be under the demanding vows the monks and nuns took. If the population ecologists are examining is of that character, they should expect everything they measure about consumption, pollution, and demo- graphic grow th to come out ver y differently than it would for a population dominated by high-living, middle-class, suburban Americans, or for the population of a Latin American society dominated by great insecurity and large families. Neither human beings nor human societies are interchangeable. Longevity and entitlements do not at first glance look like environmental issues. They seem to be fiscal matters that have nothing to do with wilderness or endangered species. These are, however, issues that engage people directly and within the pres- ent generation. Conservatives have, by their panicky approach to the costs of Medicare and Social Security, placed the issue at the top of our political agenda. They may live to regret they have done so. For what they have done is to dramatize the fact that we have reached a stage in our industrial development where, by virtue of the very progress we have so strenuously pursued, the population of the industrial societies is more and more domi- nated by the needs of the elderly. Like it or not, fewer and fewer decisions about our resources, capital, and energy can be made solely on the basis of what world-beating entrepreneurs, who ap- peal primarily to the young and middle-aged, find of value. In effect, our society is aging beyond the values that created it. The virtues we associate with age—prudence, caution, delib- eration, security—are the very opposite of those Promethean qualities that built the modern world. But as the demographic pattern of high industrial society shifts toward the senior years, these are the virtues that are bound to gain greater weight in our counsels of state. It has always been the role of elders to raise the great questions of meaning and purpose that loom large as death approaches. As we grow older we naturally become more inward and contemplative, wondering what it has all been for: the effort and the anxiety, the hard pursuit of success and acquisition. Yo u can’t take it with you—as familiar as the phrase may be, it is one of those clichés that happens to be indisputably true. Now, those who best understand that phrase are coming to play a far greater part in our political affairs, demanding a greater share of our resources, and, in turn, deflecting our single-minded drive for growth, profit, and achievement. This may be one of the As we grow older we naturally become more inward and contemplative. It has always been the role of elders to raise the great questions of meaning and purpose. NOV 78-103.indd 81 NOV 78-103.indd 81 8/31/07 10:44:42 AM 8/31/07 10:44:42 AM