Human Sustainability IV: A Math Problem

God of Longevity (Shoulao) with children,18th century China

3 April 2019

By Gary A. Puckrein, PhD

In my second post in this series, I postulated the existence of an equilibrium of conditions within whose boundaries human life has no predictable limit, and I suggested that the postulate was worthy of exploration. I am continuing that conversation in this post.

Social systems—human colonies—have highly distinctive mortality and morbidity patterns. These patterns are informed by complex interactions among biological processes (e.g., genetics, the microbiota), human activities (e.g., pollution, smoking, diet and exercise), public health (e.g., air and water quality, housing, food, infectious-disease control), medical technology, and social factors (e.g., education, financial resources, health care). We can calculate rates of acute events (hospitalizations, emergency room visits, disabilities, death and illness) and well-being as outputs of a social system—not much different from calculating the industrial output of a society or consumer confidence in economic circumstances.

Over the centuries, with some setbacks, demographic trend lines have moved toward increased longevity. Before the 21st century, improvements that promoted life and the growth of human colonies were generally related to the evolution of public health systems that could provide safe water and food to larger and larger populations. Reductions in infant mortality and infectious diseases are often credited as the principal reasons for the increase in longevity in the 20th century.

The growth, collapse, and restoration of social systems’ ability to sustain their populations are instructive. Impermanence is the rule, particularly as we do not always manage change to maintain sustainability. Even today, we see fluctuations and variations in housing, employment, food supplies, and distribution of medical care within and between social systems, breeding poor health outcomes. Just a few years ago, measles was declared a vanquished disease, yet it has reappeared as some complacent families have refused vaccination. Social systems that are more effective in promoting human sustainability learn how to mitigate such reversals.

Today more advanced societies have the capacity to sustain large populations through well-ordered distribution systems that provide safe food and water. They are also driving a medical revolution in which we are literally editing our genes (the book of life) to eradicate diseases and conditions that once plagued our communities.

Sustainability is measurable. Where the public will exists, human sustainability may be reduced to a math problem: If we set the preservation of high-quality, long lives as the prime directive of our social system, we may find points of intersection for life-sustaining equilibrium. There will always be objective realities that are inhospitable to human life, but perhaps we can create an equilibrium of conditions that sustains and extends human lives beyond current expectations.

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