Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, March 25, 2019

Why worry about pollution if life expectancy keeps increasing? Ahem.... are you sure?

It seems clear that we won't get to reach Methuselah's age. In most Western countries, the average life expectancy has started decreasing from 2014 and we are, maybe, on the edge of a Seneca Cliff for longevity. It could be an effect of pollution, but not just that. Image source.

If you ever got into a discussion on the effects of pollution, you know what happens. You list the problems with heavy metals, from lead to mercury, pesticides, fine particles, plastics, everything that is -- or may be -- carcinogenic, including the deadly glyphosate, aka Roundup. Then, there comes always someone who says, "but all that cannot be so bad! After all, people keep living longer and longer!"

Alas, very, unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Let me show you some data: let's start from the US (source).

And here are some data about European countries, from the World Bank

Clearly, the nearly linear trend of growth of the life expectancy at birth stopped around 2014 in most Western countries. To put things in perspective, it is not the same for other countries: both in China and in Russia, life expectancy is lower, but it keeps increasing. (again, data from the World Bank)

Before going on, a disclaimer: there is sufficient uncertainty in the data that the trend should be considered as weak. We are on a plateau that might see oscillations that could be interpreted as a return to growth.

But, clearly, something has happened in 2014 that interrupted a trend so stable that it was considered not only the way things were, but the way things had to be. What was that? Data from an article by Gilbert Berdine can tell us something about what's happening, at least in the US.

The mortality of old people keeps declining, what's causing the overall decline in life expectancy is the rising mortality of the young. Berdine comments as (highlighting mine):
The rising mortality rates for young people are attributed to suicides in general and opioid overdoses in particular. These are deaths of despair. . . . It is unclear what is causing despair in young people during a period of time when we are told that the economy is expanding.
We are told that the economy is expanding, yes, but something seems to be wrong with that. In some countries, such as Italy, the economy has been contracting for at least a decade. In the US, instead, the data show that the economy is skyrocketing upward, at least if measured in terms of the GDP. America is becoming great again, actually it never stopped being that (again, in terms of the GDP). So, why is the life expectancy going down in both countries?

What's making the young killing themselves by guns and drugs? Might pollution be affecting people's mental sanity? Yes, that's exactly the case. In a recent paper, Shin and others report that not only pollution causes "subjective stress, depressive disorders, health-related quality of life (QoL) and suicide." They don't speak about life expectancy but they say, "The risk of higher stress or poor QoL in subjects < age 65 increased with air pollution more than did that in subjects ≥ age 65"

So, it is clear that pollution is taking its toll on human health, especially among the young. That may explain the "despair" that Berdine considers the cause for the increased mortality. And there may be perfectly good reasons for the young to despair, even without the help of pollution. In any case, we may have reached a Seneca Cliff of life expectancy.

Another dream of our society that turned into a nightmare. Another chunk of future that we stole from our children and grandchildren. No wonder that they are not happy with us.


  1. US economy is expanding due to QE, stocks and bonds bubble, printing worthless money, etc. The way the GDP is calculated helps this statistical acrobatics.

    The real question is is the higher life expectancy really necessary in a world that is more and more like some kind of anti-utopia jail? Do you prefer 40 years of freedom or 80 years in jail?

  2. DOn't even talk about the life expectancy of the other 99% of life on the planet, the flora and fauna that is dying off at a rate 10,000 times the base rate due to pollution/habitat loss. Do we even want to live on a planet devoid of all life but homocolossis?

  3. The fact that no "scientists" factor in the ongoing daily radionuclides going into the pacific from the ongoing 4 meltdowns has nothing to do with mortality of course. Nothing to see here. Move along. (sic) That's why noone has the balls to actually test and release the data. To big of a Rubicon for humans to cross. That we have been so wrong, in so many ways, trusting science when it was in fact as based in ethics as religion....IT is the continuation of a experiment gone dangerously wrong. The fact that no one, not even our esteemed blog host here comments on the elephant in the room says a lot. In the meantime, Tepco has released info saying the airborne fallout doubled last year. And the releases into the ocean continue..... The failure to look at this as the cause of many things, indicates the true nature of "science". It is as ignorant a pursuit as faith, as the purveyors of its' ideals have as little respect for the integration of their belief system on the humans condition as..... the worst genocidal maniac among us today. This profound arrogance, of human beliers, that couches itself into realities that do not exist, is the downfall of our species.

  4. During 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia thousands of tons of depleted uranim bombs were used. Cancer rate skyrocketed in Serbia during last 20 years. But this is just one source of environmental pollution. Humans are adding new sources every day. There is no end to it. WHO is also part of cover up:

  5. Hello Ugo,

    Thank you for your post. I don't think a lowering of life expectancy is in itself a bad thing. The causes of decrease you mention are side effects of the industrial production mode that caused the raised life expectancy in the first place. For those of us who feel a responsibility toward Nature we know that a greater human population (coupled with overconsumption) is a driver of extinction of non-human wild species. Nor does a human overpopulated cement planet sound very attractive for humans either. A shorter lifespan solves the problem in gentler ways than wars or famines. At the same time old age is for many people not such a pleasant proposition with mental and physical ailments, isolation, the thought of "I've seen it all" etc.

  6. Sorry Ugo: I just reread your article and saw I had missed the point in my previous comment. You wrote: "The mortality of old people keeps declining, what's causing the overall decline in life expectancy is the rising mortality of the young. " Still a lot of my comment stands.

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  8. I found the exact data for 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia:

    30 thousand tons of bombs, 15 tons of depleted uranium

    You understand why I won't feel sorry when I see the destruction of western societies.

  9. What's the life expectancy in Europe after Brexit & Gilet Jaunes?

    Don't miss this morning's Collapse Cafe v2.0 with Guest Jason Heppenstall of 22 Billion Energy Slaves.

    Europe Special Collapse Wake-Up Call Edition: Brexit & Gilet Jaunes – Send in the B.U.M.s.


  10. The danger is real:

  11. And now bio-hazards! Another proof that civilization creates "solutions" that creates new and bigger problems:



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)