Life Time in the New Year
What can we expect in a time of unrelenting climate crisis? In this warm winter in this new year, I am reflecting on colloquial intersections between ideas about time, health, and environment. I include a header photo depicting a discarded Christmas tree as one way of evoking these ideas. I’ve been examining these topics in larger research projects on expectations about seasonal illness and histories of medical botany. These ideas are newly on my mind at this juncture between years, when health-related and environmental metrics are often updated.
Specifically, I want to consider: What environmental logics undergird the idea of “life expectancy”? I’m thinking about this question in terms of the calculation of life expectancy as a statistic that reflects certain environmental health hazards and may capture some impacts of climate crisis (especially as disasters linked concretely or obliquely to climate decrease life expectancy). But I’m also thinking about the idea of life expectancy in terms of its colloquial circulation. To put it differently, I’m wondering: In what ways do calculations of “life expectancy” now and in the future reflect climate crisis? When and how will ideas about climate crisis come to shape this term in colloquial discourse (as is already sometimes the case)?
NPR reports that life expectancy in the United States is now at its lowest in nearly two decades. This news is a devastating reflection of public health in the U.S. As NPR notes, declining average life expectancy reflects the impacts of both COVID-19 deaths and the opioid crisis, alongside other longstanding factors.
In one way, life expectancy clearly captures environmental determinants of health. The CDC offers a detailed account of methods and features a map breaking down life expectancy by state, county, and census tract. These maps make visible health disparities that may also align with vulnerability to environmental risk factors. As a Harvard Public Health report on U.S. life expectancy notes, alarming life expectancy disparities persist among racial and ethnic groups, and “lower life expectancy in southern states raises the possibility that politics, vaccination policies, pollution, climate, or other variable factors may contribute to discrepancies in life expectancy.” Life expectancy reflects, among many other things, what Rob Nixon calls the slow violence produced by exposure to environmental hazards.
In another way, though, the popular imagination of life expectancy seems to project a future, forecasting a world in which 70 years from now, human health may be determined by relatively familiar factors. The very idea of life expectancy or a lifetime facilitates the imagination that climate crisis will not catastrophically alter human life in the immediate term. This is no surprise, perhaps, since public health requires the imagination of a public, a government, and a social order. And it’s true, as Nixon and others make abundantly clear, that the health impacts of climate crisis are not always rendered in the catastrophic forms that apocalypse fiction often narrates.
I’m not critiquing the calculation of life expectancy, which I understand to be an essential public health metric. Instead, I want to place this way of measuring the time of life alongside others to consider its discursive impacts. While “life expectancy” is a specific, statistical term, I’m interested in its linguistic relationship to other discussions of the time of life. I was surprised to learn that “lifetime” or its hyphenated version “life-time” has an extremely long history, stretching back, according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s English-language attributions, all the way to the thirteenth century. The term “life expectancy” is a more recent arrival. The OED’s citations for life expectancy date back to only 1848 and thus coincide with an increasing focus on population-level health metrics and the professionalization of public health across the nineteenth century. A slightly different phrase, “expectation of life,” dates back to the eighteenth century and connects with the emergence of life tables and the calculation of life expectancy for insurance purposes.
As a population-level metric that abstracts the time of an individual life into an average expected lifespan, life expectancy data reflects the aspirations and limitations of current public health infrastructures and shapes policy and intervention initiatives. I wonder if and when climate crisis will be more consistently and more directly conjoined to life expectancy in public discourse, as the possibility of healthy human futures collides with ongoing climate crisis. What would it look like for life expectancy and climate crisis to be conjoined in colloquial use? Such a conjunction might embed the time of human life more visibly in discussions of large scale and long term climatological disasters.
“Life Exepectancy,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/life-expectancy.htm
“life expectancy” in “life, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2022, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/108093. Accessed 18 January 2023.
“lifetime, n. and adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2022, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/108130. Accessed 18 January 2023.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2013.
Noguchi, Yuki. “American life expectancy is now at its lowest in nearly two decades,” NPR, December 22, 2022. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/12/22/1144864971/american-life-expectancy-is-now-at-its-lowest-in-nearly-two-decades
Shmerling, Robert. H, MD, “Why life expectancy in the US is falling,” Harvard Health Publishing, October 20, 2022, http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-life-expectancy-in-the-us-is-falling-202210202835
Discarded Christmas tree, South Bend, IN, January 2023. Image by the author.