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Lifespan: Three Months a Year

Everybody knows where the population explosion came from. Two centuries ago birth rates and death rates were high everywhere, and population growth was very slow. Then clean water, good food and antibiotics radically cut the death rate—and the human population of this planet increased 300 percent in the past 90 years.

Eventually, as people moved into the cities and big families were no longer an advantage, the birth rate dropped too. The world’s population is still growing, but it will only increase by 50 percent in the next 90 years. So far, so obvious. But what’s happening to the human lifespan is equally dramatic.

Here’s the key statistic: the average human lifespan in a developed country has been increasing at three months per year ever since the year 1840.

Everybody assumes that lifespan grew much faster in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is growing much slower now. But no. It has plodded along at the same rate, adding about three months to people’s life spans every year, for the past 175 years. And yes, that does mean that a baby born four years from now can expect to live, on average, a whole year longer than a baby born this year.

There have always been some people who lived to 70 or 80, but the average age at death in 1840 was only 40 years. By the year 2000 it was 80 years. That’s 40 more years of life per person in 160 years.

And lifespan is still increasing at the same rate. In Britain, for example, the average lifespan has increased by 11 more years in the past 44 years. Three months per year, just like in the 19th century.

This is why actuaries predict that babies born in the year 2000 will have an average lifespan of 100 years. Give those babies the 80 years of life that people who died in 2000 enjoyed, then give them an extra three months for every one of those 80 years—and they will have 20 years more years to live. That is, an average of 100 years.

This sounds so outlandish that you instinctively feel there must be something wrong with it, and maybe there is. The fact that it has gone on like this for 175 years doesn’t necessarily mean that it will go on forever. But it’s not stopping or even slowing, so the smart money says that it will continue for quite a while yet

What about the developing world? Most of it has been playing catch-up, and by now the gap isn’t very big any more. In China the average lifespan was only 42 years as recently as 1950—but then it began increasing by six months per year, so that the average Chinese citizen can now expect to live to 75. Once you hit an average lifespan of 75 years, however, the pace slows down to three months per year, the same as in the developed countries.

India is a little behind China: average lifespan was still 42 years in 1960, and is now 68, so it’s still going up at six months per year. But we may expect to see it fall to the normal three months per years in about 2030, after the average Indian lifespan reaches 75.

All the developing countries of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are in the same zone. The sole exception is Africa: where 35 countries have average life spans of 63 years or lower. But even most African countries are seeing a slow growth in average lifespan.

So do we end up with a huge population of people so old they can barely hold their heads up, let alone eat solid food? Probably not.

Three hundred years ago Jonathan Swift wrote about people like that in his satire Gulliver’s Travels. Struldbrugs, he called them: people who could not die, but went on ageing until they were so decrepit and disabled that death would have been a mercy.

They were declared legally dead when they reached eighty, as otherwise their longevity would mean they ended up owning everything. But they weren’t really dead; now it was the public that had to support them for the rest of their interminable lives.

In real life, crippling diseases and disabilities are still mainly a phenomenon of the last decade of life, and as the lifespan lengthens that final decade also moves.

Demographers now talk about the “young old”, who are in their 70s and 80s and still in reasonably good shape—and the “old old”, in their 90s and 100s, who are mostly frail and in need of care. So the time is probably coming when people must work until into their 80s, because the over-65s will amount to a third of the population. No society can afford to support so many.

But by then people won’t be decrepit in their 80s. And the only alternative is dying younger.

No Revolution in Venezuela

28 November 2006

No Revolution in Venezuela

By Gwynne Dyer

“I’m not a populist, I’m a revolutionary,” insisted Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez at a press conference (i.e. a four-hour monologue) in early November. But he is in fact a populist, not a revolutionary — a populist with a great deal of money to hand out, thanks to the record oil prices of the past two years, so a Chavez victory in the presidential election on 3 December was never in doubt. The real question is what he is really doing with all that money and power.

Chavez rejoices in annoying the US government with revolutionary rhetoric, regularly denouncing President Bush as “the Devil,”and when Washington responds with bluster and veiled threats it just fortifies his popularity at home. But so far, after eight years in power, he has attempted nothing that could be called a revolutionary transformation of Venezuelan society. In fact, the rich are just as rich as they ever were.

The lives of many of the poor have certainly got better under Chavez — much improved medical care, free literacy classes, subsidised grocery shops selling basic foods at cut prices, cheap start-up loans for businesses — but that is just oil income diverted straight into services for the poor. Even the 17,000 Cuban doctors provided by Fidel Castro to run the free clinics that have appeared all over the country fit that pattern, for Chavez pays for them with 90,000 barrels a day of free oil for Cuba

There is nothing wrong with spending some of your oil income like this, especially if you think the oil price will stay high for a long time, but it is not revolutionary. It is exactly how many oil-rich kingdoms with deeply conservative rulers ensure decent lives for their poorer citizens and political stability for themselves. In Venezuela, it is now the political norm: the main challenger in this election, Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales, tried to outbid Chavez by promising to issue special black debit cards (“Mi Negra”) with between $270 and $450 of credit on them to 2.5 million poor families. You can’t get much more populist than that.

So what, other that calling the United States bad names, qualifies Chavez as a “revolutionary”? He has gained power by perfectly legitimate democratic elections. He has taken almost nothing new into state ownership except for some — but very few — privately owned sugar plantations. The country still has a free press ( 95 percent of which opposes Chavez), and the middle class is doing so well that new car sales have tripled in Venezuela since 2004.

On a recent visit to Belarus, the last Communist country in Europe, Chavez expressed his deep admiration for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, but one suspects that Lenin would not have reciprocated. One even wonders what Chavez’s great pal Fidel Castro privately thinks of him. (Actually, I think I know: “A well-intentioned man, but an ideologically immature populist with a short attention span.”)

Chavez, together with Evo Morales of Bolivia, is the only evidence for the wave of radical leftist regimes that are allegedly sweeping to power in Latin America, and he is not a very convincing piece of evidence. Elsewhere, the alleged standard-bearers of leftist radicalism are mostly burnt-out cases like Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, once the leader of the Sandinistas but now a Catholic social conservative, or Alan Garcia, the once radical Peruvian politician who was recently re-elected to the presidency on a platform of fiscal responsibility.

The real promoters of change in Latin America are centre-left politicians like Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, but they are social democrats in the classic Western European mould and they mostly avoid anti-American rhetoric. In the end, they will do far more to undermine Washington’s stranglehold on Latin America than Chavez, Castro and Co., and far more good for their people, too.

Chavez, like Castro, is good at revolutionary theatre, but he has little of Castro’s underlying seriousness. Often he offers nothing but froth and bombast, as when he celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Venezuelan flag last March by introducing a new version in which the white horse, rather than going from left to right, goes from right to left. “The white horse is now liberated, free, vigorous, trotting towards the left, representing the return of Bolivar and his dream!” he told the crowd. ” Long live the Fatherland!”

Chavez promises to get serious about the revolution after this election, starting with redistributing most of the land to the peasants (currently, 5 percent of land-owners hold 80 percent of the country’s land), but there is no particular reason to think that he really means it this time. He is a narcissist and an accomplished populist, with oil money to burn. He may even turn out to be Venezuela’s Peron, hanging around to blight the country’s politics for decades after his own time is up thanks to a dedicated following among the poor.

But he is not a revolutionary, and the proof lies in his own definition of the word: “It’s like love. You have to make love every day in many ways. Sometimes carnally, sometimes with your eyes, sometimes with your voice. A revolution is love.”

Right on, Hugo.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“On a recent…span”; and “Chavez, like…Fatherland”)


Human Monsters

28 November 2004

Human Monsters

By Gwynne Dyer

“He could be very entertaining,” Stalin’s niece Kira Allilueva told biographer Robert Service in 1998. The dictator had her jailed in his last round of purges, after the Second World War, but she still remembered how kind he had been to her when she was a little girl, how he took her on his knee and sang songs to her – and that he had a fine singing voice. Not only that, but he wrote limpid poetry in Georgian as a youth, he read Dostoevsky, and his subordinates saw him as a considerate boss.

He also had millions of people killed, which is why, until Service’s recent book, “Stalin: A Biography,” people were reluctant to write about his human side. Yet a moment’s thought will tell you that the great dictators could never have achieved such power over other people if there was not something attractive about their personalities.

Maybe it’s the fact that most of their victims are no longer with us that now makes it possible to see the mass murderers of the mid-twentieth century as complex human beings rather than mere one-dimensional monsters. It will be quite a while before some brave Cambodian makes the first film that shows the human side of Pol Pot, and in China they haven’t even got around yet to admitting officially that Mao Tse-tung was a monster. But in Europe, where the horrors are a bit more distant in time, it’s all the rage.

The current wave of books and films about human monsters began with a couple of ground-breaking Italian biographies that showed the human side of Benito Mussolini, but he wasn’t really in the first team as a mass murderer. Service’s biography of Stalin is in a different league — and so is Berndt Eichinger’s ground-breaking film on the last days of Hitler, “The Downfall” (“Der Untergang”)

Released in Germany to generally positive reviews in September, it is the first German film to tackle Hitler directly — 59 years after the man’s death. Set in the last twelve days of Hitler’s life as the Soviet army fought its way towards his deep, multi-story bunker in central Berlin in April 1945, it documents his rages and his self-pity, but it also shows him as an ordinary human being.

He says “please” and “thank you.” He eats pasta. He is kind to the terrified women who continue to carry out their secretarial duties as the apocalypse rages overhead. When he finally marries his mistress Eva Braun (which he always refrained from doing because, he said, he was wedded to the German people), he is implicitly accepting that it is all over, and that they will have to die in a little while — but he kisses her gently on the lips.

It’s all true, based on the accounts of people who were in the bunker and survived, but it stirred up a storm in Germany. Most of the criticisms echoed Golo Mann, one of Hitler’s first biographers, who warned thirty years ago that the more biographers explored Hitler’s origins and psychology, the more inclined people would be to understand him. From there, Mann said, “it is only a small step towards forgiving and then admiring.” But that is not true.

Admitting that Hitler and the other great murderers were human is painful, but to deny it is to absolve ourselves of any moral connection to what happened. Whatever the risks involved in acknowledging our common humanity, they are outweighed by the need to understand that it is human beings, not instantly recognisable as moral monsters, who commit the great atrocities.

Consider Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the revolutionary hero whose iconic image, taken from a 1960 photo, once graced millions of students’ walls. There is no doubt that injustice inspired genuine rage in him. Since he never got to rule anywhere, however, his image is unsullied by any knowledge of what he would have done if he actually had power.

There has been a film out about Che, too. Called “The Motorcycle Diaries,” it follows the epic trip he and a friend made up the length of Latin America on an old Norton 500 in 1952. It documents how these young Argentine sons of privilege had their eyes opened to the realities of poverty and exploitation in Latin America — and leaves them just before Che joined Fidel Castro in his Mexican exile and began his own meteoric revolutionary career.

Che comes across as an attractive human being, and his dedication to the poor is clearly genuine. But the ideology he espoused in order to change all the human sorrow he saw was Marxism, and he did not water it down. He used to prostrate himself before portraits of Stalin, and he advocated “relentless hatred of the enemy that…(transforms) us into effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines.” If he had led a successful revolution in Bolivia, instead of dying in the attempt in 1967, there would certainly have been mass killing.

Mass murder in the name of a principle is as human as apple pie, borsht and steamed rice. Treating the perpetrators as space aliens simply disguises the nature of the problem. The potential mass killers live among us, as they always have. They often have perfectly good manners, and some even have high ideals. And the only way the rest of us have to keep them from power is to remember always that the end does not justify the means.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Maybe…rage”; and “It’s…true”)

Haiti Curse

19 February 2004

Why Is Haiti Cursed?

By Gwynne Dyer

Haiti’s trip to the brink of civil war began last September, when Amiot Metayer, the leader of a gang of street thugs called the Cannibal Army that enforced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s will in the northern city of Gonaives, threatened to reveal details of the murder of opposition figures. It was presumably in connection with some quarrel over the division of the spoils, but Metayer was promptly murdered. His widow then conducted a voodoo seance in which his soul appeared and identified his killers: local supporters of President Aristide.

Thereupon the Cannibal Army switched sides, changed its name to the Gonaives Resistance Front, and started killing Aristide’s prominent backers in the city. Meanwhile in the capital, Port-au-Prince, non-violent demonstrators protesting Aristide’s rigging of the 2000 elections were being murdered by government-backed vigilantes known as chimeres (monsters): 45 were killed between September and January. Then on 5 February the former Cannibals seized control of the whole city of Gonaives, killing and mutilating over a dozen policemen.

Since then they have seized more towns in the north and been joined by various unsavoury figures from former regimes like former police chief Guy Philippe and former paramilitary death-squad leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain. Aristide denounces them as ‘terrorists’ while his own thugs continue to attack the non-violent protests of the civilian opposition in the capital.

Just change the names, and Haitians have been here countless times before: there has been only one peaceful and more or less democratic change of president in the country’s 200 years of independence. Nowhere else in Latin America comes close to matching Haiti’s dismal record of violence, poverty, corruption and oppression — and yet Aristide was supposed to be the man who finally changed all that.

A former priest who commands a devoted following among the poorest of the country’s poor, Aristide was elected president in 1990 after the overthrow of the Duvalier family’s 29-year dictatorship. He was overthrown himself by the army only seven months later, was returned to power by 20,000 US troops in 1994 — and proceeded to go bad. Foreign aid was squandered, democratic rules were abused, vocal opponents were harassed, silenced or killed, and street gangs loyal to Aristide were granted a monopoly on local crime in return for defending his rule.

It’s awful, but it’s also what HAitians have come to expect. Eighty percent of Haiti’s ten million people are unemployed and the average income is $3 a day. The trees are long gone and the rich soil is eroding away into the sea at a frightening rate: much of the population survives only because of food aid. Average life expectancy is 53, the rate of HIV/Aids infection is the highest outside Africa, and most Haitians would like nothing better than to leave their country and live elsewhere. They know — or at least they believe — that it never gets better for long in Haiti.

But why is Haiti so much worse than anywhere else in the Americas? Other countries in Latin America have had terrible dictatorships and serial coups in their pasts, but have managed to move beyond them. Other countries in the region have lived through lengthy US military occupations and emerged without fatal damage to their national pride and culture. Other Caribbean islands also have populations of predominantly African origin, but they are peaceful, democratic, relatively prosperous places.

Haiti’s great crime, for which it is still being punished, was to be the location of the one great and successful revolt by African slaves. It was France’s richest colony when the slaves who grew the sugar, inspired by the egalitarian principles of the democratic revolution that had just toppled the monarchy in France, rose in rebellion in 1791 and killed a thousand white planters in a single night. British, Spanish and French armies failed to suppress the twelve-year revolt, and in 1804 Haiti became the world’s first black-ruled republic.

But practically everyone who had not been born a slave had been killed or fled by then, and Haiti was shunned by the rest of the world, where slavery was still legal. (The United States didn’t recognise it until 1862.) People whose parents or grandparents had been taken as slaves from Africa and whose only common language was that of their former slave-masters, who had been denied any education and who had no social structure beyond that of the slave barracks, were left to create and run a country without resources or friends. They made a hash of it, and that burden still weights on their descendants today.

When slavery was abolished throughout the British empire by law in 1832, or by war in the United States a generation later, there was at least some help available for the former slaves. More importantly, they were still living in complex, modern societies that gave them models of how things are done as they tried to rebuild their lives as free men and women. Haitians had none of that, and they are still paying the price two centuries later. It doesn’t excuse how Aristide has misused the opportunity that he was given, but no matter how or when he goes, the prognosis is still not good.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Just…rule”)