Too Many People: Thoughts from a Traffic Jam

I went to Maine over the long weekend to visit my friend and her family. It goes without saying that I had a long drive home plagued with traffic. During this tediously long drive I listened to several of Bill Burr’s podcast, which entailed a lot of rants like this one:

One might say you’re more open  to rants about overpopulation when you’re stuck in a mass of people all just trying to get home from Vacationland, but this is something I think about a lot. Over the past six months to a year, I’ve found myself surrounded by elderly women confronting the hard decisions that come with old age (well, at least the luckier ones are able to do that). And I find myself wondering, “What is the point of living to be this old if you can’t do it with vitality?”

At the same time I keep hearing disturbing tales coming from the medical field, like this one that Bill Burr was ranting about:

Burr’s basic take on the mosquito project was this: Mosquitoes spreading disease is just part of the cycle of life. The lion eats the gazelle, and the mosquito gives the human malaria. That’s just nature’s way of keeping things in line, and since most of us don’t have to worry about being eaten by large predators anymore, we need other things to kill us.

It’s hard to think about, isn’t it?

We don’t want to die. We don’t want our friends and family to die. And if you have an ounce of empathy in your body you don’t even really want to see complete strangers die… but it’s important that they do die, and that so do we. Medicine and nutrition has come a long way. We live to ripe old ages, and all but wiped out many diseases. We have vaccines to make sure we don’t catch horrible viruses, and epi pens to keep us from dying if we’re born with allergies to everyday items. And it’s hard to say this is anything but positive, but the truth is, our economies, our societies, and our planet are not really set up to deal with this.

And frankly, I’m not sure people are equipped to deal with it.  Lately, I see people in their 80s and 90s who aren’t exactly healthy, but aren’t dying either. Dementia, arthritis, COPD: None of these have the decency to kill you quickly and painlessly, but drag out your suffering for years on end. Medicine has focused so much on extending longevity, it mostly ignores quality of life.

I think about all of this alongside this weird little quirk of mine: When I think about the world ending, I am not saddened by the end of humanity but by the end of the rest of it. The thought of a world without this or this or this is nearly unbearable to me. And the thought that all of those things could be doomed because of humanity and our insatiable appetite for more of everything, including breaths and heartbeats, is exhausting and devastating to me.

Now, I’m not suggesting we stop getting polio vaccines or using antibiotics. But I am saying that given the choice between dying in my sleep of a heart attack at 72 — when I’m still relatively spry (hopefully) — and languishing well into my 80s or 90s, I’ll take the early exit. And if it’s between genetically engineering mosquitoes or people to extend human life, or letting nature take its course, I’m taking nature.


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