As the title of this blog says, I'm very interested in the connections between our endurance as individual humans and the long-run sustainability of the civilization we live in. Those two things are rarely connected in our media or public policy. For example (and I apologize if this seems rude), if the people of a populous eastern state elect a very fat man to be their governor, it apparently did not occur to them that their chosen leader may have a very weak sense of what constitutes a healthy society, since he evidently doesn't pursue it in his own life.
In my younger years, I didn't pay much attention to those connections either. When I became an avid long-distance runner as a teenager, it wasn't because I had the slightest interest in whether America would survive the 21st century. In those days, although I found the writing of dystopian visionaries like George Orwell quite fascinating, those visions seemed more imaginary than real (the year 1984 was far in the future), and those of us who grew up in the heady 1950s didn't worry about the future. We basked in the promise of the American Dream. My big goal in those days was to run the Boston Marathon--which I did several times in the 1960s. I finished 26th the first time, and it was one of the great thrills of my life.
As I grew older, though, I began to notice interesting connections between the capabilities I needed to practice a competitive runner, and those I needed in order to make a living, raise a family, and deal with the stresses of life in a fast-changing society. When I started Running Times magazine in the 1970s with fellow runners Phil Stewart, Rick Platt, and my younger brother Glenn (who later changed his name to Alex), I soon found that getting each issue of the magazine out took enormous physical and mental endurance. To meet our printer's deadline each month, we typically had to work 30 straight hours or more through the last two days and nights, sustained by bad coffee (long before Starbucks existed) and our experience in pushing past "the wall." We didn't have computers and digital tech to ease the workload (every typo had to be fixed by retyping the bad line on a word-processing machine, running the print-out through a waxing machine, and cutting out the corrected line with a razor blade by hand). Check out those 1977-79 issues, and you'll find an occasional crooked line, where the waxed correction got jiggled somewhere in transit to the printer, or perhaps where my overcaffeinated hand did the jiggling.) We also didn't have Shark Tank or crowd-funding to help pay the costs. It was "sweat equity," and the end of every month felt like running a 2:20 marathon against the wind, in sleet, on no sleep. And no, we weren't Kenyans.
It was years later, when I moved on from Running Times to edit the work of environmental scientists, that I first heard the term "sustainability" and learned that many of the world's leading scientists were finding evidence that modern civilization cannot continue current rates of population growth, pollution, climate disruption, and destruction of the planet's biodiversity (on which all human life depends totally), much longer. The long-run capacity of our civilization was beginning to fail. In 1992, more than a thousand of the world's top scientists issued a warning that "Humanity and the natural world are on a collision course." This wasn't a group of whackos-for-hire, like the handful of shameless PhDs who were being paid by oil and coal companies to claim that climate change isn't being caused by burning fossil fuels (or, as the Oklahoma Senator Inhofe claimed, that "global warming is a liberal hoax"). The men and women who issued the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity included every living Nobel Prize winner in the sciences (more than 100 of them). And since then, their numbers have grown to tens of thousands. But the general media largely ignored that warning (the New York Times, which depends heavily on the advertising of the fossil-fueled consumer economy, commented later that the Scientists' Warning wasn't "newsworthy"!)
In the quarter-century since that Warning, all of the trends those scientists warned about have worsened. There are now at least five major scenarios of how civilization may come to an end within the next century or sooner--like an unfit runner collapsing mid-race--and none of those five is highly improbable. You have to wonder what the collective probability is. I discuss these five scenarios in a forthcoming book, which I'll tell you more about in a later post. In the meantime, though, there's a sixth scenario, the probability of which scientists can't really can't quantify at all, because it's too overwhelmingly complex. But you may well be familiar with it: It's the growing extent to which the corruptions or failures of large institutions (governments, religious organizaations, and large corporations) are overwhelming us, distracting us from the things we really need to be paying attention to if we want our grandchildren--and theirs--to have life.
For just a few examples of such institutional faltering, recall the hacker attacks at Target, Home Depot, and a growing list of other companies, stealing data from nearly half of America's credit cards. Think of the mortgage-fraud crimes of companies like Bank of America and half of Wall Street; the sex-crime scandals of the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts; the air-bag failures and recalls of millions of cars; and on and on, In my last post, I described a life-sapping struggle I've had with the predatory company Quicken Loans. [Oh yes, in a followup to that, the Request for Correction I sent to the Court brought me a one-word reply: "Rejected."] Sometimes, now, it seems to me that if I hadn't been a competitive runner for the past half-century, and learned to endure a whole range of stresses--from injury and fatigue to dehydration, heat exhaustion, mental bonking, and staggering discouragement (like the time I went off course and got lost at around the 45-mile mark of a 50-miler in the Arizona desert)--if I hadn't trained well for those things I'd probably be in an insane asylum by now, or worse. I can't run as fast now as I once did, but I'm glad I have learned to endure.
Next post: How specific physiological effects of endurance training can prepare us for the non-sporting stresses of a failing civilization.