Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

In the Greatest Endurance Race, There is No Finish Line!

       Starting today, I'm taking this blog into a life-changing shift of perspective--because I think that's what all of humanity will have to do, on a global scale, if our species is to endure much longer.  Endurance sports need to do a better job of raising consciousness about sustainability--the endurance of civilization as a whole.  Evolutionary biologists have warned that our species is now dangerously vulnerable to Malthusian decline, or extinction.  But there's still hope, at least for those who wake up and shift perspective in time.

     What brings me to this moment personally is something that has happened to me over the past couple of years during which I have been a primary caretaker for my three-year-old grandson, Josh.  (His mother, my daughter, is a full-time college student, divorced from Josh's father, who is no  longer in the picture.)

     When Josh was just two, I discovered that he loved to run.  One day I took him out for a walk, and he spontaneously started to run, and kept it up for two miles with his amazed grandpa running alongside to watch out for cars.  Maybe this is natural for two-year-olds--I really don't know.  But I do know that two-year-olds are generally called "toddlers", and that word didn't fit this boy.  From that day on, we went for runs every couple of days, at his initiative and with him setting the pace.  For me, it was not a jog.  By the time he was three, he could fly down the road with long, springy strides that would be the envy of most competitive teenager or adult runners.

      Inevitably, I began to ponder my grandson's genetics.  Josh is bi-racial, somewhat like Barak Obama: his father is from Kenya, land of the world's most dominant marathoners.  And his grandfather, on the white American side, was once ranked among the top ultrarunners in the U.S. (I won the JFK 50-mile in a field of about 500 runners in 1977, and later won three U.S. age-division championships).  A part of my imagination dared to jump ahead to the day when Josh joins his high-school cross country team.  Or soccer, or basketball, team (he's also very tall for his age).  He's an all-around athlete, of the kind that Little League parents love to have.  A few days ago he was jumping around in the living room, and he said "Grandpa, watch this!"  He jumped up in the air and turned 360 degrees before landing on his feet.

      But as fun as it was, that brief fantasy about what an athlete Josh might become lasted only about ten seconds before fading.  Let me explain, because this might be as important to you (and to your friends and family) as it is to me and mine.  For one thing, I'm no Little League parent, and Josh will never get pushed by me (or, I think, by his mother) to be an athlete at all.  I'll be happy if he runs cross-country, but equally happy if he foregoes that to pursue interests in music, art, or science.

       Here's the thing.  A quarter-century ago, over 1,600 of the world's leading scientists--including over 100 Nobel Prize winners--issued a statement titled the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity.  "Humanity and the natural world are on a collision course," the scientists wrote in a press release.  The mainstream media ignored them, as did the politicians who purport to be our leaders.  That was before the ravages of climate change had begun, before Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, and the thousands of wildfires burning in the American West as I write.  It was also before 9-11, Al Qaeda, and ISIS; and before the massive addictions to technologies of effort-saving convenience, entertainment, comfort, and gratification that have rendered us ever weaker and more tech-dependent.  And that weakening of our species is now happening on a global scale.

       I am doubtless oversimplifying, but I think all these destabilizations--of climate, ecology, and society--are connected.  All are driven, at least in part, by manifestations of extreme competitiveness that are unraveling the fabric of civilization: competition for resources (wars over oil, land, drugs, and water), cut-throat economic competition; and competitive triumphalism as the ultimate measure of "success" in all things.

     Notice how infected our pop culture is by win-at-all-costs competitiveness.  Take, for example, the subject of cooking--an activity that for thousands of years has been at the heart of healthy family and community life.  For centuries, families grew and harvested food, cooked, and ate meals together.  Cooking and eating were times for togetherness.  Now we have the TV shows "Chopped" and "Cutthroat Chef" (and others) in which cooking is a competitive endeavor and all that matters is winning.   And the same thing has happened with singing ("American Idol", "The Voice"), dancing ("So You Think You Can Dance"), and, of course, sport--where the winners of the major competitions get paid hundreds of times as much as most of the best scientists or teachers ever are.

     There was a time when we celebrated competitiveness as a healthy stimulus to the important things in life--earning a living, having great adventures, enjoying companionship.  Now, competitiveness often has the characteristics of a disease--infecting every aspect of popular culture. ("If you're not competitive, you're a loser!")

       When I was a teen, I dreamed of going to the Olympics.  But now, look at the corruption in the Olympics--officials and athletes alike.  The Olympics no longer much interest me.  There was a time when I was a big baseball fan--I can still name the starting lineup of the 1959 Chicago White Sox.  Now, even the seventh game of the World Series doesn't interest me.  And look at the corruption we've seen in the world soccer organization, and the Tour de France.  About the latter--the realization that performance-enhancing drugs have corrupted even a major endurance sport makes me feel sick.

       Although America is obsessed with the sports of power and speed, my own interest has always been more in the sports of endurance.  When I started out as a high-school cross country runner, I was just doing what I enjoyed.  The enjoyment of running was as instinctive for me, then, as it is for Josh now.  And yes, I liked competing, and I kept on competing for the next half-century.  Not until about 20 years after I started running did I first learn that there is a biological connection between endurance sports and human evolution.  In the 1980s, that connection was the subject of a pathbreaking cover story in the scientific journal Nature, summarizing the research of evolutionary biologists at the University of Utah and Harvard.  What that research tells us about our increasingly rushed, stressed-out, and destabilized world is that for 99 percent of our evolution as humans, speed and power were never our defining strengthsEndurance, patience, and long-range vision were.

       Now, when I think of my grandson's future, I hope that if he turns out to be blessed with extraordinary endurance, as I think he may be, he might use that capability not just to try to beat other runners in epic foot races, but to help build on what we're learning about our languishing capability for an enduring society--and to help our species make the hard journey we'll need to make, in the coming decades, to engender a new kind of future for life on Earth.  Go, Josh!




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