Author Steven Johnson on the Good News of the Century

Innovations in epidemiological statistics, artificial fertilizer, toilets, sanitation systems, and vaccines have allowed billions of people to flourish until old age.


"It took us four years just to identify the virus that caused AIDS in the '80s," says author Steven Johnson. "Imagine COVID where it's four years before we even know what is causing the outbreak. That's what would have happened if we just shifted 20 years, 30 years earlier in terms of when this outbreak happened."

Johnson is the author of the new book Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer (Riverhead Books), which is also running as a series on PBS. He says that the rapid advance in vaccine technology is best understood in the context of a series of innovations that more than doubled the life expectancy of the human race over the last 100 years. Extra Life explores how innovations in epidemiological statistics, artificial fertilizer, toilets, and sanitation systems, along with vaccines and other measures, have allowed billions of people to flourish until old age. Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Johnson in June.

Q: What's the elevator pitch for Extra Life?

A: If you rewind the clock to the end of the Spanish flu in 1920, life expectancy globally was probably somewhere around 35. Today, even in the middle of the worst pandemic since then, global life expectancy is just over 72. We have doubled the length of the average human life. If a newspaper came out once a century, that would be the headline.

Q: Is that progress appreciated? 

A: Slow, incremental progress is the least interesting thing from a news-cycle perspective. Secondly, it's unlike other forms of progress, like your smartphone or a skyscraper—those tangible objects you can point to and say, "Look, wow, I have a supercomputer in my pocket." Health progress is measured in this bizarre way in nonevents. The progress is "I didn't die of smallpox when I was 2."

Q: Why did industrialization and urbanization initially shorten life expectancy? 

A: You have respiratory viruses that are spreading because people are crammed together. You have pollution from all these industrial plants. But mostly you have contaminated water supplies and you have a huge number of young children who start to die. In New York in 1850, 60 percent of all deaths were children.

Q: So the first major milestone in life expectancy is reducing childhood deaths? 

A: Forty percent of children died before they reached adulthood for most of human history. We reduced that by a factor of 10, at least.

Q: Your book talks about how agricultural interventions may have saved billions of lives over the last century.

A: Look at what the population of the world was 100 years ago, back when life expectancy was about 35. [There were] just under 2 billion people, and in addition to the Spanish flu and World War I, terrible famines were happening in India and in the early days of the Soviet Union and in Persia. If you had told someone in 1920 that we're going to have four times as many people on the planet in 100 years, they would have said to you, "No, we won't, because we'll never be able to, if we can't feed 2 billion people in the current situation."

Famine as a catastrophic experience that kills hundreds of thousands or millions of people in a society has effectively been eliminated. Local famines will pop up in situations, and you certainly have places in the world where there is chronic malnutrition. But the idea of a mass starvation event—the progress in that, particularly over the last 30 years, is astonishing. It's an amazing story, and it begins with artificial fertilizer.

Q: How much of the increase in life expectancy was about new medicine vs. improving quality of life?

A: I had initially wanted to quantify, if we got an extra 35 years of life, how many did we get from this particular intervention or this particular intervention? It turns out it's very hard to do that math exactly, because it's very unusual to have a single innovation that works on its own. The macro change that made probably the single biggest difference, certainly a massive difference to urban areas around the world, is just cleaning the drinking water.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.

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  1. AIDS wasn’t created in a Fauci-funded lab (or by Ronald Reagan), so it wasn’t like there was a wealth of research already available.

    1. No, but Fauci did delay the availability of AZT, kicking off a long and distinguished career of fucking things up.

      1. Even Larry Kramer, an absolute bastard who was one of the founders of Act Up called him a murderer and a shill for the Pharma industry.

        “Ten years of hope? Fuck that. Try a decade of death and greed. Go back to Washington you bastard.”

        Letter linked here

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  2. I like that this idiot makes up numbers and nick laps it up. 40% of kids never reached adulthood, and we beat that by 10 at least. That would be a child mortality rate of 4 in every 100, when currently we are measuring by the 100k.

  3. Notice that as we got older so did Congress, until the rot set in completely and they became vampires on the young.

    Old generals with lots of medals and ribbons who can’t win a war to save their lives.

    Even older presidents whose senility is the entire point.

  4. We can erase all of our gains with a little poverty.

  5. “Innovations in epidemiological statistics, artificial fertilizer, toilets, sanitation systems, and vaccines have allowed billions of people to flourish until old age.”

    Yeah, we’re living under massive surveillance, our freedom of speech is under assault like never before, they’re imposing vaccine mandates, and they’re about to strangle our quality of life in the name of saving us from global warming, but on the bright side, we’re living longer?!

    Reminds me of the old joke:

    First Lady: “The food here tastes terrible”.

    Second Lady: “And the portions are too small!”

    1. If you’d rather be dead, there’s always that option.

      1. Or, you can be delusional about the way we’ve let technology erode our civil liberties!

        1. It ain’t technology that’s doing that. That’s like blaming the gun for the shooter.

        2. What part of artificial fertilizer and toilets — the things this guy’s about — has eroded civil liberties?

          1. Those are mostly good things, I’m sure, but technological utopianism is a menace to free society. For libertarians (people with a high qualitative preference for individual liberty), the world may be worse now than it was 20 years ago–despite progress in other areas. In fact, technological progress has probably been the dominant feature in our society over the past 20 years, and it’s led to a great reduction in liberty–often using the same tools that led to the progress you’re talking about.

            In China, between mass surveillance and their social credit system, they appear to have less freedom now than they did 20 years ago–despite the economic progress. And no one has benefited more from economic development over the last 20 years than the hundreds of millions of Chinese subsistence farmers of 20 years ago. Should Chinese libertarians in Hong Kong be optimistic about the future because of that? It seems to me that the reason people whistle as they pass by the graveyard is because they’re passing by the graveyard.

            Emperor Xi claims the mandate of heaven, despite cracking down on civil liberties, because of the economic progress, and American presidents are no different–they’ll point to the bright spots that the complainers are ignoring as they trample over our civil rights, too. I’m glad things are getting better in various ways, but I care about our liberties more than the average person. I can’t help but notice that the pastures around us may be getting greener in various ways, but they’re shepherding us around like sheep.

            Economic progress, due to advances in technology or otherwise, is no substitute for holding our leaders responsible for the ways they’re infringing on our liberties–utilizing the same kinds of technology that fuels progress. The reason things like NSA surveillance of our communications, China’s social credit system, and censoring what people are allowed to know in the name of combatting “misinformation”–all these things are possible because of advances in technology. And the technology that fuels advances in other areas are often used by the government to come after us.

            Our outlook for technological progress should be pessimistic in relation to our civil liberties–despite the progress. Social media gives the government the ability to censor information and track dissent like never before. Cryptocurrency can give them the ability to track our purchases and our finances like never before. Smart phones give the government the ability to track our locations like they never could before. I’m not against any of these technologies, but I see the danger to our liberties coming from complacency about progress rather than technophobia and the new luddites.

            Sorry I’m not sorry to point out the fly in the ointment, here, but if the future of our liberty is bright, it’s in spite of all the evidence to the contrary brought to us by technological advances.

            1. Perhap, then, longer and healthier lives should be used to promote and fight for greater political, social, and economic freedom. As always, it doesn’t have to be either.

              In fact, living healthier personal lives may be key to overcoming the bankruptcy of Social Security, Medicare, Medicare, Medicaid, and the whole U.S. Welfare State apparatus.

              1. Either/Or, that is. Maybe New Hampshire’s official slogan should be Belinda Carlisle’s song title:” Live Your Life And Be Free!”

          2. Allegators in the sewers. 😉

    2. And, more seriously, is this not a huge fucking deal? Would you actually trade the physical progress away to get rid of the social progress? Or are you saying this is all a commonplace, so not a story worthy for Reason?

      The majority of what most people do relates to improving things physically, only a minority to improving things socially. You saying Reason should ignore the physical for the social, when the former is a more common concern to most of us?

      1. Really not libertarian at all to ignore the “free market” customer choices of physical progress preference.

    3. More critical to your point, he rather erroneously lumps ‘epidemiological statistics’ in with fertilizers and toilets like people are made materially better by epidemiological statistics they way they’re made materially better by toilets and plumbing (despite the fact that census/epidemiological statistics predate indoor plumbing by centuries). Like epidemiological statistics, without social policy, improves your life the same way a toilet does, without social policy.

      The whole article, top to bottom, seems like it was written by some sort of bot that has no concept of history or context.

      1. Qualitative preferences like liberty don’t lend themselves to statistical analysis. I’m still a believer in the idea that prosperity can be a force for freedom, but the means of doing that is by prosperity making people care more about their property rights. In other words, the focus is about making people care about things more–and where does that show up on a statistical analysis? Over time, people became more concerned about their personal liberty by what statistic?

        As a libertarian, I’d support our Second Amendment rights–in spite of whatever (hypothetical) statistics showing that they increased the violent crime rate, etc. There are a lot of people who don’t value things that can’t be quantified and are dismissive of things that defy quantification. But really, really important values like liberty and even relative safety are qualitative values.

        The reason people ride motorcycles on the freeway despite the danger isn’t because they’re stupid. It’s because they have different qualitative preferences, and those of us who value freedom can probably count on having our values dismissed as stupidity by utilitarians–simply because our qualitative preferences defy quantification. I’m sure the introduction of toilets and sewage treatment systems are extremely important to some people, but I’m not sure how you measure that qualitative value vs. something like freedom. Instead of upgrading the TV, they bought a toilet, so they care more about a toilet than upgrading their TV.

        I can see various freedoms decreasing, and I’m not sure what to mark that against other than the freedom we had in the past. The reason I can ride my motorcycle at any speed in the empty part of the Sierras is because they can’t monitor me out there. If they take that freedom away, am I still better off because of vaccines and because I’ll live longer? How do they measure that in other people? I prefer freedom. I can’t even tell you how much until they start credibly threatening to imprison me for exercising my freedom.

        1. Agreed. I guess maybe I’m being too deferring, narrow, or subtle. Almost like the article was written by a bot completely unaware of American history or cultural context.

        2. Unfortunately I think prosperity makes people think less about property, because the more they can afford to lose, the less they care about it. I’d’ve guessed you were going to bring up a factor like that in arguing that physical progress brings about social regress.

  6. “It took us four years just to identify the virus that caused AIDS in the ’80s,” says author Steven Johnson. “Imagine COVID where it’s four years before we even know what is causing the outbreak. That’s what would have happened if we just shifted 20 years, 30 years earlier in terms of when this outbreak happened.”

    This is just retarded on several levels to even an armchair virologist or even anyone who hasn’t had their brains beaten out of them since the 80s.

    -The first coronavirus was definitively isolated and identified in 1933, the first human coronavirus was identified in the 1960s. The first (and only) HIV virus was identified in 1981. You’d have to push COVID-19 back 40-60 yrs. to be analogous on this point alone.
    -As pretty much anyone who grew up in the 80s or 90s can tell you; HIV doesn’t kill anyone. HIV progresses to AIDS and, even then, AIDS doesn’t kill anyone. AIDS prevents you from fighting off other opportunistic infections. Supposedly, COVID kills you directly.
    -The delay between contracting HIV, developing AIDS, and succumbing to another infection can be decades (or longer). People can spread HIV, asymptomatically for years. Supposedly, COVID, incubates and/or is transmissible on the order of a few weeks and asymptomatic transmission is between myth and minimal or dubious.

    This is like saying if Hitler had risen to power two decades earlier, the Allies would’ve lost because of the Luftwaffe.

    1. This is like saying if Hitler had risen to power two decades earlier

      You mean when he rose to power as an NCO? He was a corporal, after all.

  7. That statement about COVID happening 20 or 30 years ago it would have been way worse is pure retardation. If only COVID had happened a few decades ago instead of today, it would have been infinitely better.
    – First, China was much economically weaker and the US was much economically stronger a few decades ago. China would not have the resources or the balls to be in a position to unleash COVID on the rest of the world. Now, they know damn well the rest of the world won’t do anything in retaliation for their biological weapon because China basically owns the western world’s supply chains and the US military is more worried about not offending a purple haired tranny in it’s infantry than actually defending the country.
    – Bioengineering technology wasn’t anywhere near what it is today so the creation of a virus like COVID-19 would never have happened.
    – A few decades ago we didn’t have anywhere near as much propogandized fear porn masquerading as news. People weren’t also safety obsessed cowards or easily led sheep. A panic anywhere near this level would have never happened. Some elderly would have died in a rapid spike and this would have been over within a matter of months and not a single bit of martial law would have happened nor would the economy have been wrecked.
    – A few decades ago the American people still valued freedom, not a false sense of security. They would have taken to the streets with guns by the millions and turned on their government at the first hour of 2 weeks to lockdown, let alone damn near 2 years in.
    – A few decades ago even if a Democrat was in power, he would not be an outright communist puppet hellbent on turning American into Venezuela and looking at something like this as an opportunity to do so.

    I’m sick and tired of these bullshit Reason stories about how things are actually better because of a few mostly meaningless technological innovations (like effectively keeping old people on life support with undignified lives for an extra several years which is what modern medicine is). When the reality is, things that matter like the level of freedom, social stability, the strength of the country’s culture and the economic soundness and economic strength of the country has completely gone to shit.

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