October 27th, 2012
The Shock of the Old
In the fall of 2012, the NYTimes magazine ran a piece by Dan Buettner with the catchy title The Island Where People Forget to Die. It was about the Greek island of Ikaria and, yes, it looks just like all those Greek islands, with the whitewashed walls, the turquoise sea and the nostalgic haze suggesting that this slower, simpler life must be a better one. The difference is, at least when it comes to human lifespan, life on Ikaria really is better.
Ikarians reach 90 at a rate two-and-a-half times greater than Americans. It’s not that they’re hanging on in hospitals. Rather, they’re just going about their regular lives for a lot longer. If you’re a man, you’re four times more likely to reach 90 than in the United States. Quality of life is better, too, especially when it comes to the feeble part of old; Ikarians have one-quarter the American rate of dementia.
So, with all this, it’s not surprising that the island attracts researchers and journalists, hunting for the secret. A lot of the usual suspects are there: the Mediterranean diet, traditional food and drink which double as medicinal herbs, napping, walking instead of driving, wine, a nearly vegetarian diet. One suspect that’s not in the house is genetics. Residents of the nearby island of Samos are the same genetically, but not in longevity.
There are other differences. Samos is much more westernized, with resorts, million-euro houses and so on. To look at them side-by-side, you wouldn’t be out of place thinking Ikaria “backwards,” or at best, “quaint.” Take, for instance, the state of Ikaria’s timepieces. There aren’t very many, for one thing; no one wears a watch. The few clocks that do exist, don’t work. As one of Ikaria’s bored physicians reports, “when you invite someone to lunch, they might come at 10am or 6pm. We simply don’t care.”
Time doesn’t matter much because there’s not much happening. People who have jobs tend to work several, putting together income from this and that. Adult children often live with their parents after attending college off-island. Here’s how the Times piece describes the typical day of an Ikarian couple, complete with absence of alarm clock:
Wake naturally, work in the garden, have a late lunch, take a nap. At sunset, they either visited neighbors or neighbors visited them. Their diet was also typical: a breakfast of goat’s milk, wine, sage tea or coffee, honey and bread. Lunch was almost always beans (lentils, garbanzos), potatoes, greens (fennel, dandelion or a spinachlike green called horta) and whatever seasonal vegetables their garden produced; dinner was bread and goat’s milk. At Christmas and Easter, they would slaughter the family pig and enjoy small portions of larded pork for the next several months.
This is what your average sociologist or economist would call a “subsistence lifestyle.” Now, subsistence derives from the Latin subsistĕre, which means to support, stand still, stand firm… which is not exactly the thing that comes to mind when I hear “subsistence.” Rummaging through the history of the word, what we find is that somewhere in the 19th Century, the sense of “firm foundation” starts to change into “getting by.” That trend keeps moving until you have our modern sense of the word, which I’d call “eking out a living.”
The thing that changes the meaning of subsistence is money. What happens is that farmers’ crops begin to be divided into two “portions,” the subsistence crops with which they feed themselves and the cash crops which they sell. Buettner reports that the mistress of his guesthouse served yogurt and honey from the 90-year-old beekeeper next door, but on Ikaria, the “cash crop” never became the point. After all, what would you buy with it?
Now, you could accuse me of a nostalgia for chimerical good old days, and you probably wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But still, some of this may bear a bit of thinking about. Like the clock part.
Time used to be a pretty fungible concept everywhere and not just on Ikaria. For instance, the continental United States didn’t always have four time zones. Instead, every town had its own time, based on what was called “mean solar time.” What that meant was that when the clock said noon, it was actually noon where you were, and not noon in some town a hundred miles away. You can look at this as a quirk, or you an look at it as real, since time really is based on the movement of the sun across the sky and that event really is different here and in the next valley.
The railroads, however, being in the space-annihilation business, looked at time and thought they’d do the same thing. After all, those local times made schedules inefficient and time is money. So, in 1883, the railroads imposed standard time zones. Within a year, 85% of the country was using railroad time. The Government held out longer, but they finally knuckled under and made it official with an act of Congress in 1918.
I probably speak for all my readers when I say it’s a stretch to imagine life without standard time. Sure, we’re ruled by the clock, but it yields great benefits, such as getting to the ferry before it leaves or knowing whether it’s too late to call Auntie Joy in Wisconsin. But still, just because something is a good way to run a railroad, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good way to run a life.
While we’re imagining hard-to-imagine things, let’s go a little further and consider life without unemployment. To understand what on earth I’m talking about, let’s turn back the clock another forty years and cross the pond to England. In 1844, London cops pursued a couple boys who’d stolen — and immediately eaten — a half-cooked calf’s foot. They found that the boys lived with their widowed mother
literally huddled together in a little back room, with no furniture but two old rush-bottomed chairs with the seats gone, a small table with two legs broken, a broken cup, and a small dish. On the hearth was scarcely a spark of fire, and in one corner lay as many old rags as would fill a woman’s apron, which served the whole family as a bed. For bed clothing they had only their scanty day clothing. The poor woman told him that she had been forced to sell her bedstead the year before to buy food. Her bedding she had pawned with the victualler for food. In short, everything had gone for food.
Dire. And also, in a way that’s fundamentally invisible to us, strange. That’s because in 1844, the whole notion of the “unemployed” unable to feed themselves was still a new invention. That’s because “employment” was a new invention. The unemployed didn’t exist before because most people lived much like the Ikarians, subsisting in that standing firm way.
That way of life stopped being possible in Britain when the Commons — the land that the English peasants did not own, but had grazing, gathering and other rights to — were systematically “enclosed.” That is, they were fenced off to become the agribusiness farms of their day. It converted what had been an enduring way of life into unsustainable and grinding poverty, which sent these ex farmers into the cities. It just so happens that this occurred right at the time that the rise of factories meant that there was a need for a whole lot of people with no way to feed themselves besides selling their labor. Coincidence, I’m sure.
Of course, virtually all of us sell our labor these days. I’m selling my labor as I write this sentence. But selling labor on Ikaria isn’t really the same gig. The NYTimes: “although unemployment is high — perhaps as high as 40 percent — most everyone has access to a family garden and livestock.” This is mentioned in passing, seeming to suggest, “well, if you can’t work, you can still get something to eat.” But what if its true meaning is, “you’ll always have something to eat, so you can work if you want to.” That’s a very, very different proposition, because it gives you the freedom to do certain things, like ignore your broken clock and choose whether your labor is going to yourself or your “employer.”
The freshly-minted urban underclass in 19th Century England didn’t have that choice. It was work or starve, and even if you were working, conditions on the job — and back at your windowless hovel — were brutal. And here’s the thing. People respond to the world they inhabit and the lives they live via food. Even if they have nothing else, they’re still going to eat (or at least try to) and what they eat, and how they eat it, is going to tell us a lot about how they feel.
So, let’s take the I-forgot-to-die people of Ikaria. Their diet consists of what we would consider (1) weeds, (2) famine food, (3) poverty food (4) some nice side dishes. They seem completely happy. Maybe it’s because they don’t know any better. But maybe it’s because they’re not trying to feed their souls via their mouths.
It was the polar opposite in working class England. There the food of choice was yet another new invention — “Madame Geneva” also known as gin. The lower classes had always drunk alcohol as a cure for cares, far back into the mists of the middle ages. But their drink was beer. With low alcohol content and large volumes, beer (and wine for that matter) were gateways to intoxication, but they were, like life on Ikaria, slow.
Distilled spirits were not. Ten-times-more-alcoholic drinks like gin meant you could get drunk on one-tenth the amount, or in one-tenth the time. It was faster, industrialized booze for industrialized people with one eye on the clock and a social misery quotient you could only achieve with the aid of machines. Getting drunk was the point. These weren’t merry drinking peasants anymore. They were hard-drinking mill workers, searching for stupor in a hurry. How else to explain establishments such as the one that journalist Tobias Smollet witnessed, which had a sign promising drunkenness “for the small expense of one penny, assuring (their customers) that they would be dead drunk for two pence and have straw for nothing. They accordingly provided cellars and places strewed with straw, to which they conveyed those wretches who were overwhelmed.”
It was, without exaggeration, a parallel to the crack epidemic of the early 90s — the same social destructiveness, the same collateral lethality to children, the same pump for crime, the same appalled onlookers. The only real difference was the scale, which was much larger in England.
The gin epidemic eventually waned, but the industrialization of food never did. In retrospect, we can see that Madame Geneva is the founding mother of the panoply of industrial foods that fill all the shelves in the middle of our grocery stores. Those foods, of course, are the clogged heart of the Western Diet that Michael Pollan aptly describes as “the one diet that reliably makes its people sick.”
The food we eat has effects, such as $190 billion dollars per year spent on obesity-related illness and five out of ten causes of death being diet-related. We have a $70 billion dollar diet industry, a $20 billion dollar health club industry. We’re so big that it took an additional 350 million gallons of jet fuel to airlift our avoirdupois in the year 2000 alone. Fire departments all across the country are forking over nearly $110k a piece for new “bariatric” ambulances that are capable of transporting their new plus-size patients who, as we know, are going to be needing the hospital.
It’s bad. Bad enough that there are researchers in places like Ikaria trying to figure out what we can do to undo the damage, all of which leads back to the talk of Mediterranean diet, polyphenol intake, sleep habits, fish consumption and so on.
It seems sure that at least some of those are beneficial. But I think that Buettner is more on target when he talks about longevity emerging from an “ecosystem” of all the ways in which the culture of Ikaria reinforces behaviors that lead to longer lives. Perhaps a simpler way of looking at it is to say that Ikarians live longer because they inhabit a culture that is, pretty profoundly, about living. There’s really not much else they do there.
We inhabit a more complex culture, but if you had to narrow it down to a single thing, you’d be safe saying that ours is culture about consumption. Your own experience and all the stats agree, there’s really not much else we do here.
Why don’t we stop? Or, at the very least, why don’t we stop eating stuff that we know is killing us? We can look back on the gin-ghosts of of Merrie Olde England’s factories and understand why they did what they did — it was to kill the pain of being alive.
But what would they say if they could look down on us, idling at the stoplight, listening to the radio, an oversized drink in the cupholder, smartphone in hand, reading about the miracles of Ikaria on the NYTimes digital edition? They’d probably come to the obvious conclusion, that if someone won’t stop eating, it’s because they’re trying to quiet the gnawing inside.
Pix & Art:
Island of Ikaria by Fliegender
Ikarian Street by Jan Willemsen
Ikarian Fishing by Jan Willemsen
Ikarian Restaurant by Spiros K
Feasting Peasants in a Tavern by Adriaen van Ostade
Gin Lane by William Hogarth