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The Good News And Bad News Of A World Living Longer

Inside the demographics and economics of an aging planet.

The age-old problem of old age
The age-old problem of old age
Fernando Chavez

-Essay-

MEXICO – The study of worldwide population trends reveals a clear challenge with important consequences for our social, cultural and economic lives: the steady increase of elderly people, both in total and proportional numbers.

By 2025, the world will have almost 800 million people over the age of 65. About 556 million of them will be in developing countries, another 254 million in developed ones. On a global scale, Asia absorbs the majority, and it seems as though Latin America will have “only” about 70 million. These demographic forecasts are not exact, but they offer an idea about the magnitude of the challenge.

The United Nations’ World Population Monitoring recently estimated that the percentage of women expected to live past 80 in all regions of the world is higher than the percentage of men. This will also pose unprecedented challenges.

Africa registers the lowest percentages, and North America (U.S. and Canada) registers the highest. This suggests that there is a very close relation between longevity and socio-economics.

Photo: Gabriela Pinto

Additionally, there are about seven billion people today living on the planet, up from two billion in 1920. Recent demographic calculations indicate that the world population grows by one billion every 12 years. This is not good news.

Every society has its vulnerable groups, even if their magnitude and diversity change within a country, from one country to another, or from one time period to another. Social vulnerability is ever changing. The relative position of individuals and families on the social and economic ladder is modified by the economic trajectory of each country. There is one constant, though, and it's that senior citizens are always present in the most fragile segment. The historical development of human nature imposes a complicated condition that social institutions rarely mitigate or soften.

There seems to be a consensus that in the last stage of life – old age – most human beings are intensely vulnerable and dependent. But the degree of fragility varies within this segment of the population. There are many millions of people who spend the last stage of their life in very difficult circumstances – poor, ill, alone.

The science of old age

Geriatrics, gerontology and demography have contributed enormously to understanding the particularities of old age. There are other disciplines that also help understand the profile of the elderly and the phases of aging, but I prefer to focus on these three. We should also take into account the work of caregivers and nurses who take care of the elderly since these professionals have and will have a relevant and growing role in the future. Maybe the future will have an even greater demand for these professionals than for engineers, designers, etc.

Geriatrics, as a medical field, is growing for obvious reasons. Through geriatrics, we have a scientific understanding of how hard it is to reach this stage and that it is even harder to stay there for a long time, given that physical and mental deterioration is unavoidable at that age. Hence, one must recognize the elderly’s vulnerability. Geriatrics is geared towards the study of prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of illnesses: it solves senior citizens’ health problems, if there are resources to do so.

Photo: Lisa Edmonds

Gerontology is also a booming, interdisciplinary science. Today it studies aging and old age while considering psychological, biological and social aspects given that these directly influence how a human being experiences aging.

Aging and poverty

Demography shows us an X-ray of the human population – its changes and fluxes. It allows us to quantify the present and future magnitude of growing old. It is indispensable in the decision and policy-making processes, so that we can anticipate measures to solve different problems through public policy.

In the not-so-distant future, life expectancy will continue to increase. Demographers define this as “an estimate of the average of years lived by a group of people born in the same year, if mortality rate movements remain constant.” I fear that this increased life expectancy may not be entirely good news when social inequality and poverty run rampant everywhere.

In general, longevity involves the greater, relative weight of present and future old age. There are several underlying factors: lower birth rate (planned and desired), the continuous decline of infant, juvenile and adult mortality rates, as well as the remarkable advancements in preventive and corrective medicine. There is also the universalization of the public health systems, which have been decreased by the economic policies of fiscal austerity in recent years.

Demographic aging is a process that gradually changes the “population pyramid.” Until know, in every region of the world, children, youth and adults dominated the pyramid to different degrees and levels. But this is changing – and this change will in turn lead to a new global society.

But what’s alarming is that existing social, political and cultural institutions do not have the capacity to deal with the coming challenges that this change will pose. The tendency toward social helplessness and vulnerability of the elderly will continue to increase as economies fall into recession and austerity measures are applied.

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Green

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.


It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park

Xinhua/ZUMA

Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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