Review: Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer

Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Steven Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johnson returns with another enjoyable and intriguing exploration that considers what are the factors in the last few hundred years that have led to a near doubling of human life. It's not an extensive history nor a history that explores this through the genius model of history (a history that frames it in the solitary figures who did "great deeds"). Rather, Johnson delivers a network history that explores the conditions and structures that created the changes in thinking to introduce practices, tools, and advocates to widened the Overton Window (the range of socially acceptable ideas around a subject) to include these newer ideas.  That's not to say he ignores the more well-known names but places them in a larger context that shows how without other elements, they would not have been able to help shift the paradigm.  Beyond that, Johnson's book provides a powerful commentary on the importance and value that government, public health, and public advocates have had over the centuries in creating methods, regulations, and infrastructures that have not only allowed many more people to live but to add some 20,000 days to our lives collectively (some variation based on different demographics but still much more additive to life compared to even 100 years ago).  Some of the topics he dives into include data collection, inoculation, vaccines, double-blind testing, pasteurization, chlorination, nitrates in farming, and safety regulations for motor vehicles.  By and large, markets did not and were not interested (and at times, vehemently opposed) in addressing these issues that caused large-scale harm and devastation.  Rather, the changes needed to be implemented by governments, academia, medical practitioners, and the like.  In total, Johnson's book is one that is fascinating thinking about the factors that create change and also, strong evidence about the importance of having a public sphere that can work to protect, support, and enhance life in ways that private industry often fails to do.

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