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Why humans can't live everywhere
I'm in Telluride, CO visiting an old friend for a couple of days, and the visible climate crises of this summer--extreme heat, overwhelming flooding, frayed lands vanishing--are at a slight, very slight, remove. Some of the rivers are dangerously low and some are dangerously high, but the air is cool, and if you stay in the shade the heat is manageable. The thing is, no elderly person should live here.
Shocker, right? Crowds of wealthy retirees flood Aspen, Boulder is booming, and the state's property taxes are some of the lowest in the country. But nature doesn't want older people to settle down in Telluride. Understanding why this is might be helpful as a reminder, if we needed one, that we humans cannot control the world we live in.
Reading Jeff Goodell's terrific book ("The Heat Will Kill You First") tells us that the human body is evolving much more slowly than the world around us. Humans are constructed for a very narrow temperature range, and as soon as our core temperatures rise in response to external heat that's, say, 105 degrees or more, our hearts beat desperately fast in order to rush blood to the surface so that it can cool. Awful things happen to us: our limbs seize up, our cells break down, our tissues disintegrate, essential organs fail. We have to cool our cores down, fast, in order to survive. That's just the way we work, and why extreme heat is such a killer.
Well, we're also built to do better at low altitudes. At sea level, human blood is plump with oxygen. We breathe in and our lungs diffuse the air into our blood. At altitudes greater than about 8,000 feet above sea level, we humans have to live breathing air that has substantially less oxygen in it. Perhaps a third less. So our hearts beat wildly, perhaps ten to thirty percent faster than ordinary, to get enough oxygen into our tissues, and we breathe more rapidly. Telluride, population about 2,000, is at 8,750 feet, and that's the commercial district of the lower part of the town. Taking the gondola to Mountain Village, where 1,000 more people live, means even greater elevation. Hikes could bring you up to 14,000. That's a lot of stressed-out, fast-beating hearts, and if you already have high blood pressure high-altitude living can make it worse.
If you're older--and of course this will vary wildly by individual--you'll age more rapidly under these conditions over time. You're already susceptible to all the insults of aging, like your heart becoming weaker, your lungs becoming less flexible, and your arteries thickening. At high altitudes, lower-pressure air is driving less oxygen into lungs in the first place, and in older people the elements of the system are themselves becoming less able. Put the whole equation together, and less of life may be available to you.
Also: medical assistance is not easy to reach here. The closest major cities are six or seven hours away.
Now, some people, even older people, get used to high altitudes or say they're used to it. Others can ensure a steady oxygen supply in their homes. A few can have a helicopter available to take them to a hospital at all times. But for many older people (especially those with pre-existing heart conditions) these steps won't be affordable. And for them it may not make sense to live here. People have known for a long time that it's not a great idea for the very old to live in Telluride. I happened to meet a town official yesterday who said this out loud, even if off the record. It's just mechanics.
We have limits, and those limits have driven humans to live in temperate, manageable areas where our bodies function well. Those temperate zones are shifting, quickly. It's not a great idea to continue to encourage people to live in extremely hot places, even at low altitudes. (Read Goodell's book.)
And it's certainly not a good idea to encourage them to live in flood zones. But that isn’t something troubling Telluride, and I’ll enjoy my stay here until it’s time to leave. I have to say my resting heart rate is way, way up, though.