Thursday, November 22, 2007

Time Scales and Quality of Life: How they define our Future

Since before Roe vs. Wade (1973) …

the United States populace has been divided on how to treat the current/potential “quality of life” of the unborn who are not capable of expressing will of their own.

For the past 20 years …

the world has been hotly debating on the short and long term consequences of trying to preempt and mitigate effects of global warming.

Quite recently …

an electric utility executive told me the way he attempts to express the tradeoffs of his job to environmental advocates is to define “quality of life” as a tradeoff among three areas: health (environment), affordability (cost), and availability (abundance of supply and grid integrity).

And still more recently …

a diabetes research [Huang et al., 2007, Diabetes Care] study indicated that, for some, the cumulative burden of diabetes treatments (pills, insulin shots, etc.) is so great, that they claimed they were willing to forgo some years of living with treatment for a better “quality of life” during less years without treatment. Essentially, they said they were willing to risk having longer term ailments, including blindness and amputation, resulting from stopping medications in lieu of continuing traditional medical treatment and its associated side effects in the shorter term.

What do all of these instances have in common? They are all defining, or struggling to define, what and when they mean by the term “quality of life”. In fact, this discontinuity in timescales underscores much of the political and social debate on these topics, and almost everything else.

Albert Einstein told us that space and time were one in the same. In a similar vein, when we neglect timescales in political and social discussions, we miss part of the argument and prevent people from coming together on compromise.

Short time scale (0-1 year)

Pro-life advocates want to speak for those that cannot speak for themselves and are not yet born. The time frame of debate focuses from the time period from conception to birth.

Short-Medium time scale (1-10 years)

Some patients with chronic illnesses wish to make the remaining years of their life as enjoyable as possible rather than as long as possible. The time frame of debate focuses upon the last decade or so of expected life for the individual.

Medium-Long time scale (5-50 years)

Energy and electric utility companies and municipalities need to plan for infrastructure investments that economically depreciate over several decades. The time frame for the internal economic debate usually focuses upon the lifetime of the assets.

Long time scale (> 50 years)

Environmental sustainability advocates concerned about climate changes want to speak for those that cannot speak for themselves and are not yet born. Because of concerns about the emissions and wastes (e.g. CO2 and radioactive materials) of fossil fuel energy sources, the time frame for debate focuses on time spans greater than 100s of years.

As a society we are struggling to define the quality of life for different people and timescales. Until we settle on how we view these different timescales, our social policies will fluctuate with no apparent purpose or guidance.

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