Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date



Although new environmental and pathological threats to human survival and longevity have been documented, relatively little is known about how these threats are perceived in the popular imagination. During fieldwork in rural Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, researching the changing costs of and motivations for reproduction, the authors included survey questions on respondents’ perceptions of changing mortality. Child-mortality levels were perceived to have fallen drastically in recent times, but for the middle-aged and the elderly, the past was seen as a better time in terms of health and survival. The decline in adult health is attributed to environmental deterioration and lifestyle changes associated with modernization. This paper explores the objective validity of and subjective reasons for this unexpected worldview. References to pesticides and chemical fertilizers as causes of death abound, but mention of other emerging health threats including the HIV/AIDS pandemic, dengue, and toxic levels of arsenic in the water table is conspicuously absent.