Do we face a third revolution in human history? If so, how will public health respond?

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Abstract

Background

A range of evidence suggests that the dominant culture associated with the economic systems of ‘modern’ societies has become a major source of pressure on global resources and may precipitate a third revolution in human history, with major implications for health and well-being.

Objective

This paper aims to consider whether there are historical analogies with contemporary circumstances which might help us make connections between past and present predicaments in the human condition; to highlight the underpinnings of such predicaments in the politico-economic and cultural systems found in ‘modern’ societies; to outline questions prompted by this analysis, and stimulate greater debate around the issues raised.

Methods

We draw on evidence and arguments condensed from complex research and theorizing from multiple disciplines.

Results

Contemporary evidence suggests that global depletion of a key energy resource (oil), increasing environmental degradation and imminent climate change can be linked to human socio-economic and cultural systems which are now out of balance with their environment. Those systems are associated with Western-type societies, where political philosophies of neo-liberalism, together with cultural values of individualism, materialism and consumerism, support an increasingly globalized capitalist economic system. Evidence points to a decline of psychological and social well-being in such societies.

Conclusion

We need to work out how to prevent/ameliorate the harms likely to flow from climate change and rising oil costs. Public health professionals face the challenge of preventing adverse health consequences likely to result from continued adherence to the have-it-all mindset prevailing in contemporary Western societies. Equally, we need to seek out the potential health dividends that could be realized in terms of reduced obesity, improved well-being and greater social equity, while not under-estimating the likelihood of profound resistance, from many sectors of society, to unwanted but inevitable change.

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