Wealth In Healthy Life
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I would like to help you create wealth, wealth in service of your health, through a fairly simple wealth-creation strategy that most of us can use, especially when pursuing health-based life. Like most aspects of healthy living, this wealth-creation strategy mostly requires perseverance and openness of us, and can create unexpected new freedom and opportunity in our lives.
First, however, I need to have a short and more general discussion about wealth with you. Why? Because wealth on its own, wealth for its own sake, will not create the freedom and opportunities for more compelling life I have in mind. Wealth-focused life, in fact, is quite likely to undermine healthy and progressive living for us, limit rather than increase our potential for freedom, and keep us from important opportunities that wait for each of us in our natural health and vitality.
Regular readers of mine know that I view life focused on the pursuit of wealth as generally in conflict with the foundations of our natural health and well-being, as a general pattern of behavior that is likely to lead to less than optimal and fulfilling life for both individuals and communities. I don’t want you to fall in the wealth trap. I want you to have and use wealth to advance you health and life, and not to be used or held by wealth.
This underlying power of wealth-based life, to either to enable or limit new health, is especially and more openly true in our time. After all, the advanced technology and global industrial society around us can in principle easily assure that our essential material needs are met – those required to ensure our health and enable compelling life – and with far less effort than in past generations (if owing to the earlier and wealth-seeking efforts of those generations). Despite this new truth of our time, the trend today in much of the world remains in favor of more work, not less, and of new and unprecedented effort directed at attaining more wealth. Our general trajectory today is still very much, wealth for wealth’s sake.
From this fact, we might be tempted to conclude that old habits, including the habits of others before our time, really do die hard. In truth, however, the roots of our seemingly incessant propensity toward more work and striving for wealth have much deeper origins than simple historical or cultural inertia. Our wealth-based behavior today, once examined, reveals our natural or innate human drive for differentiated social status, for the esteem of others in an older way of speaking of this human phenomenon. This ancient human inclination served us and the advancement of our genes well in simple, subsistent, and nearly classless foraging society, but is now generally illogical as a rule for all or social organizing principle.
Today, our ancient and quite strong natural competitive drive or preoccupation with status remains a critical facet of contemporary life, one that inhabits and affects us all. It is a human attribute that is hard for many of us to adequately perceive and master in our lives, even as it is increasingly revealed as rich in negative consequences for us all. As I suggested, the unexamined or unregulated pursuit of status in advanced affluent society is almost universally self-defeating, illogical as a general rule, and even enormously unhealthy and life-limiting. I say this especially amidst the new facts of modern life and its new opportunities for far more chosen and principled personal conduct, and for our consent to far more universally beneficial promotion of consciously cooperative and progressive health-based life.
Suffice it to say, I am hardly alone in questioning our modern preoccupation with wealth and status. Voices speaking out against the pursuit of wealth and differentiated status have a long and wide path in our history and our times. But there is strong reason for us to revisit our natural drives toward wealth and status and the place of work in society, just now, as both individuals and an emerging global society.
In addition to our own direct experience and examination of unprecedented human prosperity in our time – and its often banal, unhealthy, and regressive nature – modern scientists have also now formally established the only very weak correlation between increasing levels of individual and social wealth and status, and the advancement of individual health, well-being, and life-satisfaction.
Five Shortcomings of Wealth
When we dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of wealth, or use wealth principally for differentiated social status, we actively work to diminish our health and well-being, or that of others around us, in at least five ways:
1. The first and simplest way that wealth-based life reduces our health is by creating or adding to unhealthy chronic stress in our lives and the people around us. We do this through individual and collective choices and uses of our time favoring economic or short-term status benefit, rather than those that reliably foster longer-term personal, community, and intergenerational health, wellness, and discovery. There are unending examples of such hardened choices, many or most stemming from over-committed schedules and hurried living, behavior that is impulsive or rooted in narrowed and unexamined perspectives, preoccupations that are indifferent or insensitive to our health and health-promoting relationships, or personal expectations that others do these things for our immediate benefit or to validate our choices. All these common aspects of modern wealth-based life lead immediately to increased chronic stress and personal disaffectedness, and over time to less healthy and supportive communities, for us all.
2. Related to the stress effects of excessive wealth, status, or even goal-centered life is a second and more subtle health-impacting factor – its general promotion of individual outlooks of environmental scarcity, its fostering of zero-sum thinking and feelings of personal inadequacy. This important quality of wealth-seeking and competitive life is nearly the rule among people, across all human cultures, yet it is also one we are often unconscious of and unable to put into a fuller and more health-promoting context. Why does acquisitive and status-seeking life naturally lead to such feelings of scarcity and inadequacy? Simply because this form of life is aimed at differentiation, which is always a relative and changing condition, and thus one that is rarely achieved in a final or lasting form. Even amidst obvious conditions of widespread material abundance, wealth-oriented people are still quite apt to be strongly influenced by feelings of scarcity and driven toward socially-engendered and extrinsically differentiating standards and goals, on status symbols and community standing, rather than the more personal goal-setting and patterns of action that come when our focus is turned principally to improving our health and well-being as an intrinsic end. The psyche of the wealth-focused person is thus often one not just of stress and pressure, but even fear of loss and hostility towards competitors, in great contrast to the health-promoting attitudes of supportiveness and openness toward others that are naturally fostered as human feelings of scarcity and inequity are removed or reduced.
3. A third way that wealth-focused life, preoccupied with status and status symbols, reduces our health is by pulling attention and resources from areas of human life that are essential to progressive individual and community health. Wealth-seeking life thereby encourages disinvestment – the inadequate allocation of time, attention, and resources – in a number of areas critical to our well-being and quality of life. Broadly, this includes the care of our bodies, minds, relationships, communities, environments, and futures. Much has been written about this topic, and a number of comparative measures and models of health and social disinvestment are available for readers interested in this topic. For the scope of our discussion today, let me simply say that health disinvestment is a ubiquitous and frequently poorly-understood aspect of wealth-based life, and one that operates quite forcefully in the lives of individuals, families, communities, and whole societies.
4. A fourth mechanism of health degradation, life in pursuit of wealth and status often promotes high levels of material consumption, either for status and display or as a surrogate for neglected or unfulfilled dimensions of natural human life, directly leading to excesses that diminish our health. Such excesses of wealth-based life, in turn, work to compound, heighten, and even mask the general disinvestment in our health discussed above.
5. The fifth, though perhaps not final, impediment to progressive health amidst wealth-based life is the way in which the pursuit of wealth in society generally, especially when unregulated or not in service of the imperative of social health and vitality, leads to ever accelerating social display, competition, inequality, and unnatural antipathy between people, and thereby to the loss of natural human social cohesion, which is intuitively and objectively essential to our well-being and adequate long-term social investment.
I have written elsewhere that the overall result of these health-diminishing tendencies is to replace our natural, progressive, and compounding cycle of individual and social health promotion (our natural Alpha cycle), present within human social groups in natural and subsistent conditions, with a new regressive and equally compounding cycle of increasing wealth but ever degrading health (our health-corrupting Beta cycle) – a cycle that emerges whenever acquisitive behavior dominates in human social settings, until such time of a general social collapse. As an alternative to this unnatural Beta cycle of degrading health and well-being, I have suggested a simple but far-reaching change in the basic orientation and public policies of our global society, with the aim at re-creating our natural health-promoting Alpha cycle amidst the new human setting of advanced civilization.
What I have proposed is that we now individually and collectively commit to a new fundamental paradigm or organizing principle for managing our advanced technological and global society, one where people primarily cooperate for health rather than compete for wealth. This simple but far-reaching proposal promises to create sustaining human affluence in service of health life, and has three essential parts: 1) careful examination of the now unprecedented physical structure and extreme wealth of our times, including its limits on and new opportunities for progressive health, 2) new evaluation and circumspection regarding the apparently self-defeating nature and history of wealth-based life as a social ethos, and 3) new hypothesis generation and testing of alternative ways to channel our growing wealth surplus toward the creation of what I have called a new Alpha cycle promoting individual and social well-being (a cycle that is thus more conscious, chosen, and universal than in our original human state in nature).
To accomplish this future-altering change in our orientation and way of life as modern people, we must of course begin to make a basic shift in our attitudes and social policies toward both our health and wealth, and in the priorities and goals underlying our global society and own lives today. Cooperation for health requires significant new investments of our time and energy in the exploration and uncovering of new health-promoting work and community structures, akin to our current search for new wealth-creating technologies and enterprises. Cooperation for health also requires a commitment to use our historically unprecedented wealth and technology in ways that are more directly health-promoting, universally beneficial, and much more forward-oriented.
Specifically, as a society we would need to actively curtail individual striving for differentiated status through wealth and consumption, with all the negative consequences this approach to life has for us and had our forbearers. In its place, we would need incentives for and encouragement of new striving for individual and social health and fulfillment, and progressive social investments in more beneficial general conditions – new personal emphasis and social policies aimed at promoting health, well-being, learning, and cooperative and reciprocating life. If these ideas seem immodest or unattainable, let me add that quite modest changes in existing financial and social incentives, and in selected social policies, might create such change fairly rapidly, reasserting the imperative of health and fostering needed long-term health-promoting social investment. I will come back to this topic in the last section of our discussion today.
Our civilized predecessors thought that wealth-directed work and life were fitting ends for society, and often spoke of wealth and happiness synonymously, but lived and worked amidst conditions of general poverty, where life was far more “nasty, brutish, and short” than it is today. Outward aggression and exploitation in the name of wealth, and narrow and zero-sum thinking generally, led to regular wars between peoples and self-perpetuating and destructive hostility within societies, just as they do today. In our time, human wealth has risen to levels unimaginable by earlier people and, even as it is still seemingly insufficient, now in fact can enable new technological and social structures, and new governance and social coordination, on a global and far more cooperative and reciprocating basis than was possible before our time. Most would agree that our wealth today is generally no longer directed at our survival. I want to suggest that it is often inimical to it, and to our health, and in any case holds the potential for its far wiser use.
From our modern vantage of unprecedented industrial prosperity and unprecedented scientific knowledge, we now can see that wealth and acquisitive behavior are far more corrosive to our individual and social health than our ancestors realized, and even that they are key components of a persistent cycle of reduced human health, learning, and vitality. I say this while acknowledging that wealth has been and remains a critical means to important ends and new human freedom in the world (allowing us to defend and sustain communities and the environment more broadly than might otherwise be the case). This dual nature of wealth underscores a critical distinction is in how wealth is used – whether to acquire items of luxury and status or to advance compelling and sustaining human life – and whether our pursuit and use of wealth is always tempered by a first imperative of health.
What will perhaps be the final truth of our eternal human condition is that we need little materially as individuals and communities to be healthy and well, and even to live rich and expansive lives. But this insight does not preclude the possibility of our creating and using industrial wealth to advance larger human values and aims, or to creating far-more sustainable and self-transcendent conditions for human life. In truth, during times of environmental and social stress, the wise use of our combined wealth can even mean the difference between the survival and extinction of a people, and now of all people in our interconnected global civilization.
With these important and perhaps unexpected ideas as background, in the remainder of this article I will discuss a strategy for acquiring and using wealth in ways that are compatible with our natural health and even directly health-promoting for us. I will cover this important topic first in the simpler case of individuals and families, and then in the broader case of communities and society generally.
Wealth in Individuals and Families
Let’s next consider how material wealth is created, both in theory and practically in the lives of individuals and families. Our discussion will assume conditions of relative freedom and social transparency, conditions where wealth that is created can be held and used reliably over time, which is the general but still not universal condition of people in the modern world today.
Material wealth can be described in a number of ways. It influences and is influenced by perception, and our emotional or spiritual wealth, but for our discussion we will focus on material wealth in itself, which I will define as property or possessions that can be used to attain or be exchanged for other property or possessions (note that I have thereby excluded property that can be consumed or enjoyed only). For the nomad, wealth is open land and the opportunity to derive resources from it, whatever items of value that can be taken from and carried across it. For the shepherd, it is the size and prospects of his or her herd, the number of working family members, and stores and provisions. Similarly, for the farmer, wealth is measured by the size of his or her plot, the quality of soil and climate, the availability of others to help work the land, possessions and provisions, and livestock and seeds at hand.
In pre-modern urban life and now in modern industrial life wherever it occurs, wealth can include all of these earlier aspects of wealth and take on many more and more subtle forms. Wealth can of course include money and property, but also can encompass knowledge, skills, relationships, and one’s reputation, all again to the extent that these can be used or exchanged. To simplify our discussion, we will focus mainly on money, on monetary wealth – recognizing that all forms of material wealth can be amassed and used in ways similar to monetary wealth, even if they lack the flexibility (liquidity) of money. In addition, almost all forms of material wealth can now be converted into monetary wealth, or monetized in the words of financiers, even if the terms and desirability of such conversions can vary widely.
Money began as civilization grew and bartering or the direct exchange of goods became less practical. Money is created by society as a common medium of exchange, and is normally obtained either through wages or profits. Wages come from one’s own labor when sold to another person or organization. Profits can come from several sources: from one’s own labor when self-employed, from the labor and organization of others, and via technology and the transformation of raw materials.
Some extraordinary people can create significant monetary wealth through labor alone (think of an adored actor or singer), but for most of us, if starting without money or other wealth, need to supplement our wages with profits if we are to create substantial wealth and rely less on our labor for money over time (and to free our time for new uses, such as health promotion). It is possible that we might borrow or be given money to begin an investment stream, but more likely the truth is that each of us will have to turn at least some of our wages into invested money (also known as capital) through saving if we are to begin a flow of profits to supplement and perhaps eventually replace our wages and need for allocating our time to wage labor.
Like other forms of material wealth, money can be used in two ways. It can be used to obtain items for consumption (food, clothing, shelter, luxury, etc.) or it can be used to pursue additional material wealth through monetary investments (land, lending and investments, innovations that generate profits, etc.). This is a critical distinction, since at all levels of individual and family wealth it implies two distinct general patterns for the use of money and other forms of wealth, with two very different long term consequences for individuals and families, as well as for communities and societies. When money or wealth is used for consumption, it is normally exchanged for items of lower or depreciating future exchange value. When money is invested to create more wealth, it normally leads to greater future exchange value for the investor – greater future wealth that can then in turn can be either consumed or used to create still more wealth.
As an aside, perhaps you noticed a problem or contradiction in this description of the two uses of wealth. Wealth is diminished through most forms of consumption, but consumption is essential to allow exchange and exchange to enable the creation of wealth. If everyone only invested their wealth, there would be no consumption to provide investment returns and no wealth would be created. Economists call this the “paradox of thrift.” In reality, we all consume and exchange, whether for food and other essentials of life, or for luxury items, so there is almost always significant consumption and opportunities for investment, especially in the large economies of our global civilization. The good news is that modest levels of investment normally provide adequate consumption in an economy, while allowing the creation of long-term wealth and very different individual and social conditions.
Monetary investments really include any use of money to make money, any use of money to obtain more money or other material wealth, things other than items of consumption. Investments can include starting a business or investing directly in the business of another person, investing in land and real estate, investing in oneself or others, lending money with an interest premium, or developing a new technology, product, or service. For many people, some of these forms of investing are difficult, risky, or uninteresting, especially if they are involved in other activities or working full-time. In modern times, an alternative to many of these forms of direct investing is the use of investment funds, where an investment fund manager or custodian invest our money for us. Such investment funds can take positions in existing or start-up businesses, land, raw materials, and technology, or can lend money to people who manage any of these things, and can allow excellent risk management, by allowing people of ordinary means to have a highly diversified portfolio of investments.
Investment funds come in four general types: 1) money market funds, 2) bond funds, 3) stock funds, and 4) other investment funds. Money market funds are similar to bank deposits in many ways. They normally provide short to mid-term lending to individuals, businesses, and other organizations, and often provide an annual investment return of 1-2% above the rate of general price inflation. Bond funds provide mid to long-term lending, through the purchase of bond debt, and are thus often subject to more investment risk than money market funds. Bond funds generally offer annual returns of 3-4% above the rate of inflation in the overall economy. Stock funds invest in and take ownership positions in businesses, generally with more investment risk than bond funds and more variable annual returns, ones that often average 5-7% above the inflation rate (if the businesses invested in are successful). Other investment funds include real estate trusts, private equity funds, hedge funds, and commodity funds, all of which are outside the needs of most individual and family investors and beyond the scope of our discussion today.
Key considerations in selecting investment funds involve balancing risk and return on invested capital, understanding the scope of investments or third-party lending by the fund, and ensuring efficient and highly transparent fund management. There are numerous sources of information to help in selecting investment funds, including fund ratings agencies and both for-profit and not-for-profit investment counselors, so I will not attempt to cover this topic. Let me simply say that the use of diversified and highly rated bond and stock funds (including stock index funds) with low fund management fees can be an excellent way of ensuring consistent and risk-managed returns on capital over time, leading to the creation of significant monetary wealth for individuals and families of almost any level of wages. That said, great care should always be taken to avoid excessive investment risk (usually with not more than five percent of funds invested in any one company or sector of the economy).
Another general point on investment fund selection is that a mix of money, bond, and stock fund investments can help individuals and families adjust their investment risks and strategy over time. In general, invested money that may be needed as income within five years should not be invested in stocks. Though stock funds and individual stocks can provide higher returns over time, they have a greater risk of volatility at any point in time. Diversified bond funds or a portfolio of individual bonds are better to use when relatively stable profit income is desired, rather than capital accumulation, and are normally used to actively supplement or replace wage income. Like bank deposits, money market funds are generally used for holding capital on a short term basis only due to their lower risk/lower return nature. In truth, most people who invest will hold a combination of stock, bond, and money funds and bank deposits, or individual stock and bond issues, in their investment portfolio at any and all times, even if their mix of funds and issues changes over time.
Just as important as understanding the use of these and other investment vehicles for our investment capital is understanding how investment or working capital is created for individuals and families in the first place. As we discussed before, unless we have investment capital from our families or others, creating capital will inevitably involve redirecting some of our wage income from consumption to investment. All of us can be challenged to do this, since saving involves forgoing consumption today for the prospect of non-wage or profit income in the mid to long-term. Setting aside money for investment can be especially difficult for people with low incomes, high amounts of debt, many dependents, or a basic personal bias toward today (who should still splurge, but in more targeted ways, freeing wages for investment while ensuring sufficient short-term novelty and excitement to make investing for the future sustainable).
In all cases of individuals and families who are financially dependent on wage income, it takes creativity and resourcefulness to free income for investment, but the benefits of this approach over time are as compelling as new patterns of saving and investment are difficult to begin. After all, when we ensure adequate savings and investment levels, it literally can mean the difference between a life of perpetual labor and wages, and one that is more financially free and open to alternative uses of our time (life that is potentially freer in non-financial dimensions). For people committed to health-based life and willing to downplay material consumption to increase their future health prospects, the process of diverting wages into investment capital is made much easier at all wage levels.
To illustrate the enormous power of combining a lower consumption health-based lifestyle with long-term investing, let’s create an example of a family with a single wage earner, one who is able to set aside thirty percent of the family’s income as invested capital and who earns a five percent annual investment return (above the rate of inflation) on all money invested. For simplicity, we’ll assume that wages keep pace with inflation each year and that investment returns are paid on the total amount invested at the end of each year.
Using these assumptions, the cash flow summarized in Table 1 results. Notice that, at the end of one year, the family would have invested capital equal to 31.5% of their annual wage income (30% savings plus a 5% return on the 30%). By tear two, total money invested would rise to almost 65% of annual wages (31.5% from year one, plus 30% in new savings from year two, along with a 5% return on both these amounts). As we look ahead, quite substantial accumulation of investment capital results:
Table 1: Percent of Wages Accumulated @30% Savings Rate
First Generation – No Starting Capital
Year Savings Return@5% Total (% annual wages)
1 30% 1.5% 31.5%
2 61.5% 3% 65%
3 95% 5% 99%
4 129% 6% 136%
5 166% 8% 174%
10 377% 19% 396%
15 647% 32% 680%
20 992% 50% 1042%
25 1432% 72% 1503%
30 1993% 100% 2093%
As you can see, by the end of year 30, the family has invested capital equal to more than 2000% (or 20 times) their annual wages. At that point, the accumulated investment capital likely can be invested to keep pace with inflation, while providing income equal to 70% of annual wages forever. This amount of investment-derived annual income is of course the same income level the family has been living on for the prior 30 years (since they have been living with a 30% savings rate). What this means is that the family likely now can continue this level of consumption without work and with no reduction in their income level or investment capital over time. Imagine the possibilities such an income stream and this reservoir of wealth can create in the life of a health-oriented family, perhaps one just like yours.
To continue our example, the picture is even brighter for the children of our health-oriented wage earner, since they can receive some of their parents’ money, either through inheritance or as a gift once they are self-sufficient and no longer dependent on the original family income stream. Let’s assume each child receives 10% of the family capital (200% of the original annual wage amount) when they begin work, has wages comparable to their working parent, and continues the same 30% investment strategy and a 5% annual return above inflation on all invested money. For the next generation, freedom from wage earning is achieved in year 24, rather than year 30, assuming no other inheritance or gifting (for example from grandparents or childless relatives):
Table 2: Percent of Wages Accumulated @30% Savings Rate
Next Generation – Year 1 Gift =200% of Annual Wages
Year Savings Return@5% Total (% annual wages)
1 230% 12% 242%
5 409% 20% 429%
10 688% 34% 722%
15 1043% 52% 1096%
20 1497% 75% 1572%
25 2077% 104% 2181%
30 2816% 141% 2957%
These examples demonstrate the power of combining a sensible investment strategy with a health-oriented, lower consumption lifestyle. Together, they create the potential for very different lives for us and our families. The assumptions and projections I have made are quite conservative and are not influenced by short-term aberrations in the economy, which we are experiencing as I write this (The Great Recession of 2008-2009). Admittedly, I have proposed a high savings rate relative to many people today, but one entirely consistent with a health-based lifestyle for many people.
Wealth in Healthy Communities and Society
So far, we have put wealth in perspective, highlighting its potential to either reduce or enable our health and well-being, depending on the way wealth is acquired and used in our lives, communities, and society overall. We also have discussed how an individual or family might accumulate significant working capital through a very simple investment strategy, in a manner consistent with a health-based lifestyle, so that dependency on wages is reduced or eliminated over time – enabling new financial, occupational, and personal independence.
The strategy I have proposed for creating wealth and new life options requires nothing extraordinary or any compromises in our commitment to healthy living. In fact, the strategy is enabled by healthy life. All that is needed is steady work and wage-earning, a commitment to saving amidst a lower consumption lifestyle, and conservative investing in the economy broadly over time. Since it is reasonable to assume that people oriented toward a healthy lifestyle will work – especially in ways that are in service to others and their health and therefore that are valuable to others – the idea of investing a reliable wage stream over time is quite realistic and I hope proves a compelling prospect for you. In time, families following this wealth creation strategy, when in service of their health, can create new and unique life possibilities and positions in their communities, perhaps even finding themselves able to impact the direction and policies of the communities they live in and our global society more generally.
I will end our discussion of wealth in the healthy life with a consideration of this prospect of financially-independent natural health practitioners influencing communities and societies, focusing on how they might both foster and manage individual and collective wealth in service of our health. As before, our discussion of wealth proceeds with the potential negative consequences of status and consumption-oriented behavior, and highly unequal levels of wealth, in mind. Our goal remains to create and manage wealth in service of human health and well-being, and that of the natural environment and life generally – in other words, to use wealth in sustainable, informed, and progressive ways, re-creating what I have called our natural Alpha cycle of increasing and compounding health.
All of our communities, our larger global society, and our public officials, once tasked to foster progressive and sustainable public health and well-being, must both use and encourage new scientific inquiry, and commit to fact-based deliberation and policy-making in many areas, including those involving wealth management. This implies a gradual but persistent evolution and pragmatic progression toward new knowledge and levels of health over time. Such policy-making work need not wait for the future, however. Already, the emerging but now well-established science of human well-being points to the new social policy directions I have introduced in our discussion.
Based on this science, we all are likely well-advised to begin and encourage a coordinated global move to at least five key general health-promoting policies, all related to the creation and management of wealth, as part of a broader effort of promoting progressive new individual and community health in modern society:
· Foster health and healthy lifestyles – sustainable and supportive communities begin from a new foundation and primary commitment: to foster the health and well-being of people as its central mission. Today, a majority of communities remain organized for or subordinate to the accumulation and consumption of wealth, despite the many negative consequence this approach entails. In extreme cases, industrial wealth today is held by and used to serve only a minority of the population of a community and at an enormous cost to the health and vitality of all the community’s members (ironically, even the wealthy members). It is true that increasing wealth can promote health, but this occurs primarily when new wealth lifts people out of poverty and other dysfunctional forms of living. Once this threshold amount of wealth is achieved, new wealth is generally best used in service of community health and sustainability to continue this trend, or communities and societies risk the vicious cycle we have discussed of health stagnation and social degradation from unregulated wealth-based life. Key health promoting policies include investments in public health and educational initiatives, healthy community development through housing and land use improvements, and the active discouragement and regulation of high consumption/low fitness lifestyles. Already, notable progress has been made in these directions in some parts of the world, with important lessons for policy-makers everywhere, but much work remains. As a beginning, community and societal leaders must commit to the health of their people as a first principle. We must all also be willing to consider that many historically-rooted community and social standards and practices are evolved to serve wealth itself and may need significant revision to fulfill a new commitment to health-based human life
· Promote socially responsible work – while I have highlighted the potential for individuals and families to escape the requirement of lifelong wage-earning, this is principally intended to create new health-promoting options for people and their communities. My aim is to foster more socially responsible and health-oriented work, rather than enable the insulation and disengagement of people from their communities that can come when wealth increases and work stops. The truth is that healthy human life involves, and even requires, work in one form or another. Without ongoing work, little is created and less is experienced. People become disengaged from life and less healthy, and life itself becomes more meaningless, staid, and unhealthy in turn. While individuals and families can accumulate wealth and help to create a shift to new forms of health-based and socially responsible work, collective action is as essential to accelerate such change and formalize new work, consumption, and investment patterns in communities and society. Potential policies here include supporting cooperative organizations and social entrepreneurship, encouraging work-life balance and job sharing, funding job training and work transition programs, and ensuring living wages and economic diversity (eco-diversity, akin to healthy bio-diversity).
· Encourage capital accumulation – we have already discussed the potential for and the benefits of a steady and compounding capital accumulation strategy for individuals and families. Community and social leaders can support this process through educational programs, incentives and programs that encourage and protect saving and investment, and through sensible regulation of economies and financial institutions to ensure investment transparency. Beyond promoting private wealth, of course, communities and societies can also ensure adequate collective wealth and social investment too, through balanced or surplus-generating budgets, sensible fiscal and monetary policy, targeted public investments, regulation to ensure sustainable development and preservation of ecosystems, and reserve funding capabilities for times of environmental or economic stress.
· Mitigate economic inequality – a key wealth-related component of individual health and social sustainability is economic and social equality, which promotes not only community cooperation and cohesion, but also greater longevity and reduced morbidity for people of all social strata. As we have discussed and I have written about elsewhere, open economic systems, unless regulated, trend toward ever greater economic and social inequality, as early winners and other fortunates parlay their private advantages and increasingly dominate others and undermine social harmony over time. This natural tendency of acquisitive society toward economic imbalance begins a vicious cycle of competition, class stratification, disenfranchisement and alienation, and eventual social decline, increasingly reducing health and longevity for both rich and poor. In addition to fostering capital accumulation, cooperative social enterprises, and healthy lifestyles, a key policy to prevent this trend of excessive inequality and social devolution is progressive taxation of consumption and/income, of intergenerational wealth transfer if significant inequality exists already, and to cover the full social cost of all externalities associated with economic production. Though this quite simple idea remains debated in our time, especially among the more affluent and wealth-aspiring, there is now quite strong evidence that such progressive and balanced taxation – to curb excessive and cascading consumption and display, promote relative economic and social equality, and communicate the full cost of production in the pricing of goods and services – is a critical aspect of creating more enduring and uplifting human communities, promoting individual life that is more intrinsically lived and compelling, and mitigating social factors that work against human health promotion.
· Build sustainable systems – as the conditions for both private and public health-promoting wealth are nurtured and managed through health-based public policies, a final area for active public leadership is in ensuring the sustainability and evolution of modern human systems – those that support communities, societies, and even our species – over time. This is a new, far-reaching, and unprecedented modern challenge, but one where collective action is vital and where we are likely already significantly underinvested relative to our current ability to reasonably future-proof ourselves. If far-reaching in scope, this is another aspect of modern life that can be addressed much like my suggested strategy for private wealth accumulation, through persistency and many small and compounding investments over time. A long list of social risks and potential mitigants is possible here, but let me simply summarize this topic by focusing on the idea of sustainability itself, which in a sense is an important measure of our health. Sustainability is our collective ability to adapt and endure and remain fit over long periods of time and amidst the extremes of nature. Critical and still underdeveloped areas to ensure our sustainability include: 1) population policy – ensuring future generations remain genetically diverse and sized so that we can live a full and healthy life without harm to the environment, 2) food supply – promoting food production that does not harm the environment, including causing soil loss, and that is sunlight based and naturally resistant to pests, while producing regular surplus reserves for our full population, 3) energy systems – remaking energy sources to become based completely on renewable and non-polluting sources, and 4) our built environment – creating housing, transportation, and industrial infrastructure that is health-promoting, flexible, decentralized, ecologically-sound, and fairly impervious to natural and human threats.
Wealth in Perspective
As long as we live in conditions of political and economic freedom and transparency, and as this condition becomes universal in the future, we have the ability to choose and improve the way both families and communities live across our global society. We need neither exploit others, nor be exploited ourselves, to accomplish this. It is, in fact, in the nature of open economic and advanced technological systems, when thoughtfully managed and resourced, to provide prosperity, promote health, and permit compelling life for all their members.
We have discussed how even modest wage-earning in the context of health-based life, combined with a sustained investment strategy to create capital earnings over time, allows individuals and families of nearly all income levels to achieve financial independence and new control of their lives. When increasing wealth remains in service of healthy life, this independence creates opportunities for us to live in new and even remarkable ways, and to change and improve the future prospects of those in our care or in our lives.
In a similar way, communities and whole societies can choose policies that foster conditions of increasing and optimally distributed wealth and social capital, promote civic responsibility and economic contribution, and make targeted community investments to promote progressive public health and ensure community sustainability. Together, these steps can improve the prospects of all people and asserting new control over our collective health and future. For this process to begin in earnest, citizens and public officials must achieve new awareness of the inherent limits and negative consequences of wealth-based life itself, and the alternative of moving to a paradigm where people cooperate for health and where progressive health-promotion is taken as the premise and first task of government.
Historically, material wealth has both enabled and hampered our natural health and progressive human development. In our time, we can see this mixed result of wealth-based life all too clearly. We enjoy longer lifespans and new personal opportunities from modern public health programs and other scientifically-grounded social investments, but also miss important opportunities for still far greater health and well-being. Once we can begin to see this mixed record of accomplishment and its origins, and the many unrealized opportunities for increased health and more progressive life today, new change becomes possible in the lives of people, communities, and our global society.
To end our discussion near where we began today, let me add that this progression toward new health, and toward the transformation of wealth into a modern tool of health promotion, must begin in our own lives today, in the choices we make and in the opportunities we make possible in the world around us through our choices. Together, each of us can begin the accumulation of wealth in service of our health, and then promote and make public choices that do this same thing on a much a broader and more universal scale.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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