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You are here: Home Our Projects Biosensitive Futures Part 4: Facts and principles Human health issues Diseases of modern civilisation

Diseases of modern civilisation

Contemporary human health issues

Anthony G. Capon

Definitions, scope and perspectives
Common diseases and associated characteristics of modern civilisation
Un-met universal health needs in modern civilisation

Towards a healthy and biosensitive society

Definitions, scope and perspectives

The Oxford Dictionary defines diseases as disorders of structure or function in the human body, especially those that produce symptoms. Boyden (2004) uses the term civilisation to encompass all human societies with economies based on farming (i.e. ecological phase 2, 3 and 4 societies).

Should modern civilisation be defined as a period of time—such as the Second World War to the present? Should it defined by geography—for example, so-called western civilisation? Should it defined by culture—including access to modern technology? Should it be defined from a bio-historical perspective as ecological phase 4 (Boyden, 2004)? For the purposes of this paper, I will define modern civilisation as societies with the characteristics of ecological phase 4—the high-consumption phase of human civilisation. Some people in every country on Earth (whether living in the East, West, North or South) currently live in this way.

It is not possible to provide a comprehensive overview of diseases of modern civilisation in this short paper. Hence, I will use selected diseases as exemplars, linking these diseases to un-met universal health needs (see our paper Our place in nature).
The health perspectives through which we will explore this are the evolutionary health principle and western, or science-based, medicine. The intention is not to give western medicine undue priority as a health philosophy, rather to acknowledge that this perspective will be meaningful to many readers of these papers. Certainly, there are alternative ways of thinking about human health and wellbeing—including Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, Aboriginal bush medicine. We should be open to learn from, and with, these other ancient philosophies.

Common diseases associated with modern civilisation (the high-consumption phase)

A list of common diseases and associated characteristics of modern civilisation is presented in Box 1. The list focuses on a sub-set of the universal health needs—those un-met for many people in modern societies.

Box 1

Common diseases and associated characteristics of modern civilisation

Disease Characteristics of modern civilisation
cardiovascular disease lack of physical activity, un-natural diet,
tobacco smoking, air pollution
diabetes lack of physical activity, un-natural diet
cancer lack of physical activity, un-natural diet,
tobacco smoking, alcohol use
depression, anxiety lack of physical activity, consumer culture,
social isolation, use of alcohol and other drugs
chronic respiratory disease tobacco smoking, air pollution
liver disease use of alcohol and other drugs

The information presented in Box 1 is a simplification. It is important to understand that medicine often defines diseases in accordance with the organ system affected. This works well when the condition is confined to one organ system (e.g., primary lung cancer). Of course it’s not always this straight forward. Our modern way of life is affecting multiple organ systems at the same time. Diabetes (or metabolic syndrome) is a good example – it is the classic lifestyle disease and can affect every organ system.

Un-met universal health needs in modern civilisation

The associations identified in Box 1 are discussed below (readers may also like to refer to the reference list if they seek additional information). The discussion is organised around un-met universal health needs.

1. Lack of physical activity

One of the universal health needs (physical) identified in our paper Health and civilisation is (reproduced here for convenience):

A pattern of physical activity which involves some short periods of vigorous muscular activity and longer periods of medium (and varied) muscular activity, but also frequent periods of rest.

Our modern way of life is less physically active than ever before. For many people work is very sedentary. It is done at a desk, with the assistance of telephone and email for communication. Recreation has also become increasingly sedentary. Since the advent of television and video games, many people now take their recreation sitting in front of these screens. Transport is also less active. The availability of cheap motor car transport has transformed the way we move in our environment, and at the same time, has transformed the shape of our cities.

A wide range of labour-saving devices are now available to assist with household chores and work. This has been positive as it has reduced the physical demands of such work, and associated injury and disability. At the same time, it has reduced levels of physical activity at the population level. We no longer use somatic (food) energy for these tasks. We have replaced this somatic energy with energy from fossil fuels.

Lack of physical activity is associated with a wide range of diseases and other health problems – obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, depression.

2. Unnatural diet

Another universal health need is:

A natural diet (that is, calorie intake neither less than nor in excess of metabolic requirements; foods providing the full range of the nutritional requirements of the human organism, as provided, for example, by a diverse range of different foods of plant origin and a little cooked lean meat; a diet that does not contain an excess of any particular kind of chemical constituent or class of food; foods with a physical consistency of that of natural foods and containing fibre; foodstuffs devoid of potentially noxious contaminants or additives)

The food culture in some modern societies has become a fast-food culture. Increasing numbers of people use convenience foods to minimise the time required to source and prepare food, and to maximise time available for work and leisure. These convenience foods are often high in fat and salt.

A few generations ago, most lollies were sold in separate lolly shops. This placed a structural restriction on supply. These foods are now heavily marketed and a key source of income in grocery shops—encouraging prominent placement in these shops. Lollies and other snack foods—such as chocolate and potato crisps—are no longer considered a treat by many people. They are now part of the daily diet.

Many people, especially in high- and middle- consumption countries, have ready access to these unnatural and unhealthy foods. It can require extra effort for people in such places to source a natural diet. This unnatural diet is contributing to a wide range of diseases and other health problems—including obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and depression. There remains potential for micro-nutrient deficiencies, if there is not a sufficient quantity of a diverse range of different foods of plant origin and lean meat.

3. Unclean air (tobacco smoking and other sources of air pollution)

A third universal health need is clean air to breathe:

Clean air (not contaminated with hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides, lead etc.)

Tobacco smoking (purposefully) pollutes the air breathed in by the smoker, and anyone else in the immediate vicinity.
In some parts of the world, urban centres have poor air quality. Motor vehicle emissions are an important source of air pollution in cities where the motor car is a primary mode of transport. Residents in such places are exposed to a range of air pollutants, including fine particles, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, ozone and lead.

Industrial air pollution is an important health issue in many middle-income countries. The health risks depend on the nature of the industry. Smoke from forest fires is currently an important source of air pollution in South-East Asia and other parts of the world where large-scale land clearing is underway.

Unclean air – from tobacco smoking and air pollution – is an important cause of chronic respiratory disease, heart disease and cancers.

4. Other un-met health needs

In addition to these three un-met universal physical health needs, there are some un-met universal psychosocial needs, associated with consumer culture, and alcohol and other drug use. These are less well understood, and often given less emphasis in medical practice.

The relationships between alcohol and other drug use and disease are complex. There is evidence that moderate alcohol intake is beneficial for health. Many people use alcohol in this way. Prolonged use of alcohol, at higher levels, can lead to depression. People who are already depressed (for other reasons) may also be attracted to using alcohol and other drugs because of the temporary mood altering effects of intoxication. This can exacerbate depression. Alcohol and other drug use is also associated with other diseases including liver diseases such as hepatitis, cirrhosis and cancer, and infectious diseases from risk behaviours such as needle sharing and unprotected sexual contact (hepatitis A, B, C and HIV infection).

Changes to food production, manufacturing and handling may have un-foreseen health consequences. The emergence of Esherichia coli 0157:H7 as a cause of foodborne illness in high-consumption countries provides a salutary reminder of the importance of microbial infection. Relatedly, there seems to be an emerging hygiene obsession at the societal level. One manifestation of this is the marketing and sales of myriad household anti-microbial products. Contact with natural environmental micro-organisms is a universal health need. The “hygiene hypothesis” is used to explain the higher incidence of allergic disorders in high-consumption countries.

In recent years, there have been rising concerns for the safety of children in modern societies. Some of this concern arises from the risk of pedestrian and cyclist injury from motor vehicles. Some arises from concern about “stranger-danger”. One consequence of these concerns is that many parents no longer encourage their children to spend time exploring their neighbourhood unsupervised by adults. This may well affect the social and emotional development of these children, and have future health consequences.

The relationships between consumer culture, and its association with a more secular and perhaps less reflective and less spiritual society, and health is more controversial. Popular philosophers have identified modern maladies, such as status anxiety (de Botton, 2004). And what of the impact of the 24-hour office culture, enabled by mobile phones and palmtop computers, associated with an “epidemic of insomnia”? Or the impact of lack of contact with nature?

Towards a healthy and biosensitive society

Research with indigenous Australians has shown a marked beneficial health impact of temporary reversion to traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles on diabetes and other associated conditions (O’Dea, 1984). Perhaps, this would also apply to depression and anxiety. If people with depression were taken from their environment and lived in a different way (plenty of physical activity, healthy food, a different social context), it is plausible that they may also be cured of their depression.

Of course, this is not a practical treatment for all. The importance of this work is that it demonstrates two things—firstly, the link between the way we live and these conditions, and secondly, if we change the way we live we will not have these conditions.
I will conclude with two examples of approaches that warrant further consideration.

  • We need to re-think our urban environments. In future, we should build our cities in ways that provide opportunities for plenty of physical activity in the way we inhabit our places. Certainly, it is important to allow easy access for people with physical impairments. It is possible to achieve both these objectives simultaneously.
  • We should take stock of our food supply and our food “culture”. Natural food is a universal health need, and it also provides wonderful opportunities for social connection, interaction and conviviality.

Last word

We already know many of the things we need to do to live in a healthy way. The knowledge was passed on to us by our grandparents and other forebears. We need to get our lives into balance (in harmony with nature); we need to take time to smell the roses; and we should do everything in moderation. These simply homilies are entirely consistent with the evolutionary health principle.


Boyden S. The biology of civilisation: Understanding human culture as a force in nature. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2004.
Capon AG. The way we live in our cities. Med J Aust 2007; 187: 658-661.
de Botton A. Status anxiety. Melbourne: Penguin, 2004.
McMichael AJ. Human frontiers, environments and disease: Past patterns, uncertain futures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
O’Dea K. Marked improvement in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in diabetic Australian Aborigines after temporary reversion to traditional lifestyle. Diabetes 1984; 33:596-603.