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Creating Healthy Societies and Citizens

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Sexton
April 28, 2015

Sexton aprilA healthy society is a whole that’s larger than the sum of its parts. Growing up in San Diego, California, a healthy lifestyle is introduced at birth. But, what makes for a healthy society?

In San Diego, some may think the sun, surf or sand, “in general” allows those residents to live better. Its police cars say “America’s Finest City.” But what really causes the healthier lifestyle—the people or the environment? The government or its citizens? These are all parts of a larger sum. A sum that includes prevention, promotion and protection.

The World Health Organization’s definition of health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.” If this is the defining framework, what are we collectively creating?

According to the Food Research Action Center, in the U.S., 68.5 percent of adults and 31.8 percent of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. Research from the Child Trauma Academy has demonstrated that children who suffer from neglect and abuse in their lives are far more likely to become tax-consumers, while children raised in nurturing and safe environments will likely become tax-payers.

Creating healthy societies means developing the general well-being of citizens through prevention and promotion. A healthy society prevents disease and injury AND promotes healthy lifestyle choices. According to the World Health Organization, there were 56 million global deaths in 2012. Approximately 68 percent of those deaths were due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases.

Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Thus, prevention and promotion are not enough. The key to developing a healthy citizen is to protect them.

A healthy society requires the structure of law. Without laws and regulations, we have chaos. The doctrine of legal positivism states that government leaders should build a ‘great society’ enforced by police protection. Positivists support measures that punish those who violate the law with fines, imprisonment or even death. We then enact laws, write rules and implement regulations to manage our “great society.” The citizens of government are held responsible to abide by those laws.

Although, we cannot guarantee that all laws will serve the best interest of all the people, what does not serve our collective interests is a penal system that fails to reform those who break the law. The 2005-2010 National Institute of Justice report on recidivism states, “Within five years of prisoner release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.” We cannot eliminate crime but we can implement mechanisms toward desistance.

The path to desistance requires motivation. Dan Pink asserts that there are extrinsic and intrinsic factors to consider. Extrinsic factors are the rewards and punishments promoted by our society while intrinsic motivators are those of purpose. As Donatella Meadows points out, “A function of almost every system is to ensure its own perpetuation.” It is our obligation to prevent our system from collapse by promoting a healthy existence through the protection of our environment.

However, prevention, promotion and protection are not enough. If it takes a village to raise a child, then we must educate everyone on “equity.” When everyone has access to basic needs, we will be equitable. Resources are plundered for the benefit of a few and the wounds of inequity have scarred many. We cannot correct the injustices of our past through rhetoric and inaction. We need a different approach. We must become sustainable.

Potentially, our planet is at the precipice of the greatest economic and social boom, driven by innovation, renewable energy and regenerative design. To get there, we must work within the framework of the triple-bottom-line where planet equals people equals profit. We can develop a prosperous and equitable future for all but, as Edmund Burke states, people must “put moral chains upon their own appetites.”

Prevention, promotion and protection require action. Food and beverage manufacturers must assume their responsibility in producing healthy food. Government must create disincentives in the sale of unhealthy products. Education systems must refine health instruction in the curriculum. All of these parts make a larger whole, creating a healthy society where everyone contributes equitably.


Author: Michael Sexton was born and raised in San Diego, California. Currently, he is a dual MBA/MPA candidate at Presidio Graduate School and his public administration focus is on policy reform in foreign aid. He spent the previous decade working in the public and private sectors in Africa. Michael is creating a series of products to support development and infrastructure for impoverished communities. Email:  [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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