Sustainability Plus

Communications > Sustainability Plus > Posts > Health, Human Capital and the Prosperity of Nations

One of the main purposes behind the Alabama Cooperative Extension System's Sustainability-Plus weblog is to underscore why sustainable practices, including sustainable lifestyle practices, are essential to our long-term future and prosperity. 

Russia arguably serves as the most notable example of how poor lifestyle practices can ultimately contribute to reduced levels of life expectancy, which, in turn, can seriously undermine a nation's prospects of economic growth and prosperity —a fact Nick Eberstadt has demonstrated extensively through his writings about conditions in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia over the last three decades. A number of practices have contributed to the problem, including Russia's unusually high rates of alcohol abuse, smoking, obesity and sedentary lifestyles.

"Russia is in the midst of a genuine demographic disaster from which its rulers have no obvious exit strategy," Eberstadt wrote in the New York Times in October 2008. "Although Russia's fortunes (and the Kremlin's ambitions) have waxed on a decade of windfall profits from oil and gas, the human foundations of the Russian nation — the ultimate sources of the country's wealth and power — are in increasingly parlous straits."

In the 21st century, human capital, far more than natural resources, will be the critical factor in Russia's — and for that matter, any nation's — success, he contends.

"For in the modern era, the wealth of nations is represented, increasingly, in human rather than natural resources — and the richer the country, the more pronounced the tendency or an entity now called 'human capital' to overshadow or replace 'physical capital' and the land in the production process," he wrote in 2004 for the Journal of Strategic and Advanced Studies, a Johns Hopkins University publication.

Eberstadt cites United Nations and World Bank data, which demonstrate that an additional year of male life expectancy at birth has been associated with an increment of GNP per capita of about 8 percent.

In the end, Eberstadt says, the importance of human capital to Russia's long-term success will become readily, if not painfully, apparent.

With fewer young people rising to replace the older retirees graduating from the Russia workforce, the question of improving (or perhaps maintaining) the average level of skills and qualifications in the economically active population would become that much more pressing. And since younger people the world over tend to be disposed toward and associated with certain kinds of discovery, innovation, and entrepreneurial risk-taking, a pronounced choke-off of younger blood could have intangible, but real, consequences for Russia's social capabilities and economic responsiveness.

The nation's leadership is apparently fully aware of what is at stake. In an interview with ABC Good Morning America co-host George Stephanopoulos, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev celebrated the modest gains made in life expectancy within the last few years as the government struggles to promote healthier lifestyles.

Thank God the life expectancy is not going down, but up. And within the last period when we started social programs, and I personally started to take care of it, the life expectancy rose already by four years. Unfortunately that's not big, but it is growth. So we're on the correct path. We're still dissatisfied. What should we do? We should boost our economy and develop social programs in health care, education and promote healthy lifestyles. Sports. And a desire to take care of his or her own health. To exercise. There's nothing tricky in it but you have to get to it and create the conditions.

Russian health authorities have even developed what they describe as a "wholesome diet," which is designed to be both cost effective and inexpensive.

Along with following the diet, Gennady Onishchenko, head of the Federal Consumer Protection Service, is urging his fellow Russians to avoid sausage, expensive fish and pastry and, instead, opt for potatoes, carrots, cabbage, milk, pasta and grits. Chicken, veal and fish could be broiled, even as Russians cut down on the levels of these foods they consume, he advises.