Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 April 2014
Forty years ago American sociologist Alvin Toffler predicted that the rate of change in modern civilization would accelerate to such a degree that it would be impossible for individuals to adapt. Toffler would famously call this anxiety “Future Shock”: shattering stress and disorientation leading to social, psychological, even physiological breakdown. He had based his predictions on scientific studies, most notably the work of the physiologist Hans Selye. An architect of the modern concept of “stress,” Selye argued that adaptations such as corticosteroids could be maladaptive when the body was under constant distress. He described a “general adaptation syndrome” comprising three stages: an initial alarm or shock phase; a stage of adaptation in which physiological resistance allowed normal function; and a final stage of exhaustion, collapse, even death, when adaptive mechanisms failed. While Selye focused on nonspecific physiological responses to harmful agents, others widened this perspective, looking at the relationship between a huge variety of environmental stressors and a range of chronic diseases—hypertension, gastric ulcers, arthritis, allergies, cancer, and a variety of mental illnesses.
In many ways, Toffler and Selye were giving a coherent social and physiological basis to something that had long seemed intuitive: that the health of an individual and society required a degree of order, balance, and equilibrium. Modernity and its concomitant (and unnatural) processes of rapid population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and technological complexity threatened these requirements.