Just as many institutions are realizing GDP is no longer an adequate measure of value, so too new medical research paradigms such as the Lancet Global Countdown help us understand how environmental health is crucial to human health.
The ramping discussions of “inclusive prosperity” in our society is a sign of our nascent civilizational maturity. No longer just content with tribalism – taking care of “our own” no matter the consequences for others – the global framework of inclusive prosperity comes just in time as we reach the limits of growth. As the nation-state is bumping up against the truth of its international embeddedness and the needs for global coordination, and global capitalism is realizing the urgent need for environmental and other regulation for continued prosperity, cannibalizing our commons no longer is an option (we haven’t got much left).
John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, for example, asks us what it would look like to design a society satisfactory to all members, if they didn’t know where in the socioeconomic ladder they would end up. How do we take account of difference yet create a universal baseline (or Universal Basic Income, as many such as Rutger Bregman have suggested) for all to prosper? And updated for the 21st century, how can all of this be compatible to a sustainable ecological footprint? Making these considerations a reality, as they have passed through the stages of being radical ideas, then theoretical possibilities, and are now slowly, if inexorably, making their way into policies and institutions, will help unravel the Gordian knot of full spectrum inclusive prosperity.
Simultaneous to this titanic shift in business and government to the dawning realization that unsustainable practices, greenwashing, and fake CSR no longer cut it on a thermodynamic level, is also an emerging paradigm in science and medicine called “planetary health.” Planetary or climate health adopts the approach that the choices we as a society make today around the type of energy we use, the waste we create, the chemicals to which we expose ourselves and the rest of the planet, and the externalities of business and going about our everyday lives, shapes the health of humans now and in the future. Monitoring our global pollution and how our current path will take us to a 4o hotter world including the global consequences, climate health aims to assess, mitigate, and treat the already novel and additional health burdens anthropogenic climate change delivers.
This research and action program is one of the largest growing fields of medicine and public health, and there’s a veritable tsunami of evidence accumulating showing that the health of humans is intimately connected with that of other living beings and the health of our natural environments. The Lancet Global Countdown, a data-driven initiative that each year releases a report on a different aspect of the links between ecological degradation and planetary human health harms, is one of the leading avenues tracking new anthropogenic climate threats as well as innovative solutions. At a recent climate health event I attended, climate change was named “the greatest health threat and the greatest health opportunity of the 21st century.” What is dearly in need of change, however, is everything. No aspect of our culture or technology will remain unturned by the time humans manage to make it through this once-in-an-existence event.
One of the key insights to planetary health is that we are only as healthy as our environment. This ecological approach to health, what is sometimes referred to as the environmental and social determinants of health, realizes simultaneously that neither “nature” nor “health” are bounded by our skin. Humans, like all living beings, are porous creatures. And no amount of organic food, bottled, water, or batcaves on islands or on the moon will save any individual from our collective fate. At the same time, NIMBYism (not in my backyard) stemming from class and other forms of discrimination has created a world where statistically the poor, ethnic minorities, and women bear the brunt of environmental harms while those with the means and the education aim to protect themselves. The new cry is NIABY (not in anybody’s backyard).
But it’s not just the nature “out there” that’s in peril, it’s also the nature inside of us. The “global drift towards dysbiosis” is happening in our gut; in the microbes in our mind. As humans have exterminated almost all of our natural predators, nature has turned to the microscopic life which composes us to exert and match our uncontrolled lust for control. As western civilization, now globalized in its variants, has sought to insulate humanity against nature in the last half millennia (it had some good reasons: Europe in the winter used to be cold!), we have also isolated our sense of self from the other lifeforms and elements that surround us. As we have ramped up our extractive technologies, this instrumental, cordoned-off mentality has taken its toll.
Environmental philosopher Val Plumwood calls the ways in which we rely on others – human, animal, plant, mineral – while ignoring such reliance as “denied dependencies.” Because we happen to be the beneficiaries of a given set goods, that others have produced, does not make us somehow superior to them. The outdated, first wave ecology of Howard and Eugene Odum based on linear, unidirectional “food chains” reproduces that era’s prevailing myth of human supremacy. Today’s cutting edge biological and ecological models, however, such as the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, emphasizes the environmental factors which can impact genes (epigenetics), and see the human and its bacterial scaffolding as a larger unit of organism selection, the “holobiont.” Thus, what we put in our bodies affects our “inner ecology” and our health, and if we’re missing the multiple channels of interspecies enzyme and gene transfer that we historically received in the course of our species’ evolution by staying in closed conditions in square boxes and staring at screens all day, our health is probably going to suffer.
While some environmental ethicists may counter that looking at the utility of environmental health to human health undermines the intrinsic value of nonhuman organisms and entities such as rivers and mountains on their own terms, perhaps the dichotomy between usefulness and care has been exaggerated to begin with. As we start facing up to the depth and temporal changes that happen inside ourselves as humans, our own relationship with ourselves, recognizing our own plurality (including all the various species that make us up, externally and internally) this just may be the impetus we need to move into action and reflection.
Protecting existing environments, and working with nature –through biomimicry and permaculture, for example – rather than feigning obliviousness to natural processes, is a necessary first step. That leading health paradigms identify the culprit for much human disease (especially the rise of undiagnosed chronic diseases) in the planetary slide into dysbiosis and the cascading ecological and biodiversity collapse, many of our old concepts of self and community are being radically extended by biology and medicine. The science of ecopsychology, for example, deftly attunes to the goods that we get from being in natural environments; physically and mentally. In the midst of mental health crises and rising chronic disease, it is time to more deeply explore the science, ethics, and measures required to achieve interspecies prosperity.
- Assistant professor
Dr. Yogi Hale Hendlin is specialized in environmental philosophy at the intersection of public health policy. His work in the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative focuses on the impact of the chemical and fossil fuel industries on health and the environment. He especially examines the unintended consequences and synergistic harms of pollution in its various forms vis-à-vis environmental justice, harms on nonhuman organisms, and ecological and intergenerational impact. The positive program stemming from this investigation is what he calls “disruptive regulation,” analysing best practices in ecology and health that meet human needs through shared agency, non-domination, and sustainability. Particular projects include carbon tax, glyphosate, e-waste and industrial epidemics (how industrial processes generate chronic disease).
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