04 May 2012

Beyond the boundary of the body

We can’t ignore our ailing environment in the quest for personal health; the fates of both are intimately intertwined.


At Health24, we devote a lot of space to green issues as well as health issues because we believe they're one and the same.

You look after yourself. You’ve cut down on the eclairs and the cigarettes, and you show your face with respectable frequency at the gym. Or at least you have every intention of doing so, starting next Monday. It seems a pity that all this good work gets undermined by externals. You know: you give up smoking only to realise you’re inhaling a couple a day just by breathing that inner-city smog.

Personal health doesn’t stop at the boundary of the human body, of course. We’re inextricably linked to the environment, and any process that poisons our air, water or food obviously has the potential to harm us too. Environmental issues are health issues, and we need to wrest back control of the former to ensure the latter.

Fine. But don’t we already have pretty good control over the environment and health – certainly compared to previous times in history? The Present’s not perfect, sure, but no one seriously wants to trade it for Ancient Rome’s twenty-something life expectancy, dodging chamber pot contents dumped out of windows, bloody teeth pulled on street corners, and scurvy and syphilis and leprosy and leeches.

Mediaeval plague doctor

Surely humans are better off now than ever before?

One step forward, several back
More of us do live longer and healthier lives (in developed world contexts, anyway), and medical science has brought some of the dread scourges (smallpox, for example) to heel.

But one of the great ironies of our time is that these glittering successes are tarnished by increased rates of other diseases and disabilities – cancers, heart disease, depression, obesity, respiratory conditions, allergies, chronic fatigue and certain infectious diseases – induced or exacerbated by the pollutants, radiation, climate change and stresses of an increasingly degraded environment.

The scientific advances themselves often bring unforeseen health problems in their wake. Antibiotics save millions from infection, but we’ve used them with such abandon that new, resilient bacterial strains have appeared. Cell phones mean we never need feel alone again, but it’s anyone’s guess what they’re doing to the developing brains of a whole generation of children. 

The whole brilliant array of technological aids, and the glorious information superhighway we rush along with a mere twitch of voluntary muscle is a marvel, but it also makes living a sedentary lifestyle disastrously easy

Then why aren’t we more worried?
The human race is like an overweight smoker who, tucking into burger and chips, has convinced himself his arteries aren’t silting up, or, if they are, that medical science will step in and unclog them in the nick of time. And like the human body, nature can take a surprising amount of abuse before it caves in completely and we’re forced to take notice.

While we’re young, most of us get away with some wild living and almost manage to convince ourselves of our immortality. But the earth (to keep leaning on the medical analogy) is in late middle-age: the heart-attack hasn’t happened yet, perhaps, but we’re feeling the chest pains...

The trouble with environmental problems is that they just don’t often present themselves as particularly...urgent. Some of the crises and their impacts are immediate and spectacularly obvious: toxic chemical spills, nuclear reactor meltdowns, bioterrorism attacks. They give good press copy, and the victims and perpetrators are reasonably easy to identify.

But most of the key issues just don’t make for snappy media soundbites. Take global (yawn) warming: it’s complex, vast as the planet, has no clear beginning or end as a good story should, the goodies and baddies are confusingly one and the same: ourselves. And how the plot does drag; the greens seem to have been droning on about climate change forever, and nothing really awful's happened yet.

But tedious as the cry-wolf environmentalists may sometimes be, their message is not: the crisis isn’t pending, it’s upon us. The wolf’s at the door. Those of us able to log onto Health24 have the means to still pretend it isn’t happening most of the time. Nothing obviously dreadful has happened to most of us in environmental terms, yet.

But the swelling numbers of environmental refugees - the tens of millions* forced from their homes by increasingly severe floods or droughts, denuded and eroded land, industrial accidents and injudicious development - are already living everyone’s future nightmare: a lost species, wandering rootless on a desert plain.

Photo: UNEP

Yes but what are we supposed to do about it, exactly?
EnviroHealth offers some simple ways we can improve the planet’s health, without a desperately unrealistic alteration in lifestyle.

We don’t have to immediately revert to living like pre-industrial hermits, masticating muesli in caves lit by guttering tallow candles. But we do need to reign ourselves in, pay more attention to our actions, be a bit more grownup. Again, it’s very like what we’re already doing to take care of our health –imperfectly, but at least doggedly. The goal – vitality, longevity, LIFE – is noble, but the struggle involves few grand gestures, and many mundane daily decisions.

Those sordid little Gollum-like wrangles with the self:

Q: Should I eat that eclair?
A: NO. I don’t need it. But that luscious chocolate, that soothing cream. Not so soothing in your arteries. Don’t care had a hard week deserve a little treat. No you don’t you greedy swine leave me alone you self-rightous prig no yes no yes NO. Made it that time. Now, should I go to gym or watch TV?

But at least: environmental issues are health issues, so you can often strike a single blow for both causes:
Q: Should I walk to the cafe rather than drive this time?
A: Yes, and Yes.

*Environmental refugee: person displaced owing to environmental causes, notably land loss and degradation, and natural disaster. (United Nations definition). The International Red Cross estimates that there are now about 50 million environmental refugees. Other estimates have place the number at 100-150 million by the end of the century.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated May 2012

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