Physical and Environmental Health
At my house in city of Portland, all of our trash and recycling is picked up and taken away. Like magic. All we have to do is separate it into 3 bins and put the bins on the curb. All we have to think about is which day is trash day. It’s amazing! In Nepal they don’t have anything like that. With few exceptions, everyone has to figure it out on their own. What would you do with all your garbage?
If not well-managed, piles of garbage are not only ugly, but also a vector to spread disease and a threat to soil health. Our partner Share Nepal is picking up steam on a small health project, and building a basic waste management system is one of the main activities. I thought it was interesting that several of the activities were environmentally focused like this one, given the objective to improve health outcomes for local people. Some of our colleagues at Global PDX are engaged in similar work, where the health of the environment and the health of the people are addressed together. While I’d gladly hug a tree, the relationship between health and environment hasn’t been one I’ve tried to wrap my mind around before, so I thought I’d give it a whirl here.
More like magic - have you heard of the theory of microcosm and macrocosm? It was a popular lens to interpret the world through for many centuries past. It’s the idea that the part reflects the whole, and vice versa. Lately this theory’s taken a back seat to modern science, which tends to examine and understand the parts and the whole separately, but these age-old ideas are making a comeback in the study of complex systems. When it comes to understanding how our personal health and our environment’s health are related, I think it’s useful to bring back this lens. It makes sense to me that health is a pattern of choices and behaviors. Depending on where you’re looking, the right pattern can lead to a peaceful mind, a healthy body, supportive relationships, or a thriving environment. And if one of those is healthy, you’re more likely to see health crop up in another.
So with that lens, some more direct linkages: The World Health Organization has found that about 25% of deaths in the world are attributable to environmental factors. Topping this list are deaths associated with dirty air and dirty water. In Nepal and most of the developing world, it’s cooking over fires in unventilated kitchens and drinking water contaminated with bacteria that lead to so much death and disability.
In the developed world, outdoor air pollution is more the issue. Face masks are worn so frequently in industrial cities across Asia that they’ve become a legitimate fashion accessory. They have mostly fossil fuel combustion and dust to blame for that. We have a different kind of air problem here in Portland, where neighborhoods are railing against a local glass company for their abuses to air quality. Ever wonder how glass can be made in such intensely vibrant and beautiful colors? Turns out that heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, and lead are the keys. They can also be carried through the air, inhaled, and wreak havoc on vulnerable bodies. In America, toxic metals are also the cause of many water problems as well. For example, the unfortunate folks in Flint, Michigan are likely to be drinking and bathing from bottled water for years to come because of the health risks associated with the water that touches their lead-rich plumbing.
The choices we make that negatively impact our environment can certainly come back to bite us. But it goes both ways. If we take care of the environment, then it can take care of us. Take for example how environmental technology have improved human health. The advances of medical technology are amazing, but not near as impressive as the advances of technologies like water treatment, sewage design, and waste management. And conservation groups around the world protect the biodiversity of our ecosystems. Biodiversity leads to productivity – producing really useful things like nutritious food, clean water, fresh air, and access to nature’s best ideas in medicine and technology.
Just like humans, nature is really resilient. We can survive a lot of abuse from each other, but if given the choice, let’s try to nurture nature so that nature can nurture us.