While there are plenty of wonderful things you can do to protect and improve your health, it’s clear that your healthy life does not hinge on any one thing. Just eating well, for example, is not enough to keep your body healthy. You also have to breathe, move, digest, sleep, expel wastes and defend against incoming pathogens. And each of those complex bodily systems is interconnected with the others in an astonishingly complex way.
By the same token, the health of your body is not exclusively dependent on your individual choices about what you, personally, do or do not do. That’s because your body constantly interacts, both actively and passively, with the environment around it. And that environment, too, is subject to constant, complex change.
In fact, the more intently you look at the factors affecting your personal health, the more you’ll see that you’re part of a much bigger picture – a planet-sized one, at the very least.
The intricacy and expanse of this perspective on human health is a matter of increasing interest for scientists, doctors and other great brains, many of whom are taking note of how our individual and collective actions can either help us live in supportive agreement with the planet’s ecosystem, or put us at dangerous and self-defeating odds with it.
That’s all well and good for the great brains, you may think. But how can the average person be expected to focus on the state of the planet’s health when so many of us are struggling just to take care of our own? It might help to start by looking at how your challenges and the planet’s challenges are one and the same: Its water, air and soil, of course, are your water, air and soil. Its plants and animals provide your sustenance. So if those aspects of the planet’s biosphere aren’t healthy, it stands to reason that we won’t be either – at least not for long.
While many of these person-planet connections may seem obvious, there are a great many others about which most of us are far less aware. Such as how the large-scale “downstream” effects of industry, agriculture, energy production and waste disposal can dramatically influence our health risks, now and well into the future. And how our “upstream” personal choices and attitudes can influence many of these health factors – for better or for worse.
By exploring how our quality of life on this planet is directly determined by our stewardship of the ecosystems that support and sustain it, we can begin to see how the same things that truly nourish and heal us can also help strengthen the systems (family, community, planet) that we’re a part of, and vice versa.
We can get smarter about this kind of thinking by taking note of the new lessons emerging from the likes of medicine, ecology, biology, engineering – lessons that illuminate the operating instructions for all sustainable health and, ultimately, for the good life.
Insights into some of these lessons can be found in this article, in its resources section (see sidebar) and in its extensive Web Extra! Others will be covered in future issues of Experience Life. We hope you’ll enjoy learning and thinking about the connection points between your health and the planet you call home. –Eds.
The Intersection of Personal and Planetary Health
When Fred Kirschenmann was diagnosed with meta-static prostate cancer in 2000, he and his wife, Carolyn Raffensperger, could only wonder about possible causes: The pesticides applied to North Dakota crops in 1951, when Fred was a young farmhand there? The absorbed dioxins in the meat he consumed in later years? Some mix of genetic and environmental influences?
They couldn’t be certain. But when Kirschenmann’s oncologist wanted to treat the cancer with thalidomide, a toxic chemical known to cause birth defects and capable of making its way into the water supply, there were a number of questions that Raffensperger, MA, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN), felt compelled to investigate: “I asked what my husband would be metabolizing and what he would be excreting.” If he peed out thalidomide, sending it down the river, Raffensperger wondered, how might that affect the environment and aquatic life downstream? How long would the drug stay active in the water supply and pose a danger to others?
Raffensperger’s questions surprised the oncologist, who had never considered the environmental effects of the toxic medicines he prescribed. It also surprised family members, who suggested that certainly Fred’s life was more important than some as-yet undetermined ecosystem effects. But Raffensperger’s profession had trained her to think deeply about natural cycles and chains of effect.
“That we would cure Fred while poisoning the earth made no sense,” she explains. She didn’t see the situation as an “either-or” quandary. The only real solution, in her mind, was to find solutions that were responsible – or at least respectful – to both.
Thankfully, Kirschenmann was able to treat his cancer without the help of thalidomide. But for Raffensperger, her husband’s bout with cancer remains a daily reminder about the principles to which she devotes her life’s work.
Those principles, as she explains, assume that health is situated in the natural world; that we are part and parcel of the planet, taking from and giving back to it; and that ultimately we cannot be healthy and thriving unless our environment – the air we breathe, the food we eat, the places where we work and play – is healthy and thriving, too.
Learning From Mistakes
While it may be difficult to conceive of weighing environmental impacts so heavily when facing an immediate and very personal health crisis, it is clear that our collective health crises are causing many people to take a closer look at how environmental factors may affect both our short- and long-term prospects for health and happiness.
In March 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) released the first of seven syntheses of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (www.millenniumassessment.org). The report, gathered by 1,360 scientists from 95 countries under the auspices of the United Nations, definitively concluded that damage to the global ecosystem was already resulting in a degradation of human health. The report warned that “the erosion of ecosystems could lead to an increase in existing diseases…as well as a rising risk of new diseases emerging,” and that these problems “could grow significantly worse over the next 50 years.”
In a release announcing the original report, Kerstin Leitner, PhD, WHO Assistant Director-General for Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments, and member of the Millennium Assessment Board, explained that the planet’s ecosystems comprise its life-support system. “They are fundamental to human health and indispensable to the well-being of all people everywhere in the world,” she says. “The work of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment makes clear how ecosystems and human health are intertwined – and further highlights how important it is that decisions related to economic development also protect the environment, in order to ultimately safeguard human health.”
Concern about issues like our vulnerability to infectious diseases, increases in certain birth defects and more frequent occurrences of pollution-induced asthma have both experts and laypeople alike asserting that it’s time to place personal exercise and nutrition matters in a broader health context.
While the scope of some of these problems can seem frightening, there’s also plenty of hopeful opportunity in all of this – if we are willing to collectively see and seize it. And there’s evidence we’re beginning to. For example:
# Revelations about the nutritional benefits of locally farmed, organic produce and pasture-fed meats are giving a boost to more eco-friendly, biodiverse models of agriculture.
# An appreciation for the importance of omega-3 fatty acids, and concern about heavy metals stored in the fish abundant in those healthy fats, are causing many to take a stronger interest in cleaning up our polluted waters.
# An awareness of “sick-building syndrome” is driving the growth of green building supplies and techniques, as well as the adoption of fewer toxic chemicals for cleaning.
# Links between the hazardous chemicals created during the lifecycle of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and health problems such as cancer, asthma, and damage to our reproductive and immune systems have prompted companies like Microsoft, Kaiser Permanente, Crabtree and Evelyn, and others to phase PVC out of their packaging.
# The negative human and environmental impacts of fossil-fuel dependence are sparking unprecedented interest in renewable energy.
# The realization that large, natural, undeveloped green and wilderness spaces are as essential to our economy and public safety as they are to our health and quality of life is igniting interest in sustainable development and urban-planning approaches.
Slowly, sometimes painfully, we’re evolving our understanding about how human health and the rest of the planet’s well-being are intertwined.
Taking the Outside In
Perhaps the most essential lesson in all of this is that we are eminently porous creatures. Our bodies are constantly absorbing, inhaling, excreting and otherwise exchanging chemical compounds with the surrounding environments.
As various tsunami, hurricanes, floods, droughts and earthquakes have demonstrated, we are also eminently vulnerable creatures. Our options to choose good food and water depend on affordable, reliable access to these things. Our ability to move freely, to breathe clean air and to be active in outdoor environments depends on the availability and safety of those environments. Ultimately, the growth and stability of our economy depend on a healthy populace and a healthy set of natural resources.
It comes down to this: When Mother Earth isn’t happy, nobody’s happy. Unfortunately, while some progress has been made in halting or reversing certain categories of environmental damage done in previous decades, the general health and stability of our environment has been trending downward for the past 200 years – the same 200 years in which our society has seen unprecedented industrial development and technological change. And this rate of change has only been quickening.
According to Lee Jong-wook, MD, Director-General of the WHO: “Over the past 50 years, humans have changed natural ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period in human history.”
Given the rate at which our environment and lifestyles have undergone transformation, most scientists agree that we have a somewhat limited ability to predict the combined, synergetic effects on this planet’s rather precariously balanced systems, including our own bodies. The predictions we do have – mostly based on computer models and projections by ?the world’s leading scientists – aren’t terribly encouraging. A statement by the Millennium Assessment Board warns: “Approximately 60 percent of the benefits that the global ecosystem provides to support life on Earth (such as fresh water, clean air and a relatively stable climate) are being degraded or used unsustainably.”
On one hand, such realizations may seem overwhelming. On the other, they can also be seen as a wake-up call and inspiration – an invitation to evolve our way of thinking and living for the better, and to feel ourselves a part of something bigger and more intricately connected than we’ve previously perceived.
The Millenium Assessment, for example, outlines several plausible avenues for environmental progress, all of which involve a mix of large-scale political, economic and social changes. Each path calls for the active management of Earth’s ecosystems and communities as one interlinked system, as opposed to isolated and distinct concerns to be dealt with independently.
The Much Bigger Picture
When NASA asked independent scientist James Lovelock to research life on Mars in the early ’60s, he noted that while Mars appeared chemically dead, Earth’s nitrogen, oxygen and methane mix was extraordinarily alive: It appeared that the cumulative actions of the planet’s countless living organisms, by virtue of their complimentary cycles of consumption and excretion, were both creating and controlling the atmosphere on which all life depended. The net effect of all these combined, interdependent processes, Lovelock observed, was that the planet itself was operating as a single living entity. Earth, he concluded, could best be described as a kind of superorganism.
Lovelock described this phenomenon, which he dubbed the Gaia Hypothesis, in his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford University Press, updated and revised in 2000), and again in his more recent book, Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist (Oxford University Press, 2000). In the intervening 20 years, many of Lovelock’s environmental predictions have proven accurate, and while his hypothesis remains hotly debated, a growing cadre of concerned scientific professionals find themselves in general agreement with Lovelock’s sense of the biosphere’s inherent interdependence. Restoring Earth’s balance, they say, and protecting our own health in the process, will require us to learn from nature how to work with, not against, the processes toward which natural life is inherently inclined.
Such a shift of mindset would amount to a much-needed “declaration of interdependence,” says author Kenny Ausubel, whose recent book – a collection of essays with J. P. Harpignies and a foreword by Andrew Weil, MD – explores connections between human and environmental health through the lens of environmentally responsible and sustainable medicine.
In Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves (Sierra Club Books, 2004), Ausubel cites a number of principles and disciplines – including biomimicry, ecoliteracy and the Precautionary Principle – that have emerged to connect diverse fields like medicine, economics, design, education and ecology.
Ausubel illustrates how the Precautionary Principle champions practical prevention over dangerous and expensive remedies; how biomimicry looks to nature for ingenious and efficient design models; how ecoliteracy teaches people about the links between Earth’s well-being and their own (see Web Extra! for more on these concepts). Each of these disciplines, he notes, shares a wide applicability to an almost unlimited number of industries, contexts and conundrums. But their optimal application also calls for widespread collaborations between previously disconnected areas of professional expertise.
It was with this in mind that, in 1990, Ausubel and his partner, Nina Simons, launched Bioneers, an educational nonprofit organization and annual conference that promotes the ideas of luminary thinkers and everyday innovators working in fields ranging from medicine and design to economics and education. Their mission has been to create a web of human progress: an intertwining of multidisciplinary solutions and innovative social strategies that have the collective potential to help heal and rebuild an ecosystem compromised by decades of disconnected, “every interest for itself” thinking.
“Life did not take over the planet by combat, but by networking,” notes Ausubel. And in creating a plan for a healthy and sustainable future, say a number of forward-thinking scientists, we’d do well to follow Earth’s example. With this in mind, health-minded individuals can take several powerful actions:
1) Learn where things come from. That means taking an inquiring interest in how your food makes its way to your plate, how your clothes reach your back, how your gas gets to your tank. Little by little, strive to improve your ecoliteracy (see Web Extra!) by investigating the environmental and human-health footprints of your daily choices.
Look, too, at where things go. In nature, all things are recycled. In contemporary society, our management of waste is not nearly as elegant or efficient. But we can improve our performance in this area, and live healthier as a result. As David Suzuki writes in The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature (Mountaineers Books, 2002): “We can transform our thinking from the linearity of extracting, processing, manufacturing, selling, using and discarding into the circularity of natural cycles.” This cyclical approach bodes better for the planet, and for us.
2) Think in terms of systems. Individual plants, animals and habitats do not exist in isolation, and neither do we. A small change in the acid balance, nutrition, climate or microflora of one life form’s atmosphere can set off a domino effect of far-reaching impacts that ultimately affect us, too.
We tend to take nature’s stability for granted right up until we witness a major imbalance: oceanic dead zones resulting from agricultural runoff, for example, or human encroachment on a natural habitat causing one creature’s disappearance – and an infestation of pests the now-absent creature once ate.
Anyone who has ever suffered a nasty post-antibiotic yeast infection or digestive distress has experienced this phenomenon of imbalance up close and personal. It’s helpful to remember that when we tinker with the larger environmental balance and biodiversity, the results may be similar to those we experience on the personal scale.
3) Start close to home. Don’t let the hugeness of global environmental challenges be your excuse for not taking the steps you can take now. Most acts of?environmental responsibility – from choosing nontoxic products to buying locally grown foods – contribute to a more pleasant existence and are also eminently good for our own health. Plus, witnessing your choice to tread more lightly upon Earth (for practical suggestions, see “Going Green” in the April 2005 archives at may be the very inspiration someone else needs to make changes of his or her own. Be an inspiring, positive advocate for human and environmental health. Walk your talk, and you’ll soon find yourself in the company of others whose hopeful, collective choices are making a real difference.
4) Move beyond “either-or” thinking. Question the logic of arguments that say we must choose between economic progress and environmental responsibility. A stable, sustainable environment is a prerequisite for a sustainable economy. Consider, too, the fact that nature currently performs all kinds of essential multi-trillion-dollar services – from producing our air to filtering and desalinating our water. These “free” services aren’t figured into conventional economic formulas, but they are services on which all other goods and services depend. Without them, there would be no economy. And without our health and the health of our loved ones, no amount of accumulated wealth could be enjoyed for long.
The good news is, we can have a thriving economy and a thriving biosphere. Many forward-thinking businesses, including Toyota, Whole Foods, Patagonia and others, are currently enjoying positive economic results from putting a bigger emphasis on resource efficiency and environmental sustainability, and they are spreading the word.
5) Keep the faith. Resist fatalistic thinking that suggests we’re doomed. Both individually and collectively, we currently enjoy enormous opportunities to innovate in ways that hold huge promise. We have the means to make a powerful course correction. And all of nature’s bodies – our own included – have an astonishing capacity for resilience. Trust that things can and will get better, and that they will get both easier and more rewarding as we move into closer alignment with nature’s way of doing things.
Rediscover Your Roots
In the 1980s, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson coined the term biophilia to describe humans’ instinctive need for, and inherent connection with, other living, natural things. He defined biophilia as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”
If you start feeling discouraged about the state of the environment, or by the state of your own health, one of the best things you can do is to heed your sense of biophilia. Get your body and mind outdoors, into a natural environment.
Find a beautiful place and connect with its smells, sights and sounds. Enjoy the feeling that comes from being surrounded by other living things.
Recent studies have shown that humans think better and heal more rapidly when exposed to natural scenery and environments. And when it comes to resolving the human and environmental health challenges facing us, we owe it to ourselves to leverage all the clarity, creativity and vitality we can muster.