Health and Sustainability

Choosing Health Through Sustainable Lifestyles: Isn’t It Time We Connected The Dots?

by Deep, Radi, and Mithu on October 23, 2009

in Topical Health Issues

Health and sustainability are two of the most widely used and far reaching words that crisscross the globe in daily conversations, in public discussions, in the media, and in a wide variety of publications whose audiences range from scientists and academics to the general public. A quick search for these terms on Google demonstrates the amazing extent of their reach through the powerful medium of the worldwide web.

What is striking though is that in common usage these words are disconnected through their association with different scales of reference and action. When we speak of health, we generally speak about our own health or the health of a limited circle of family, friends, and acquaintances who make up our individual networks. The term health therefore has a personal association and a limited scale of reference in general parlance.

When, on the other hand, we speak of sustainability, we generally think of a much wider scale of reference – the earth or a particular country or region upon which the collective practices of a much wider group of people are involved. Sustainability, in comparison to health, is therefore seen to be more distant and removed from our personal spheres of knowledge and action.

This is especially apparent when governments and international donors speak of sustainable development and sustainability impacts in relation to particular countries or regions associated with the highest levels of poverty, pollution, and environmental degradation. But what do these places and people have to do with us and with our own health? The dots remain unconnected.

In recent years, as the frightening specter of climate change looms ever larger, more attention is being given to the health-related impacts of global warming by scientists and the media, particularly in certain regions of the world. Given this increasing concern, health and sustainability are finally being brought into the same conversations within public discourse. However, this is still happening mostly at wider and more removed scales of reference than those that apply more directly to us both individually and collectively as a global community.

Yet these impacts are tangible. Recent research provides a growing body of evidence of the health risks posed by global warming. While these impacts are especially felt by poor and vulnerable communities in the developing world, they are spreading. One example is the production of shifts in the geographical distribution and incidence of infectious vector-borne diseases which are now being reported in parts of the world and in areas where they did not previously occur. Other known health risks associated with global warming include increased incidences of heat waves, tropical cyclones, and diminishing supplies of safe drinking water, all of which have clear health implications for large populations across the globe.

While conducting her Ph.D. research on an eco-development program in the Indian Himalayas, Radi was struck by the heightened awareness of the vital links between health and sustainability within the rural communities she interacted with. Several people, particularly village elders, spoke of a series of painful losses that they had experienced over the last several decades: loss of traditional nutritious crops, pulses, and oil seeds; loss of organic farming techniques as a result of Green Revolution compulsions to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides; loss of medicinal herbs and knowledge of how to use them; loss of traditional livelihoods, especially agriculture and animal husbandry which are no longer able to support families, compelling younger members to move to the cities to earn a living; loss of the joint family support structure as a result of migration away from rural areas; and loss of a healthy and unpolluted environment by those who have had to relocate to crowded and hazardous cities.

A number of people explicitly linked these changes to a wider and deeply felt loss of what was once a sustainable way of living rooted in the land and its resources and directly linked to their health and well being. They also pointed to increased incidences of hitherto uncommon diseases in the region such as cancer, kidney and gallbladder stones, AIDS, and now even a few instances of swine flu that have penetrated the region.

This little excerpt from Radi’s fieldwork indicates how small rural communities in a Himalayan locality are beginning to connect the dots, at least retrospectively, between health and sustainability within their own lives. Isn’t it high time that these connections were made more widely at scales that stretch from the individual to the global?

Before we leave the Himalayas, we want to share with you a powerful personal influence on our own approach to these central issues. This influence comes in the form of a very dear and valued friend, Didi Contractor, who became a second mother to Radi during and after the two years she spent in the Himalayas doing her research. Didi has for many decades embraced the vital connections between the health of the whole (which includes all living beings and their environment) and sustainability within her life practice and her work. She is widely known in and well beyond this region for her beautifully designed houses constructed out of mud and other local materials that sit lightly upon the earth. We too are hoping to be part of this community of earth dwellers!

During a recent conversation within a small circle of friends on the occasion of her eightieth birthday, Didi shared a rather startling observation that she had come upon. According to this observation, cataclysmic events in the distant past were associated with the extinction of top species such as dinosaurs and saber tooth tigers. If similar events were to be repeated, Didi asked us: which is the top species that would face extinction this time around?

This is certainly food for thought that if thoroughly chewed by enough of us might lead to a radical shift in perspectives and action that could have far reaching implications for protecting ourselves and our planet during this time of peril. Most importantly, it points to a fundamental truth that seems to have been swept aside as a result of divisive politics and economics within our world. This truth is that we are all connected not just to each other but to the entire ecological foundation that supports and sustains us. If we destroy this foundation, then we destroy ourselves. All of the dots are integrally connected by flows of energy within a wondrous pattern that is evidence of an all encompassing and intelligent life force of whose workings we have much to learn. Our refusal to accept our place within this wider community of sentient life would be at the risk of our very survival.

Our purpose in sharing these powerful insights with you is to sound an alert and perhaps a last wake up call for us all as a connected and concerned global community. Though the road ahead will be a difficult and challenging one, we believe that there is still a chance to make a positive difference to this beautiful living planet that is home to such a plethora of diverse and remarkable species.

When we think about our health and act upon it from this perspective of connection and collective well being, then we are thinking and acting sustainably in relation to the basic foundation of our existence. Though this may seem to be too wide and abstract a concept to grasp, it can be concretely realized in our daily choices and actions as the examples below show.

To share some examples of how we might connect the dots, we may choose to eat mainly organic, seasonal fruits and vegetables that are grown according to the best practices of sustainability. If more of us choose these products that are health enhancing for us all and for our environment, then more growers would embrace the organic revolution instead of using harmful chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides that poison the soil and harm our health. Moreover, those of us who have gardens could grow our own vegetables, while those of us who do not have this option could purchase local organic produce from farmers’ markets and other groups that embrace the principles of health and sustainability.

Our lifestyle choices extend to all aspects of the environment we live in – the buildings we live in, the water we drink, and the energy we consume, all of which have a bearing on our health. Some of the materials we use to build our homes contain dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde in insulation (known to be a highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paints and varnishes, which cause serious health problems.

When we choose to build safely using alternative products that are good for ourselves and our environment, we are connecting the dots in a significant way. There are always better choices available, for example using paints that contain little or no VOCs or using cellulose instead of formaldehyde for insulation.

We can of course also choose more environmentally and health friendly technologies in relation to the many gadgets and machines that we use in our daily lives, while also cutting down, wherever possible, on their use. In terms of transport, for example, we could opt for using public transport and developing car sharing schemes, limiting our use of cars and the number of cars we own within our families. When we require a car, we can choose from among the new hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), which are certainly a much better choice than gas guzzling models that further deplete scarce resources and choke us with their fumes.

To mention a few more examples, we can adopt methods of conserving water, which is fast becoming a dwindling resource. These include harvesting rainwater, ensuring that our taps do not drip and our pipes do not leak, and avoiding wasteful use of water (having long showers or regularly washing our cars are two common examples).

There is much that we can do to make the connections between our health and collective well being and living sustainably, but this requires commitment and effort in order to educate ourselves to make informed choices in every aspect of our lives. Joining the dots is not just a question of putting our garbage in the right slot. It involves a conscious way of thinking and living that is integrated into our daily practices. At times this may not be at all easy and in fact may be far from convenient, but isn’t it worth the effort? After all, the health and well being of ourselves, our world, and our future depend on us making choices to connect the dots.

To end this article with a couple of beautiful and thought-provoking bits of wisdom from the past:

“Whatever, befalls the Earth, befalls the people of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it.”

Chief Seattle

“Treat the Earth well It was not given to you by your parents; it was loaned to you by your children.”

A Kenyan Proverb

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