Caring for the Environment and Our Health
In recent times, our attention has been focussed on washing our hands, social distancing and staying home if we have a cold. We have been watching the news – or hearing about it from others – and worrying about the economic consequences of this global pandemic. But one thing that I have been pondering throughout this unusual time is the role that environmental destruction has played in this crisis, and the positive environmental changes we have observed as a consequence of changing our behaviour during a period of lockdown.
With the grounding of aeroplanes and instructions to stay home, Mother Nature has seized the opportunity to re-establish her beauty and splendour. Most of us will have heard about the clear skies in India and China, the clear water in Venice canals and wildlife walking freely in the streets of some of the busiest cities of the world. We must not ignore the significance of these incredible occurrences. We must acknowledge that rapid and powerful change is possible when countries come together with a united purpose.
As a GP, I believe it is my responsibility to share my knowledge of how environmental destruction resulting from human activity is impacting human health and wellbeing. This knowledge is essential to empower each of us to take both individual and collaborative steps forward that will reduce the damage we are causing to our planet and consequently prevent the multitude of health problems that we are already seeing in our clinics and hospitals that are directly related to environment degradation, including bush fires, droughts, loss of soil, refugee crises and of course, viral pandemics.
As part of my own continual professional development and education, I registered for the 2020 Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine Conference, titled “Environmental & Viral Disruptors: Rising to the Challenge, Reducing the Risk, Future Proofing Humanity”. The conference was meant to be held face to face in Sydney in June, but was quickly converted to an online platform and delivered over 8 weeks in May and June. Although I am yet to finish watching all of the presentations, I have already learnt a great deal that I feel compelled to share with you.
The opening presentation was by John Hewson, Chairman of the Commission for the Human Future, and I was completely engaged by the messages that he shared. The Commission for the Human Future is a relatively new collaborative that has been established by a number of concerned Australian citizens with a specific set of goals. These include:
Alert humanity to the nature and scale of the combination of ten catastrophic risks that face our civilisation
Help to devise integrated global solutions to these risks
Identify fresh opportunities that arise from solving threats
Encourage global dialogue about the risks, their solution and opportunities
Serve as a knowledge hub for the solution of global catastrophic risks
The Commission has produced a report titled “Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century: A discussion and Call to Action on Global Catastrophic Risks” which outlines the ten catastrophic risks facing humanity:
Decline of key natural resources and an emerging global resource crisis, especially in water
Collapse of ecosystems that support life, and the mass extinction of species
Human population growth and demand, beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity
Global warming, sea level rise and changes in the Earth’s climate affecting all human activity
Universal pollution of the Earth system and all life by chemicals
Rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction
Pandemics of new and untreatable disease
Advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technologies
National and global failure to understand and act preventively on these risks
This list is indeed overwhelming; however, we must remain hopeful and committed to positive action that will build strategic and systematic solutions that will allow humanity to survive and thrive. This is going to require us to think creatively and compassionately about the situation we find ourselves in. We will need to reshape our political and policy thinking such that governments foster more democratic and co-operative models that unify and connect countries of the world. Female leadership is going to be critical in order to promote a nurturing and compassionate approach, as opposed to the current tactics of war and competition. We must consider the capacity that planet Earth has to sustain not only humans but all species, habitats and ecosystems that we share our planet with. Humans must face the reality that ongoing population growth is not sustainable and make changes that allow humans to exist in harmony with our environment. Key to this will be educating everyone from early childhood through to adulthood in all educational settings about how we can work together to survive and thrive. New jobs, industries and government priorities will be required to support this work. We must continue promoting the value of these changes and activities so that the general public understand the evidence behind these catastrophic risks and are not distracted by misinformation from organisations with private interests that deny the evidence presented in this report.
With all this in mind, where does this leave us, the ordinary citizen? I am pleased to say there is much we can do on a personal and local level that will make a positive difference, particularly when many individuals enact these changes. My friend and colleague, Dr Kate Charlesworth, Environmental Sustainability Lead for the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District has developed 10 Sustainability Actions for the staff in her offices which I have adapted such that they are relevant for everyone.
1. Keep yourself and your family well
“The greenest health system is one in which people don’t get sick in the first place!”
You may like to read my previous blog post “The 7 Aspects of Wellness Medicine” for ideas on how to stay well and reduce your need to access health services, which are one of the highest carbon-producing industries in Australia.
2. Work towards zero waste at work
Reduce (or eliminate) bins, use a KeepCup, use your own reusable water bottle and lunch container, cutlery and crockery. Take food scraps home for your compost or worm farm. Set up a kitchen garden at work.
3. Eat more plant-based foods and less meat
Reducing meat consumption is good for your health and the planet
4. Start your own veggie garden
Growing your own food is fun, gets you outside in the sunshine and reduces the risk of being without fresh vegetables in the event of a lockdown.
5. Buy second-hand where possible
This includes clothing, furniture, kitchenware and equipment for leisure activities.
6. Plant a tree
Trees provide shade, have a cooling effect, reduce air pollution and improve our mental health. Green space is associated with increased physical activity, reduced stress, higher social capital and overall lower all-cause mortality.
7. Walk, cycle, use public transport and reduce car use
All of these methods of transport increase levels of physical activity and reduce air pollution and traffic congestion.
8. Switch off lights, computers and equipment when not in use and at the end of the day
9. Reduce your personal carbon footprint and be a role model for others
10. Join a community sustainability group
I am a member of Doctors for the Environment and donate regularly to Greenpeace and WWF. There are a number of different environmental groups you can support in order to create a more sustainable future, including Living Smart which is based in Fremantle, WA, and the Sustainable Living Foundation in Melbourne, Victoria. I would also encourage you to support the Commission for the Human Future.