Gut-level Environmentalism: Health as Driver of Environmental Progress
It wasn’t just because it furthered his rhyming that Benjamin Franklin listed health first in the well-known quotation: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” In the hierarchy of human needs, health is paramount. How many times have we heard that “without our health we are nothing”? People are terribly motivated by a desire to remain healthy themselves, and to keep their loved ones similarly well. Canadians’ perennial obsession with the state of our Medicare system is testament to the power of this impulse.Beyond just avoiding the common cold, “health” and its maintenance has become a more expansive concept in recent years. Most people understand that in order to stay healthy they need to eat right. They need to get enough physical activity. Though it was Napoleon who said in the 18th Century that “Water, air, and cleanliness are the chief articles in my pharmacopoeia,” the resonance of brands like the Running Room and Lululemon are contemporary evidence that many Canadians see the protection of health as a lifestyle.
The purpose of this paper is to argue that this same gut-level human imperative to protect one’s health and the health of one’s family is a powerful motivator for environmental progress. Further, the true potential of substantiating and leveraging this impulse has yet to be fully realized by the environmental or philanthropic communities.
It will come as no surprise to the readers of this document that modern-day environmentalism is an extremely broad canvas. From the protection of endangered species to the relative merits of different types of farming systems, from the ins and outs of nuclear power to the perils of global warming, “the environment” as a debate covers a tremendous amount of ground. Within this mixture of sometimes tenuously connected issues, the field of “environmental health” has become a recognized phenomenon. Quite simply, environmental health refers to the role the environment plays in human health. The World Health Organization defines it as follows:Environmental health addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviours. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments.It is also useful to recognize what environmental health excludes. It is not about the health of the environment. The WHO qualifies the definition above noting that environmental health “excludes behaviour not related to environment, as well as behaviour related to the social and cultural environment, and genetics.”
Environmental health is therefore very much about how the environment affects our health. Environmental health is most commonly associated with toxic chemicals in the environment, but it is much broader than that. For example, poor air quality (particulate matter) that contributes to childhood asthma and the increasing concern of urban heat-related mortalities in a warming climate are environmental health issues.
Urban sprawl is an issue of growing concern. Not surprisingly, studies show that our sprawling, car-dependent communities are contributing to obesity and generally poor health, particularly an epidemic in childhood obesity.
One of the most dramatic societal health and environment transformations in recent years has been the dramatic increase in sustainable (local and organic) agriculture. A number of Canadian foundations (and CEGN members) have been supporting this important work.