The Connection to Health
The Ecology of the earth is the creative matrix out of which all living organisms evolve, and by which they are sustained. The term “matrix” comes from the Latin word that means “womb.” The term suggests as well a complex pattern of interrelated processes and elements. The Gaia hypothesis tells us that this ecological matrix within which we are inextricably embedded is itself a living whole. Like any other organic system it can be either vital and healthy, or it can suffer from debilitating disorders. It is now abundantly clear that many human processes are threatening the integrity of the ecology of the entire earth. If the ecosystems that sustain all life become unhealthy, then human beings will necessarily fall ill.
We learn through ecology to see the whole as well as the parts, to appreciate the intricate interconnectedness of all things, and to approach other life forms as subjective systems – as ways of being in the world that have their own intrinsic value. In their book “The Liberation of Life” Charles Birch and John Cobb suggest that we must turn to ecological concepts for the over-arching paradigm that is needed today for the preservation, liberation and enhancement of life.
The well being of humanity and all life depends on a healthy environment and the balance of local and global ecological systems that support and sustain life. Human activity has created an imbalance in these ecosystems, and we are using up vital resources faster than nature can replace them.
Forests are disappearing and deserts are expanding. Water tables are dropping. Fish populations are diminishing. Earth, water, and air are being contaminated with toxins and greenhouse gases faster than they can eliminate them. By burning vast quantities of oil and coal that have been stored under the surface of the earth during millions of years, the carbon dioxide released into the air prevents the sun’s heat from radiating back out into space (the greenhouse effect). The resultant global warming and climate change present one of the greatest threats to human health and life in the near future.
The transportation systems of the developed countries are neither sustainable nor equitable. Much greater attention needs to be given to less expensive and more efficient means of mass transit. Also, where it is practical, we need to rely on non-motorized means of getting around. The automobile leaves a much larger “ecological footprint” than the bicycle.
The knowledge and technology exist for reducing the rate of global warming, minimizing toxic waste, replacing use of fossil fuels with healthy and renewable sources of energy, protecting forests and fisheries, and reestablishing a health-sustaining ecological balance, world-wide. However, those who set the agenda for the global economy give higher priority to short-term economic growth than to sustainable human and environmental health. Giant transnational corporations, such as those dominating the oil, timber, agricultural and weapons industries have enormous political leverage. By financing political candidates who do their bidding they undermine democracy and impose national and international policies which are dangerous to human and environment health.
Connections With Other Topics
Part of the reason for this escalating ecological imbalance is the rapidly increasing human population, which is endangering the “carrying capacity” of the earth. One aspect of this problem has to do with the very wealthy, and another part with the poor.
People in the rich countries consume many more resources and contribute far more waste, toxins and greenhouse gases to the environment than do the poor people in poor countries. For example, the fifteen percent of the world’s population in North America, Europe, and Japan accounts for about 50% of the world’s affluence as measured by GDP. According to a recent UN report, the “ecological footprint” of an average person in a high-income country is about six times bigger than someone in a low-income country, and many times bigger than in the least-developed countries. Unless effective steps are taken to change the current direction of development on the earth, the level of inequity will increase. Court Smith from the Department of Anthropology at Organ State points out that “data from anthropology suggests that as communities change their technology from foraging to farming to factory to faxes, wealth is distributed less equitably.” The excessive level of consumption of the rich is unsustainable. Through more intelligent resource use, reductions of waste, and increased efficiency, it may be possible for the rich to live in a sustainable manner while actually improving their health and quality of life.
Access to Resources and Services
Desperately poor people have the largest families. The problem, however, is not the poor but poverty. The best way to reduce population growth rate is to make sure everyone has enough to eat and their basic needs are met throughout the entire life cycle. Then people will not feel the need to have many children to take care of them in their old age.
With fairer, more equitable distribution of what the earth provides there is plenty of food for everyone, and sufficient renewable resources to provide clean water, free health care, and basic education to everyone on earth, without putting undue strain on the world’s ecosystems. By improving poor people’s standard of living, and making family planning methods readily available, the human population would stabilize much faster than is the current trend.
Again, the knowledge and technology to accomplish a balanced and sustainable world exist. However, those who govern the globe and determine our economic and development policies are in bed with the giant corporations who put private profit before the public good. What Can Be Done?
What can be done to restore ecological balance and reduce the biggest threat to world health? Many steps, large and small can be taken. Riding a bicycle and eating less meat will reduce your ecological footprint. And if enough people took these simple steps, it could make a difference. This will involve raising awareness and helping to build a movement.
But ultimately, the economic system must be changed. Corporations must be regulated, internationally, for the common good. For this to happen we need leaders who pay more attention to human and environmental needs, and refuse to sell out to big money. This in turn requires election campaign reforms – and a well-informed population that demands it. These changes will require grassroots organization and alternative avenues of awareness raising and communication because the mass media are controlled by the same giant corporations that are creating the problems.
There are many groups and movements working from different angles to confront the underlying problem. Strength lies in truth and in numbers. In the area of ecology, as with the other critical issues, the only solution to our global problems is through the development of participatory democratic processes, first of all on the local level, but ultimately on a global scale as well.