Health and the Environment

Recently, the Rockefeller Foundation together with the Lancet issued a report on planetary health entitled “Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch”. They present a significant and forceful argument for immediate action to improve the health of the Earth and human society complete with solid, convincing data, but I fear that this report, like so many others, will be ignored, as the truth is simply too overwhelming for most people. They point out that people have been polluting and damaging the environment for a while, but have only recently begun to notice. We tend to be very short-sighted, mortgaging our future for present gains, and now those few who are able to see and be honest with themselves have realized that we shall soon pay the price, and it will be high. We have made great progress in our technologies, but our moral development has not kept pace.

The report identifies three main types of barriers to moving ahead: challenges in the areas of imagination, research, and governance. Imagination challenges include the tendency of policymakers to evaluate progress exclusively economically, and their short-sightedness regarding the future environmental impact of our technologies especially on the poor. To me, this seems more like a deficiency in values rather than imagination; if they cared sufficiently about anything beyond themselves and their money, it would be a great deal easier for them to see what to do. Research challenges include increasing interdisciplinary work and looking at findings in their natural context, which are superb suggestions. Lastly, they identify governance challenges, which include delayed governmental responses to threats, especially if there is uncertainty in data or a need for financial cooperation between governments. The first and third of the barriers or challenges seem nearly insurmountable to me, because they require people to perform at a higher level of moral functioning than is possible for them in the first case, and in the third, for politicians to consider the welfare of their people over the importance of the next election. Far-sighted statesmanship such as this is very seldom encountered.

The report does not merely discuss what is going wrong, suggestions for remediation are put forth as well. They are brave enough to state that population growth as well as consumption need to be reduced if we are to live sustainably. This is nearly impossible for most people in the United States to accept, though, because they believe they are entitled to their comforts and do not want to change. Additionally, the notion of population control is unacceptable to many, especially followers of conservative religions. Americans, for all their pride of technology, hold science and scientists suspect, and do not accept their explanations of environmental change. They prefer to function at a mundane level and would rather have simple cause and effect explanations. Attempts to present factual, scientific arguments for sustainable living usually fall on deaf ears for this reason; the environment is made up of complex interacting systems, and detailed explanations are difficult to understand, so most people are simply unable to think about it. Helpfully, the report points out that behavior change needs to have a compelling incentive, and that the best incentive is usually emotional rather than logical. This is true even for those with educational and economic advantages. The bulk of the report discusses the impact of various environmental problems on human health. This is important information, because it may provide the sort of personal and immediate incentive people need to act.

To meet these challenges, humanity needs to advance morally, and this can be arrived at through acceptance of the oneness of all things. Contemplation shows us the reality of oneness, and when we accept it, we have a foundation for a new morality that fosters the understanding that all things are sacred. It is up to those who have arrived at this understanding to speak out and work toward the healing that is required for the Earth and for ourselves. We need to give voice to our values and live according to them, thereby modeling the way to care for our planet and ourselves. Living out our faith has never been more important. Let us hope we have time to make the difference that is needed.

Copyright © 2015 Teresa Chupp.  All rights reserved.

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