By Niall Fahy, Program Manager – One Health Global Citizens
“I can lose my hands, and still live. I can lose my legs and still live. I can lose my eyes and still live. I can lose my hair, eyebrows, nose, arms, and many other things and still live. But if I lose the air I die. If I lose the sun I die. If I lose the earth I die. If I lose the water I die. If I lose the plants and animals I die. All of these things are more a part of me, more essential to my every breath, than is my so-called body.”
– Professor Jack D. Forbes (Powhatan-Renape, Delaware-Lenape)
We all know.
We know that the biosphere – the global ecological network comprising all living beings on Earth – is a single closed system. We know this means that in the end every one of us drinks from the same source and breathes the same air.
We know that humanity is doing immense damage to the ecosystem, that the population is growing, that the ice caps are melting, that extinction rates are rising, that soil and forests and clean water are being destroyed at a rate that far exceeds the planet’s ability to replenish them. We know that the extraction of the natural resources we use often occurs alongside the brutal subjugation of men and women and children.
And many of us are doing… something. Whatever we feel we can. We understand there’s a very serious problem, what we want is an effective way to be part of the solution.
Maybe you take a reusable bag to the shops. Maybe you’ve installed energy-efficient lightbulbs in your house. You might use public transport or cycle to work instead of driving. You try to buy ethically produced goods and local food. These are all commendable actions. One could, however, be forgiven for feeling like small deeds matter little in light of the drastic issues we face.
Unless they’re viewed in the context of a people’s movement that is sweeping the globe, spreading with a speed and scale that is unsurpassed in our history.
A new paradigm
Every time you choose the more ecological option in your consumption of goods or food or energy, you are participating in what is probably the most widespread form of positive social activism that has ever existed. In doing what’s best for the planet, more often than not you’re doing what is best for humanity too.
Many original peoples knew this well. They understood that Nature functions though interconnection, through fractal cycles more complex than we can comprehend. Indigenous cultures, or what survives of them, speak to us of our responsibility towards the web of relationships within which all lifeforms have their place.
Modern humans have come to imagine ourselves as existing above this interdependence and outside of the constraints that basic ecology dictates – we’ve treated the natural world as an infinite resource and an infinite sink.
Now, however, a new paradigm is rising; one of symbiosis. We are learning of balance, and of the ways in which we can work with Nature; seeing the environment not as an inert and inexhaustible stockpile to be pillaged, but rather as so vital to our existence that it can be considered an extension of our physical bodies.
In practical terms, the world’s largest businesses are attempting to attain the hallowed goal of ‘sustainability’, and laws are being enacted to assert the Rights of Nature.[i] It is not governments or businesses, however, that can turn back the tide – it’s too strong and it’s rising too fast. This responsibility falls to the citizens of Earth. Whatever you and I are doing already, we need to do more.
How to go about fulfilling such an overwhelming and complicated duty of care?
The same way you go about eating an elephant… One bite at a time. Of the multitude of ways in which an individual can contribute to the global movement for ecological balance, the simplest is to reduce your ‘footprint’ – one step at a time.
Living Within Our Means
Our ecological footprint is a measure of the demand our lifestyle places upon ecosystems compared to how fast our waste can be absorbed and new resources generated. The Global Footprint Network says that “since the 1970s humanity has been in ecological overshoot, with annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year.”
Image courtesy of the Global Footprint Network
The average Australian’s ecological footprint is currently 6.7 global hectares, which is more than two and a half times higher than the global average.[ii] If everybody in the world had a footprint this size, three planets would be required to support the population.
Facts like these highlight the need for more investment in green technologies and renewable energy. Perhaps we need new definitions of what a sustainable society looks like, and what non-stop growth at breakneck speed entails…
They’re also a reminder that all of us can take small simple steps to tread more lightly. A web based calculator allows individuals to easily find out the size of their footprints,[iii] and from there make straightforward changes to our lifestyles which will make it smaller.
Transportation and food choices are the two of the most effective ways to significantly reduce the demand your lifestyle places on the planet.
Health – Macro to Micro
We are just beginning to understand the profound effects of ecological degradation on public health.[iv] Indeed, our environment is often a key factor in a population’s health or lack thereof; identifying the environmental drivers of major disease epidemics of the 19th century (cholera, typhus, the plague) was crucial in our ability to combat them. Today these same drivers are not being given the scrutiny they warrant. In both individual and collective terms, disease can frequently be viewed as a result of environmental mismanagement – the former relates to the human body and the latter to the planetary body.
On the level of an individual human being, we are familiar with the concept of ill health as imbalance (particularly in the ancient traditions of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.) On an ecological level, we see this emphasis on equilibrium echoed in the famous Gaia hypothesis; James Lovelock arrived at this theory when he realised that plants, animals and minerals are collectively regulating the composition of gases in our skies, which results in homeostasis – the maintenance of a balanced state that allows life to flourish.
Health and sustainability can be seen as two different aspects of the same concept. Thus One Health Organisation’s Holistic Primary Healthcare (HPHC) policy document refers to the Earth Charter[v] and states that “As the creation of health at an individual and community level is inseparable from the creation of healthy global ecologies, the values of ecological sustainability form the third pillar of a holistic approach to primary health care.”
Cultivating Our Gardens, Reaping What We Sow
A commitment to planetary health is concurrently a commitment to your own individual health, and indeed to ‘Health For All’. The ecological movement has its roots not in individual or even in collective need – this is a Gaian impulse. To take part in it is akin to the action of a living cell contributing to immunological response.
We don’t have much time. So step up. And step lightly, for we have the capacity make this world into a true garden. As long as we keep the movement moving.
“There can be no truly healthy person on a sick planet.”
[i] Amendments made to the Ecuadorian Constitution in 2008 recognise the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish, gives people the authority to petition on the behalf of ecosystems, and requires the government to remedy violations of these rights.
In 2012 the Bolivian government, led by indigenous President Evo Morales, enacted the ‘Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well’. The law says that “Mother Earth has the right to exist, continue life cycles and be free from human alteration, the right to pure water and clean air, the right to equilibrium, the right not to be polluted or have cellular structures modified and the right not to be affected by development that could impact the balance of ecosystems.”
[ii] Environmental Protection Authority Victoria
[iii] Global Footprint Network – Footprint calculator
Global environmental change and human health: a public health research agenda
Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2007 February; 61(2): 92–94.
US National Library of Medicine
Worldwatch Report #181: Global Environmental Change: The Threat to Human Health
[v] The Earth Charter was a United Nations initiative that was finalised and then launched as a people’s charter before being approved at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in March 2000. The purpose of this charter was “to inspire in all peoples a sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the well-being of the human family, the greater community of life, and future generations.”
The drafting of the Earth Charter involved the most inclusive and participatory process ever associated with the creation of an international declaration. This process is the primary source of its legitimacy as a guiding ethical framework. The legitimacy of the document has been further enhanced by its endorsement by over 4,500 organizations, including many governments and international organizations.