How do you have a healthy population of human beings without a healthy environment? Isn’t it pretty obvious the two issues are linked? Because there are no human beings who live outside of the environment. You could even say that it’s a false distinction. There is no “us” here, and an “environment” over there. It’s not like the environment is a foreign country you can visit with a tourist visa.
But what do I mean by environment? I often find I’m tempted to write environment in the plural, to talk about “environments” rather than a singular object called “THE environment. Because the environment is just the circumstances in which we live. It’s that vast web of connections which weaves every single individual into the whole.
There’s a physical environment of earth, air, water and fire. There are the cyclical environments of energy, of heat, cold, wind and rain.
There are the geographic environments of place. There’s a long running French TV series called “Rendez vous au terre inconnu” (Meeting in unknown places), where someone spends two weeks with a remote tribe and a camera crew capture the experience. I love it. It’s done with great sensitivity and compassion. Every episode opens your eyes to other ways of living and it is frequently surprisingly moving. It’s very human. In one episode they did return visits to three places and showed each group the original films of both their own place and the places of the other two. One group lived high in the mountains, one in a region of permanent snow and ice, and a third on houses built on poles in the sea. It was startling to see such diversity and to see each group express their astonishment that other people could choose to live so differently. There’s no doubt that the physical places where we live influence our daily habits, our diets, our whole outlook and our patterns of disease and health.
City dwellers face different challenges from rural ones. Coastal communities different ones from desert dwellers. And so on.
But there are other, less visible, environments. Our social environment of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Our cultural environment of values, practices and beliefs. Our political environment of laws, limits and agreements. And so on.
We live embedded in all of these and more. We are influenced by them, and we influence them.
In the books as “Linked”, by Barabasi, “Connected”, by Christakis, “The Bond”, by Lynne McTaggart, and “The God Problem”, by Bloom, we can see how we live in networks of relationships which influence everything from or chances of becoming obese, or catching certain infections, to the daily choices we make. We are not as “individual” and separate as we think we are.
Look how “memes” spread, how videos become “viral”, how quickly behaviours and attitudes spread across cultural and physical borders through social media.
If we want to create healthier populations we have to address these environments.
I was going to write about things like the number of industrial chemicals which can be detected in the blood of new born babies in Paris, or the insecticides, fertilisers, herbicides present in everyone’s urine, or the number of prescription drugs which are present in our drinking water, or the amount of plastic washing up on remote islands, or even the estimated 400,000+ people who die every year in Europe from disease caused by air pollution.
But I’m not going to.
You can read any of these kinds of details any time. If those sorts of stories don’t appear in your newsfeeds, you can search for them online. They really are not hard to find.
No, the only point I want to make here is that we do not live separate lives, so if we want to create healthier societies we need to pay attention to our multiple environments. We need to understand them better, then make some different choices. Together.