Re-Imagining Public Health
Towards a One Health Approach
Some might wish to forget the year 2020 as soon as possible. However, if there is one thing we can learn from it, I believe it is that we, as a species, are fragile, and that our health and well-being are closely intertwined with the health and well-being of our living environment.
Of course, this has been made clear by the pandemic that — at the time of writing — has taken over 1.8 million human lives. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, an infectious disease that spreads from animals to humans. Six out of ten known infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin and of all emerging diseases even three out of four. Major risk factors for emerging zoonoses are our destruction of the natural environment, which brings us into closer contact with animals with whom we have had little prior contact. And, our livestock industry, which raises billions of animals in often poor sanitary, unhealthy and tightly packed conditions. Our animal farms are breeding grounds for new diseases and scientists fear a new strain of avian flu might develop that has the potential to be many times more deadly than COVID-19. The current pandemic has hardly come as a surprise to insiders.
But it is not only pandemics that highlight the intimate connection between our own health, and the health of the animals we rear and our environment. Climate change is considered by medical scientists to be one of the biggest threats to our public health, as it will lead to more extreme weather, heat waves, drought, spread of infectious disease and food insecurity. Pollution already is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, killing on estimate over 9 million people yearly. Moreover, eating animal products is also directly detrimental to our health, the billions of animals we kill every year, lead to over 10 million human casualties every year as well.
Let there be no misunderstanding: we cannot be healthy on a sick planet, surrounded by sick animals. We can hide behind masks and quarantine all we want, we should let go of the illusion that we are or can separate ourselves from our natural environment. We can simply not continue to destroy the life on our planet and somehow expect that our lives will not be affected by it or that technology will save us. If you needed another argument, this is now equally evident from a medical perspective. That is why here, now, is a call from the medical profession to adopt a One Health approach: recognizing that the health of humans cannot be seen in isolation from the health of animals and ecosystems. Science is affirming what spiritual traditions of old have always known: we are all connected, if we destroy life on our Mother Earth, we destroy ourselves.
The Golden Rule has served people for millennia as a simple guide for living: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This seems to be easier for people to comprehend in relation to other human beings, but harder when relating to non-human living beings. Perhaps the challenge lies in our perception, language patterns and modern cultures? Native Americans, and many other indigenous communities, see the non-human living world as a part of their family.
Robin Wall Kimmerer feels that “calling the natural world “it” absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation.” and that “Objectification of the natural world reinforces the notion that our species is somehow more deserving of the gifts of the world than the other 8.7 million species with whom we share the planet.”
To try and shift this dominant, egoic, relationship that modern humans have with the natural world, Robin suggests a simple shift to the language we use. She proposes that we can use““Ki” to signify a being of the living Earth. Not “he” or “she,” but “ki.” So that when we speak of Sugar Maple, we say, “Oh that beautiful tree, ki is giving us sap again this spring.” For the plural pronoun, she suggests the use of the word “kin.” And explains, “So we can now refer to birds and trees not as things, but as our earthly relatives. On a crisp October morning we can look up at the geese and say, “Look, kin are flying south for the winter. Come back soon.”
Nature literally gives us life! Our modern consumerist cultures are dependent on extracting from nature, or with the new grammar, destroying our “kin”. As we have seen, new technologies are not going to save us (i.e. plastic, pesticides, processed foods, solar panels etc.). What is needed for genuine societal transformation is a shift in perception. Neuroscience has shown that, “What you’re holding in mind changes what you see, and what you see changes what you’re holding in mind.” What we see dictates our actions. A shift in perception would enable us to shift our actions, our habits.
We are addicted to convenience and comfort. Paradoxically, it is this convenience and comfort that is creating the common diseases that plague humans (i.e. obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, loneliness, depression), as well as perpetuating the destruction of non-human ecosystems, which, as Jazz pointed out above, is also creating and spreading disease. Essentially, due to our modern lifestyles, we are killing ourselves and destroying the possibilities for our children, grandchildren, etc., etc.! To me, it is as poignant as it is bewildering.
Transformation begins with relationship and connectedness, on all the various levels (self-self, self-other self, self-community, self-nature). Reflect on your routines, habits, the products you consume — are there changes that you can make to minimize your footprint? It could be as simple as driving less, drinking less aluminum cans, making bread or bigger shifts, like growing your own food and/or vowing to eat only locally sourced food (see Food Miles).
Leading by example encourages the people around you, and opens up cracks for compassionate dialogue, that has the potential to shift perception. Do you have a possibility of organizing, creating spaces for people to reflect on these questions, expand their perception, and become more connected to themselves and nature? The beautiful thing about this transformation, is that the deeper you evolve, the more beautiful life becomes. As The Minimalists say, less is more. When we lessen dis-ease we increase genuine ease.
Lead Author: Jazz (Gijs) Van den Broeck (first 4 paragraphs)
Jazz (Gijs) Van den Broeck is a seeker who has lived the past 3 years in Sadhana Forest, a vegan eco-community in Auroville, India. He loves to reflect, teach and write about the variety of ways in which we can transform ourselves and our communities in order to become more inclusive, sustainable and wholesome. You can follow him on his blog or Instagram.
Anchor Author: Daniel Rudolph
Daniel Rudolph is interested in exploring alternative, experiential learning opportunities for people of all ages. He is passionate about forming community, and building public spaces for meaningful, transformational gathering. Currently he is spending a lot of his time learning juggling and facilitating gatherings. He also enjoys writing and sharing poetry.
Dan, and a small team, are in the process of publishing a series of articles titled ‘Live Human Signposts’ that showcases individuals that have taken alternative paths to higher education and/or are pursuing regenerative livelihoods, which is being commissioned by the Ecoversities Alliance. In March, Dan will begin an apprenticeship in Vermont at the MAPLE Monastic Academy.