I might be a doctor, but actually I wasn’t always medically-focused. In fact, in my final year of High School, I was captain for the environment. A young college leader, I was passionate about the sustainability of our waterways, oceans and forests – I believed strongly in protecting the integrity of our natural surrounds and the wider ecosystem we inhabit.
Jump forward more than a decade, and I am now a medical doctor focused instead on the shifts in epidemiology we are witnessing worldwide and the rapid rise in Non-Communicable Diseases.
From climate health, to human health.
For many, this transition may seem disjointed and unrelated. How could someone go from being so passionate about the environment to being passionate about human population health?
The answer is, nothing changed. There was no leap and it wasn’t a conscious transition – it was a gradual shift along a single continuum. You see, these two issues are not polar opposites, but in fact largely overlapping.
Human health and the environment are really two sides of the same coin.
A few stunning Lancet series later, much more accepted science and the fulminant effects of Climate Change playing out around the globe, people are awakening to the overlap of these two issues. People see the link between human health and a healthy environment, that if our natural environment is sick – we in turn are likely to become sick. That our health is reliant on the health of the natural surroundings – our oceans, our forests and our air.
But actually, this relationship goes a long way further. It is not only that a struggling planet makes for an unhealthy human race, but also that the process of becoming unwell as a population fuels the degradation of our planet. In fact this is an important concept to appreciate – because it is not our planet’s fault that we are in fact becoming unwell. Both are our fault, and each are fuelling the other.
Think of NCDs - or Non-Communicable Diseases. These are the leading cause of global deaths and present an enormous and time-critical challenge to the global community. Largely, these diseases are a reflection of the technological gains we have made in the past century, and the hyper-consumerist lifestyles many around the globe now lead. Mechanised lives lead to less and less caloric expenditure, cars replace our morning walk to work or school, we use electronics instead of being outdoors and largely, we have replaced manual labour with desk-bound work. At the same time, our diets which were once based on natural, seasonal, local, unprocessed foods are now calorie-dense, ultra-processed and served to us on a tray. Many of us eat meat most days whilst added sugar and fats have become ubiquitous ingredients in even our food staples.
But hang on a moment, they were some of the major drivers of the NCD epidemic. Or were they the drivers of climate change? Carbon-intensive, mechanised lifestyles; passive, fuel-reliant transport; ultra-processed foods; meat, sugar and oils.
The reality is, that these drivers of NCDs are also some of the major drivers of climate change. That in many regards, these two fundamental challenges for our global community this century are one and the same. Yes, an unhealthy world makes for an unhealthy population. Pollution and fragile eco-systems make populations more vulnerable to a range of disease outcomes, but furthermore, the drivers of both are actually shared!
The exciting part, is that the reverse is also true. Mitigation for one, will lead to mitigation for both and actually, additional positive externalities. If we build cities which are conducive to the use of active or public transport - we could go a long way to addressing burdens of diabetes and lung conditions, but also cut our carbon emissions. If we encouraged a few more people to be weekday vegetarians and only enjoy meat on weekends, we would likely protect a few of them from a heart attack, but also reduce the methane emissions related to the production of that meat. If we could teach more of our children to connect with food, understand food and to cook wholesome food, we might find that they’re able to make healthier, more local and seasonal food choices - foods which don’t require carbon-intensive hot houses, long-distance transportation or high levels of processing.
We can have both.
I would argue that our two pressing Global Health challenges are in fact one. That environmental activists are public health activists and vice versa. A classic story of the whole being much more than the sum of the parts.
Climate health is human health, and human health is climate.