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  • Writer's pictureThink Upstream

Public health beyond the anthropocene

We need to give up thinking about nature and society as distinct entities and look to eco-social determinants of health if we want to better the lives of Canadians in the 21st century.
An image of a n path in a pine forest.

Alex Paterson

Our health outcomes depend on seeing the connection between Canadians and the land.

That’s the conclusion we ought to draw if we take a look at cutting-edge research in the social sciences. That’s also the message we should be hearing if we were to internalize Indigenous paradigms of wellness and healing.

There has been a movement afoot among sociologists and political economists to bring nature into our social theories for at least the last 10 years.

That’s why so many people are talking about the anthropocene.

Lots of people are talking about the idea that we live in an age where humanity is the main force driving ecological change.

Going back to the enlightenment era, it has been normal to think of society and the environment as distinct entities. We base our ideas of civilization on this supposed truth.

It mirrors our idea that the body and mind are separate.

Humans and nature are separate.

It’s the building block informing old ideas that humans are superior to all other life. Humans are above nature.

Our entire economy runs on this false dichotomy. As a result of this disjointed world view, we haven’t been accounting for the relationships that make up the non-human world within our political, economic, or social systems. That’s why being able to pollute carbon into the air has been free up until recently.

We also often forget to account for these connections in our understanding of public health.

The idea of the social determinants of health as distinct from the ecological determinants of health is a product of this false binary.

It is dead wrong.

When we talk about what makes us sick, we carve apart our living conditions into the false divides of the social and the environmental realities.

We separate our food system from the air, water, and earth that makes it come to life. We separate our housing conditions from the land, air, and water that bind and infuse the wood structure we call a house.

The connection between the physical and social “environments” has always been a tension within public health.

This is well illustrated by the development of sewer systems in France and England. The CBC program Ideas with Paul Kennedy just released a two-part podcast series on the birth of the Paris sewer system and the political context for its development. The sewer system in Paris was key to the development of the idea of public health. This was also the case in the development of sewer systems in London, England.

Here’s what they learned: Once night soils were replaced by other fertilizers in farming in London, for the sake of public health,  a massive amount of human waste was dumped in the Thames River. Officials thought removing the waste would solve many of the problems associated with the squalor of poverty. Instead, the sewers turned the Thames River—the public water supply—into a toxic mess, which caused more suffering.

Early public health officials misunderstood how humans were embedded within ecological relationships. Despite the evidence, we repeat this mistake by separating the ecological from the social.  

While we now recognize that polluting our water supply with our own feces is bad for public health on a smaller scale, we haven’t quite made that leap when applied to larger scale systems.

Our industrial agricultural-sanitation complex, as a whole, stands as a case and point. We continue to damage the very land and water that humans rely upon.

For instance, our reliance on the use of sewers and inorganic fertilizers intervenes in the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles causing eutrophication—the killing of lakes—in many important fisheries around the world. Both Lake Erie and Lake Winnipeg are in different stages of decline.

This is also happening in the Gulf of Mexico, where all the polluted water that comes from the Mississippi River is creating an oxygenless dead zone in the sea. The ocean is our main source of clean air. When we create a dead zone with our waste, we kill the plankton that produce oxygen for us.

In addition, our energy system is loading the ocean with carbon dioxide, leading to the water becoming more acidic—killing coral reefs.

The way we have chosen to direct our industrial, chemical, agricultural and sanitary waste is killing our marine life-support system.

Climate change is just one nexus of the symptoms.

Being able to work through this reality, to move toward the solutions we need now, starts with understanding our intimate connection to the rest of the web-of-life. It rests on understanding anything we release in nature will end up back inside us.

We will continue making the same errors that the original public health officials made when they created our first sewer systems and failed to connect the dots.

Whether it’s about industrial or organic human waste, the public health solution is not dilution. We can’t dump our mistakes into nature and pretend they won’t affect people.

That false boundary only ever existed in our heads.


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