Changing our mindset for health and sustainability

"We might do better to consider ourselves part of nature, not separate from it."

“In this century it has become clear that the fundamental social problem is now the relationship between humankind as a whole and our global environment” (David Loy 1988 p.302).

As I have previously suggested, health care professionals are becoming more alert to the issue of climate change and how this might affect the health of populations in the future. Climate change is only one aspect of sustainability, others of course relate to issues such as food production, distribution and security.

The solutions put forward to address the myriad issues appear to be based in two different, but not necessarily mutually exclusive, approaches: 1) the technico-rational and 2) philosophical. If health care professionals are to put forward plans of action then they need to consider some of their philosophical and ideological assumptions that underpin those solutions. I would suggest that a little more philosophical enquiry into the nature of society and our relationship to ‘nature’ just might prompt a rethink of our reliance on technical solutions.

The first, technico-rational, approach implicitly accepts dominant modes of thinking, which could be called ‘modernist’. It is often based upon various philosophical traditions without explicitly critiquing them. These traditions, such as rationalism, empiricism and dualism, can be traced back to the Enlightenment and the dawn of western science. These ideas of course underpin much of modern capitalism which is another taken for granted economic model underpinned by philosophical assumptions about how the social world works.

A modern exponent of this is Daniel Ben Ami who, in ‘Ferraris for All’, argues that what is required is more economic development and growth, i.e. much, much more of the same, in order that humanity can better control nature and to come up with scientific and technical solutions to such issues as ocean acidification, climate change and soil erosion.

Capitalism, rationalism, empiricism and dualism are implicit in this way of thinking. In short, this accepts the current economic growth based model and an understanding of how we relate to nature through extraction and development of natural resources for human use. The answer for sustainability and human health is improved technologies. I think there are flaws in this approach, one of which is that it relies too much on assuming what brought us success in the past, i.e. capitalism and technological development, will continue to do so in the future.

That is to say it is based on inductive logic and its flaw; past patterns might predict the future but cannot guarantee it. As Nicolas Naseem Taleb reminded is, there might be a black swan to confound the ‘all swans are white’ logic.

David Loy’s comment leads us to the second approach, the philosophical, in that we might want to examine some of the assumptions that underpin the technico-rational, and especially ‘dualism’ – the separation between man and nature, mind and body.

Is it a philosophical step too far to consider that the clearing of Amazon rainforest is as injurious to our health as contracting a virus?

Loy contrasts Eastern non-dualist philosophical traditions, with mainly Western dualism in that “....there is no distinction between "internal" (mental) and "external" (physical), which means that trees and rocks and clouds, if they are not juxtaposed in memory with the "I" concept, will be experienced to be as much "my" mind as thought and feelings” (p140). This then is a non dualist viewpoint in which 'us' includes the biosphere; we are indivisible as human beings from all life forms and all matter.

In Cartesian dualism, the Platonic tradition and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the self is separate from nature and is understood to be the source of awareness, meaning and value. This results in a devaluing of the physical world in which the human self is separate and superior. The human ‘subject’ is separate from the natural ‘object’, and so what we do to ‘it’ is not part of ‘us’.

Dumping toxins into the oceans is acceptable because the ocean is not part of us – it is a waste sink, we are doing something to a separate ‘it’. The human subject then becomes capable of confronting an objective world, a world which is there for our use. The idea of human exceptualism (Catton and Dunlap 1978) – that man is special and apart from nature – takes root in this discourse.

This sentiment harks back to Francis Bacon, who argued in 1620 "The world is made for man, not man for the world”. In 'The New Atlantis' , Bacon thought that by and through the application of scientific and technological dominion over nature, men would usher in a new age of abundance and comfort. This has echoes in Sigmund Freud's (1927) assertion: 'The principal task of civilization, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend us against nature'.

The call to have dominion over, to conquer, to harness, control or subjugate nature is predicated upon this idea of separateness from it. This control is thus predicated upon the self in opposition to nature which Yagelski (2011) calls 'the problem of the self ':

“My argument here is that the prevailing Western sense of the self as an autonomous, thinking being that exists separately from the natural or physical world is really at the heart of the life-threatening environmental problems we face”. Shabecoff (2001) suggested that concerns expressed in critiques by environmentalists of this dualist interpretation resulted in the 'Heidelberg Appeal' , a document signed by many scientists, which reasserted that progress by man always involved harnessing nature to man's needs.

However, we know that human health is inextricably bound with the physical and natural environment and what Charles Eisenstein calls ‘separation’, i.e. dualist thinking, results in practices that are injurious to us. In this regard Chivian and Bernstein (2010) argue the biodiversity is crucial to human health and I suggest that we might do better to consider ourselves part of nature not separate from it.

Is it a philosophical step too far to consider that the clearing of Amazon rainforest is therefore as injurious to my health as contracting a virus? Changing low energy light bulbs is a technical solution, perhaps I also need to change the way I think.