Today is Earth Day – a great day to think about the only home we have. This year’s campaign focuses on empowering people with the knowledge to inspire greater environmental protection. Forty-seven years after its launch, more than one billion people participate in Earth Day activities. The first Earth Day was launched after ecologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring – The New York Times bestseller that highlighted how the public’s health is affected by our treatment of the environment and other beings.
In medicine, we’re taught to “do good or to do no harm,” a pledge that originated in the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates’ Of the Epidemics. But Hippocrates spoke of much more than the mere obligations of doctors. Like Rachel Carson did two millennia later, he wrote extensively on how changes in seasons, water, air, and soil can influence health and illness.
Today Rachel Carson’s and Hippocrates’ messages are more critical than ever.
Our modern lives are racing by. We pay more attention to screens than we do to the world around us. All the while, our environment is rapidly changing – from global warming and water scarcity to air pollution and soil erosion to the modern, man-made sixth extinction. We rarely think about how these changes affect our everyday health. But they do – almost like a boomerang that comes back to hit us where we stand.
Climate change impacts our physical, social, and mental health. For example, changes in rainfall affect the availability of water as well as the chance for extreme weather patterns like droughts, hurricanes, and flooding, which can all cause chaos and illness. Climate change can also drive diseases like malaria, bird flu, and Ebola. Likewise, water scarcity can lead to disease and even violence. Air pollution kills more people than do car accidents, HIV/AIDS, or diabetes, and soil erosion can result in shortages of healthy crops. It can also increase the amount of dust carried by the wind and the risk for transmitting infectious diseases such as anthrax and tuberculosis.
Like us, other animals suffer from air pollution, soil erosion, water scarcity, and climate change. And as Rachel Carson showed, when other animals aren’t healthy, it’s a sign that humans aren’t either.
But we can stop the boomerang. Our everyday decisions impact the climate, air, and water we depend on. So many environmental insults are preventable and perhaps even reversible with changes in lifestyle that avoid harm to other people, animals, and the natural world around us.
One important example is shifting from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet since the meat and dairy industry is responsible for more than 50 percent of greenhouse gas production. Using animals to produce food is also responsible for consumptive water use, soil erosion, and air pollution – as well as heart disease, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.
Another important example is ending our obsession with oil and gas, which are also huge contributors to climate change and air pollution. And here are even more ideas.
Though each of us can make a difference with our individual purchases, it’s similarly important that we lobby for policies that do good and do no harm. That’s especially important today when there are increasing threats to established environmental protections.
Our choices matter. From protecting our water sources (drops of life) to choosing the right fuel for our bodies and the earth, we can set a better path. And as Hippocrates pointed out thousands of years ago, in doing so we can also help stave off disease – from cancer to bird flu.