Environmental health issues | not so easy to list

Environmental health issues as the health of the environment could be a lengthy list for the perception is that the environment is in trouble, reeling from impact of human activity. Except that it is not that simple.

If I can climb a flight of stairs without gasping, and if I eat well, sleep soundly, and have no aches or pains, then I gratefully describe myself as healthy.

This does not mean I could complete a modern Ironman event or that I could steadily chase down the kudu I speared on the savannah as our ancestors managed to do. 

  • Health does not mean fit

And if last week I had the flu and had to lie flat for 48-hours thinking I was going to die, it does not make me unhealthy — I was just sick for a while.

  • Sickness is often temporary

But if I live mostly on the sofa, eat poorly, smoke a pack a day, and drink too much beer, I will get fat, feel lethargic and only climb stairs slowly. Keep this up and my risk of serious illness escalates rapidly.

  • Healthy can be temporary

Except that many people live this unhealthy lifestyle for decades often well into their retirement. They don’t run marathons and might wheeze as they climb stairs but they survive.

  • Unhealthy impairs but does not necessarily stop function

So for a human, health is clearly relative, hard to define and very difficult to measure. We each have an idea of what it means and that idea varies from person to person.

Environmental health issues are more difficult still.

Indeed they only occur because humans place certain values on the environment. Without values and evaluation system is impossible to say if something is healthy or not.

A sewage-laden stream running through a shantytown will look and smell unhealthy to us — except that it is a great place for anaerobic bacteria and mosquitos that thrive there.  

Stream with nature carrying on as it does not recognising health issues 

Can the environment be healthy?

Not really.

The environment does not have a normal set of functions that could define health. Nature persists whatever is thrown at it, bending to accommodate changing conditions.

If a tornado rips through a coastal forest flattening the trees it can destroy the forest but not nature. New plants and animals will return the system to productivity even if it looks nothing like the original forest. In effect nature is always healthy — nature even recovered from the great mass extinction events.  

This means that environmental health issues are entirely man-made — or more specifically ‘man-perceived’. 

Only humans can put the value on the environment and only humans can make an evaluation of the environment that is equivalent to health.

Even the great work of advocacy and regulation to preserve wild places — including that of the visionary pioneers who realized that some areas needed protection long before wild places were scarce — only makes sense because it has value to us.

Here we have the essence of what Ask Alloporus calls pragmatology — for nothing we do makes any sense unless it has relevance to us.

preservation of wild places will always have value — eucalyptus woodland north of Sydney, Australia

The more usual meaning for environmental health issues

The usual use of the term is far more human centric.

It refers to aspects of the environment, natural or man-made, that have an impact on human health. In other words its not about the environment at all but when toxins, pollutants and pathogens in the air or water make people ill.

This meaning gets a lot of attention.

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wilderness is obviously healthy | reed beds in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

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