This week’s post was written by my good friend and fellow nurse, Cara Cook. Cara obtained her MS in Community/Public Health Nursing at the University of Maryland, focusing on how the natural and built environment impact health outcomes. She currently works as a Climate & Health Program Manager at Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.
“A clean environment is a human right like any other. It is therefore part of our responsibility toward others to ensure the world we pass on is healthy, if not healthier than we found it,” ~Dalai Lama
Pause and take a deep breath. Take a moment now to think about what the word environment means to you. What do you picture in your mind when you hear the word environment? Do you picture stunning sights in national parks? Or images such as you would see in a Planet Earth or a National Geographic documentary? Do you picture yourself taking a breath of fresh of air? Do you picture kids playing outdoors at school? More than likely, when you thought about the word environment your mind immediately went to the images of wildlife and the natural world. With the luxuries of modern life and the fast pace of society, it’s common to disconnect ourselves from the natural world. Yet the environmental conditions of the places we live, work, go to school, and spend time in have an impact on our health.
Not only do the environments in which we live impact our health, our lifestyles also impact the natural systems in which we depend on. Therefore, healthy living also means caring for the planet in which we live. There are many simple actions you can take within your own life that promote health and well-being for humans, other life-forms, and the planet. Here is a short list to get you started:
Food. The food we consume (and waste) has a tremendous impact on the planet. In the United States, food travels about 1,500 miles to get from the source to your plate. In addition, some of the most resource intensive foods to produce are animal-based products. Simple changes such as not eating meat one day a week or switching to more plant-based food options can have a big impact. When you do choose to eat meat or other animal products, try to buy meat produced from local and/or organic farmers. Buying seasonal produce, sourcing food from local farmers when able, and reducing consumption of animal-based products can help reduce the environmental footprint associated with the food we eat. Within the United States, we also waste a ton of food, which has a major environmental footprint. Food waste accounts for 30-40% of the food supply in the country, with the majority of waste occurring at the retail and consumer level. Buying less, donating food, or composting are all ways to reduce the amount of household food wasted.
Energy. Relying on the burning of fossil fuels as a main source of energy for the past century has had damaging impacts for human health and the environment. Air pollution associated with burning fossil fuels was estimated to contribute to $2.9 trillion in economic and health costs (work absences, years of life lost, and premature deaths). Fossil-fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) are non-renewable energy sources and account for over 80% of total energy in the United States. This includes the energy to heat our homes, fuel our appliances, and power our cars. Get informed about where the energy in your home is coming from. In some locations, you can contact your utility provider to switch the energy source for your home from coal or gas to wind power. Other options include participating in a community solar program or installing solar panels on your home. If those options are unrealistic, simply reducing the amount of energy you use by turning off lights or appliances when not in use or turning your thermostat up in the summer down or down in the winter time can make a difference (and save you $$). Driving your car less and walking, biking, carpooling, and using public transportation more are additional ways to reduce fossil-fuel based energy use.
Waste. Globally, we are facing a waste and recycling crisis. Only 9% of plastics are recycled with the remaining ending up in landfills or getting incinerated, which both have enormous environmental and health implications. Single-use plastics are also primarily made from fossil-fuel based chemicals or petrochemicals. The environmental impacts of single-use plastics have gained mainstream attention as we face complex questions of what to do with our trash.Further, convenience and widespread availability of single-use plastics has made it so these products are ingrained in our way of living. This is not to say that we shouldn’t recycle. We should recycle when able, however the more effective method is to buy less, buy used when appropriate, and reuse more. Actions such as using reusable grocery bags or water bottles are steps in the right direction to reducing single-use plastics.
Awaken your inner activist. While we can alter our personal behaviors, it is important to remember that choices can be constrained, with making ecofriendly choices dependent on your means or other factors such as where you live. We also experience constrained choices because of the way our society is today and the systems within which we live. Perhaps you have to drive a car because there isn’t reliable public transportation in your area. Perhaps you can’t buy organic foods because it’s too costly. When we come together collectively and demand change, we can work towards breaking down the constraints of the systems of our society as it is today. Get involved with organizations such as 350.org, Greenpeace, and Moms Clean Air Force that are advocating for policy change to ensure that the people and places we love are protected now and for future generations. Let’s be bold enough to envision a future in which people are thriving on a thriving planet. Lastly, make sure to take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself and others. Take a moment to pause when you’re feeling discouraged or overwhelmed. And remember while we may be ordinary people, we can do extraordinary things with the time we have with each other and on Earth.