The Environmental Roots of Our Poor Health

A recent study of health in America noted some curious problems. It turns out that we are less likely to live as long and are more apt to suffer from diseases than all other developed nations. And this disadvantage holds true across the entirety of the American demographic, for all ages and socio-economic classes. You can read about the study here.

The report states that there is still insufficient data to explain why this is the case, but there are some guesses. “Among possible reasons cited in the report,” the articles states,  “are communities built for vehicle travel, rather than walking or biking, American patterns of food consumption, risky behavior by American adolescents, stressful environments and polluted air, among others.”

There is a connection between these ideas. I won’t go so far as to suggest that they are causally linked, but I believe they all share at least some common ground in our relationship to the environment. When a community is primarily built around the automobile, as most communities in America are, that means that we are not using our bodies for most of our mundane tasks: getting food from the local bakery or grocery store, doing an errand, or visiting a neighbor. If it seems like a foreign idea to walk or bike to do all of your errands, try visiting Holland, for example, to see what that might be like. It also means we are less likely to be engaged in communication with our neighbors or even with strangers as we often are when we use public transportation. This has its effects on both our physical and emotional health. Our food consumption is related to these problems too. We have to go greater distances to get our food, and our food itself, distributed through an automobile-dependent system, is shipped at no small expense from greater distances, using more fossil fuel to get to our plate. The average meal in American travels 1300 miles, as one calculation has it. So we eat out of season. We waste more energy and create more pollution. We drive to eat, and we eat, in fact, anything we want, anytime we want, and it comes with enormously wasteful packaging. Of course, here in Utah at least virtually the entire energy system that heats our homes and fuels our industries and feeds us is based in fossil fuels—coal mainly. After a visit with Governor Herbert’s environmental advisors, I wrote about why this is not inevitable here. This all spells doom for our physical well-being and for our air quality. I know there are lots of reasons for risky behavior of American adolescents that have nothing to do with environmental causes, but I have to believe that at least one problem is that adolescents no longer develop their sense of the world, the dangers it poses to us, and their own limits in the context of the physical environment but are instead constantly interacting with virtual reality, up until the tragic moment when they bump, sometimes violently, into the physical world. Besides, nature deficit disorder, as it is called, has registered significant damage to the psyche of many young people. Imagine what a health care system would look like if we were better at taking care of our bodies by actually using them for life.

Here in Utah we have been hit by spikes of smog so devastating to our health that to live here and breathe this polluted air is the equivalent of a life of smoking cigarettes. It takes two to three years off of our lives on average. And this is a mess of our own making. I am prone to the winter blues and made up my mind years ago that for my own mental and physical health I needed to attack winter with more relish by engaging in outdoor recreation with greater frequency. I have learned a deeper appreciation for the cold, for snow, and for the slanted and shorter light of winter days. I like the snow. I welcome it. I even take a kind of perverse pleasure in shoveling the driveway again and again. And I welcome it because it does two things: it is the promise of spring runoff, the very bloodstream of people who live near mountains. And it is the promise of clear air. To get out in inverted and polluted air is practically deadly. With every passing day without precipitation, the pollutants increase in density in the lower reaches of our valleys, choking us, literally, into submission. Folks are running to the hospitals with greater frequency with increased lung and heart damage as a result.

I recently found myself in a bind. I desperately needed exercise, but I found myself driving to do indoor recreation on a treadmill, just to avoid breathing the air that was choking us all, knowing that I was only contributing more pollution to the air in the process. Of course, I have enjoyed days snowshoeing above the inversion and not all of those trips have involved driving, but some have, and I wonder if these are not simply emergency measures for oxygen, like the paroxysms of the swimmer who has held her breath too long and must come up for air if she hopes to get to the end. I found myself offering a prayer in church recently, and I wanted to thank God for the snow, only this time I wanted to thank Him for clearing out the pollution. I felt the emptiness of such a prayer. If I was willing to thank Him, was I not willing to repent of the stain of sin He had only temporarily washed away?

We are looking at ourselves but we don’t recognize ourselves, either because of the distortions of the funny mirror of a ruined nature or because of our own fear of seeing the truth. We are causing our own demise, tolerating our own waste, and we have acclimated ourselves to degradation to the point of ignorance. Many people don’t even seem to realize that we are breathing polluted air and instead think of it as some kind of benign winter haze. It is amazing to me how such smog blurs all distinctions, closes off a perception of distance and relation, and brings everything to such proximity as to make us feel suffocated by the world.

Self-reflection that leads to true self-understanding requires distance and perspective. And perspective comes from movement and change of position. We have seen a marvelous few days of snow in Utah that have finally cleared out the pollution… for now. But we have a brief opportunity, perhaps before the next arrival of inversion, to get out and walk, to see the neighborhood, to understand our location, to grasp distances, and experience relations through the senses. Sometimes getting above the garbage is the only way to see it, as I recently discovered on top of a mountain. Such awakenings of the senses bring us to a clearer awareness of who we are because, as Wendell Berry says, self-understanding comes when we know where we are. Armed with such knowledge, we need to collaborate to build a more sane civilization.



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