I've had this blog post as a draft for a while but realized that there's no better day than Earth Day to share this. I invite you to join me on this open discussion and encourage you to read until the very end, despite your beliefs, preconceived notions, and fears. Each nation has its own political socialization process and propaganda regarding this planet we love and depend on.
Some of you may identify as environmentalists, while some may not think about nature or climate change in their daily life, while most are probably somewhere in the middle. With this in mind, I ask that we shed our preconceived notions and keep an open-mind while engaging in this essential topic: the environment and how it impacts our physical, psychological, social, and spiritual wellbeing. I will be presenting research on the realities and health complications caused by climate change, why the realities of climate change are hard for "just-view believers" (the view that the world is just) to swallow, and hope on how we can do something about this. I'm excited to write this piece because environmentalism has been one important facet when considering all areas I can improve my health: physical, mental, and spiritual.
First, let's see why environmentalism is essential to our health.
Current research reports that:
1. Climate change is happening.
-97% of scientists agree that climate change is happening and that it is human-caused.
-An extensive report published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (2017) revealed hat our air temperature has risen 1.0° C (1.8° F) over the last 115 years and continues to rise. This alarming statistic issues these past 115 years to be the warmest in all recorded history, with 2017 being the second hottest year to date (USGCRP, 2017).
-The 1.0° C increase may not seem like much, but it is halfway to the point of irreversible damage, likely to be caused by a 2.0° C increase (CBC). Global warming results in the rising of sea levels that can wipe out low level geographical areas, cause the melting of glaciers, increase acidity of oceans, cause flooding, the extinction of many species, and a lack of viable food resources all of which are a dire threat to the human species (USGCRP, 2017).
2. Climate change is human-caused.
-Not only does this issue impose a serious risk to the human population, but we are the ones to blame for it. This Fourth National Climate Assessment exposes humans as causing approximately 90% of global warming (Guardian, 2017). Current research put forward in this report emphasize how greenhouse gases are the leading cause of global warming (USGCRP, 2017).
-Approximately 90% of climate-change is caused by human activity.
3. Climate change IS a health issue.
-My naturopath explained how she, like many of us, used to believe that we could get all the nutrients we needed without the help of supplements. She then showed me research about how the integrity of our soil has become depleted through human exploitation so that a handful of spinach doesn't even contain half of the nutrients a handful of spinach used to contain!
-Decreased air quality, the depletion of the integrity of our soil (depleting the nutrients of crops), the acidification of our oceans, the increase in infectious diseases, and many more issues arise as a result of climate change.
-"A WHO assessment, taking into account only a subset of the possible health impacts, and assuming continued economic growth and health progress, concluded that climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050." -World Health Organization
-"Many infectious diseases, including water-borne ones, are highly sensitive to climate conditions." -United Nations
-Accessibility to medical treatments and supplies is becoming a huge cause of concern due to climate change.
-"Climate change lengthens the transmission season and expands the geographical range of many diseases like malaria and dengue. For example, the conditions for dengue transmission are likely to expand significantly across the globe" -United Nations. Diseases like Lyme Disease are becoming more rampant for similar reasons.
-Learn more by visiting the U.S. Global Change Research Program's 2016 Climate and Health Assessment.
4. Those with disabilities are especially vulnerable to the risks imposed by climate change.
-Learn more from the EPA's (The United States' Environmental Protection Agency) fact sheet: "Climate Change and The Health of People with Disabilities".
5. Environmentalism fulfills psychological, social, and health needs.
-Ecopsychology is a field of psychology that studies how our perceived connection to the natural world is important for our physical, psychological, and ecological well-being (Schmitt, 2018).
-Pro-environmental beahviour is correlated with increased life satisfaction (Schmitt, Aknin, Axsen & Shwom, 2018).
"We are depleting the earth's resources and systems in a way that is not sustainable and already causing us problems." (Schmitt, 2018)
Environmentalism is a huge passion of mine. This passion of mine developed in my last few years of high-school, but when I became sick, my passions were the last thing on my mind. I was in survival mode, fight-or-flight mode.
Four years later, my symptoms have been more stabilized, and I've been rebuilding my life from rock bottom. I've been rediscovering who I am, what's really important to me, and what kind of life I want to live within my limitations.
Most importantly, I've learned that the current state of our planet is still in that survival fight or flight mode we were in when we first got sick. Panicking, desperate, and struggling to survive.
And we are to blame. If that makes you feel fearful, you are not alone. Studies have shown that environmental threats are psychologically threatening; even receiving information regarding the realities of climate change is known to induce fear, anxiety, guilt, sadness, uncertainty, confusion, a sense of powerlessness, and a threat to our worldview. A study by Feinberg and Willer (2011) showed that time after time again, those who believe in a just-world were more likely to be skeptical when presented with science regarding the realities of climate change; this is because the realities of climate change go against their preexisting belief that the world is just and fair.
However, there is hope! Pipher (2013) presents evidence that just like all psychological threats, avoiding the issue is problematic. In Pipher's book "The Green Boat" she talks about how to cope with environmental threats from moving to awareness to action.
"We have to move from awareness to acceptance.
-[Which involves] getting past denial, minimization, distractions, and avoidance.
We have to allow ourselves to feel the pain.
-A negative emotion is a healthy response to a negative situation.
Then we have to move from acceptance to action.
-Get involved in the solution instead of trying to distract ourselves from it. Social support is crucial."
-Schmitt's (2018) paraphrase of the book "The Green Boat" by Pipher (2013).
In addition, research has shown that perceptions of ecological threat DECREASE reported life-satisfaction, perceptions of ecological threat increase pro-environmental behaviours which increases life satisfaction (Schmitt, 2018). In other words, the best thing to do when we feel psychologically threatened by news of environmental injustice is to do something about it.
I don't know about you, but when I first got sick, the last thing I was thinking of was reducing my carbon footprint. I honestly didn't care. If getting my prescription medication in an unnecessary plastic bag meant I didn't have to carry one more thing (a cloth bag) with me, then I was all for it (pictured to the left). I rarely went out to get coffee so I didn't mind getting it in a to-go cup that would eventually end up in a landfill (only 80% of plastic, recycled materials are actually reused). Having a chronic illness makes accessibility and ease a top priority which I used as an excuse for my lack of pro-environmental behaviours for many years. I didn't want to bring a coffee cup with me because it would be heavy and I already have to bring so much in my bag. I didn't want to bring my stainless steel straws because I didn't want to wash them. Eventually I learned that although that was a legitimate excuse when I first got sick, I was now using it as a lazy justification.
How could I justify harming the planet that gives my lungs oxygen and my cells nutrients while pretending it was in the name of health?
I then learned that putting a cloth bag and a stainless steel straw in my purse was an incredibly simple task. I also learned that, just as Adler theorized, an important component in the treatment of depression is altruism. I got stuck in my own survival mode and truly didn't think of anyone else but myself. It's hard to care about the far-sighted things of this world when your own world is crashing down around you this very moment. But once the dust settled, I knew I had to do something.
Recently I took an environmental psychology class that reignited my passion for environmentalism and honestly, focusing on something else besides my own health issues has been life-giving. Reigniting an old passion of mine has helped me feel more like myself again (mentally). It also seemed like a natural part of my health journey: afterall, its often said that the way we treat the world is directly linked to how we treat each other and ourselves. Taking care of our planet isn't just a "good thing to do" (in fact, participating in pro-environmental behaviours out of guilt is actually counterproductive), it's an act of stewardship of our planet, an act of self-love, and necessary when we're fighting for our physical health with a chronic illness.
Protecting our earth and its resources is a way of protecting our health and access to important medical treatments.
So what can we do about it?
1. Avoid single-use plastic items. No, I don't mean your insulin needles or any other necessary sanitized form of single-use plastic items, I mean your plastic grocery bags, straws, and cups. At first, I thought it would be a hassle to bring a reusable bag and cup with me wherever I went, I thought I wouldn't have the physical strength to carry those around with me along with everything else I need to keep on me at all times. However, I found it incredibly simple, even more convenient one I adjusted to it, and intrinsically rewarding.
2. Recycle and compost. A great (horrifying) documentary to watch on the topic is "Trashed."
3. Go outside more. Studies have shown that just being in nature increases biospheric values, subjective well-being, and optimism. In addition, Earthing: the practice of being barefoot outside on dirt, grass, or sand, has health benefits observed by physicists. I honestly used to think that this was a bunch of BS but research by Dr. Sinatra, Dr. Oschman, Dr. Perricone, Dr. Gittleman, and Dr. Schwartz have proven me wrong. I now have an earthing machine and try to practice earthing outside when possible. I recommend this book to learn more.
4. Eat less animal products. A vegan creates approximately 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th of the amount of oil, 1/13th of the amount of water, and 1/8th of the amount of land compared to the average meat-eater. Furthermore, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all global transportation combined (Cowspiracy, 2014). Livestock is also responsible for 65% of all human-caused emissions of nitrous oxide, which is especially dangerous because nitrous oxide has 296x the harm of carbon dioxide (Rome, 2006). It also takes 1,000 galloons of water to produce just one gallon of milk (Cowspiracy, 2014). Dairy cows also produce 120lbs of waste each day, which is outrageous considering there are more than 9.32 million dairy cows in the U.S. alone (Cowspiracy, 2004). Cowspiracy is a documentary on Netflix that I highly recommend, but you can also do your own research into the original sources mentioned in the documentary here.
5. If you are a Christian, think of it as stewardship. God has such a heart for nature. Look at the tiny skeletons of every leaf, and the petals of every flower and you can see God's creative hand. Being in nature often teachers me about God's character and wonder. In the Bible, God uses nature metaphors constantly to reveal His heart and will for us. Being in nature, away from everything man-made, allows me to be in solitude with only God's creation: myself and the earth. In these moments of solitude I often really connect with God and its in these moments that He reminds me how small my problems are in the grand scheme of things. God created nature the way He created us and He has entrusted us with the stewardship of the land and every other blessing He has given us.
6. Avoid plastic all together (when possible). Read: WHO launches health review after microplastics found in 90% of bottled water.
7. Think of environmentalism as an opportunity instead of a moral obligation. Investing in the environment is a way to invest in your health and the future health of the generations to come. Focusing on environmentalism is also an opportunity to ground your identity and life into something outside of yourself and to find purpose in the tiny thins you can do in your daily life with a chronic illness. An environmental mindset and identity help us live with intentionality which brings about a greater sense of purpose.
8. Buy less. I realized that when I had an especially hard week I would often purchase something for myself. Through my other psychology class this semester, I realized that not only does money not equal happiness, consumerism values are actually related to a decrease level of happiness. There's nothing wrong with buying something for yourself every now and then, but I think if we search for happiness in these things we will find ourselves unfulfilled. These purchases serve as nothing more than a distraction from the real issues we're attempting to avoid, and therefore never fully addressing and healing. As is true with most environmental issues, and their pro-environmental behavioural solutions, buying less (if done strategically, intrinsically, and intentionally) can actually increase happiness (thrift is associated with increases in happiness) and help the environment: thus reinforcing the idea that helping the environment also helps us.
9. Make simple swaps. Avoiding Gatorade and Powerade won't only save you money and decrease the amount of plastic molecules that end up in your blood stream, it'll help the environment. Simple swaps like Nuun Hydration, Dr. Pierce's Electrolyte mix, and more, provide a sugar-free (therefore healthier) alternative that is less harmful on the environment. It's also a lot more convenient to carry around a tiny tube of Nuun tablets than the equivalent 12 Gatorade bottles.
10. Make your own beauty and household products. This seems like it would take up a lot of spoons but you can find DIY substitutes that require 2 or 3 ingredients for most of the products you can easily replace in your home. This will save you money, put less toxins in your blood stream, and ensure you're consuming less. The goal, afterall, isn't to recycle more but to recycle less because we're consuming less plastic.
"In 2005, the Environmental Working Group published a combination of two studies that found toxic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies born in the U.S. in the fall of 2004. They screened for more than 400 chemicals, and an astounding 287 toxins were detected within the umbilical cord blood of these newborns. Of these 287 chemicals, 217 were neurotoxins, and 208 are known to damage growth development or cause birth defects. These toxins included mercury, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polybrominated and polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and furans (PBCD/F and PBDD/F), perflorinated chemicals (PFCs), organochlorine pesticides like DDT and chlordane, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated napthalenes (PCNs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and many others." -Huffington Post summary. Original source: Environmental Working Group.
To me, environmentalism has been a way for me to fight for justice in a way that I can personally detach from when I go to sleep at night. Fighting for awareness for my health conditions is something I can never detach from and can therefore become mentally draining. Environmentalism has also been a way for me to identify with something good, an opportunity to focus on the little things I can do to improve the world, and another way to focus on my physical, mental, and spiritual health.
How do you reduce your carbon footprint? I'd love to hear from you in the comment section below!