Health and environment
Health and environment

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Health and environment

7 Some philosophical issues

In this course we have considered global issues that have implications for our health and the health of future generations. This places our own lives in a different context and also indicates the uncertainties that surround the future. Whilst some environmental changes have very direct health consequences, we should not forget the indirect benefits that accrue from a healthy planet. The principle that ‘we should hand on to the next generation an environment no less rich than the one we ourselves have inherited’, echoes the stewardship philosophy that first emerged in Britain amongst intellectuals such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the ballad, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Coleridge develops the theme of the horrible consequences for one individual (the mariner) of wantonly killing an albatross. Through this act he brings about the death of fellow sailors. From other writings it is clear that Coleridge deplored cruelty and believed that the lives of all living things should be respected or there would be dire consequences for humanity. This view contrasted with the contemporary view (of the Western world) that humans were apart from the rest of the natural world and had the right to control and use it as they wished. Coleridge's perspective was further developed in the 19th century and might be seen as the predecessor of today's conservation movement.

The extent to which the richness and beauty of the natural world affects our health and well-being has been widely debated. The debate often centres around the negative effects of environments such as inner cities that are far removed from ‘wild Nature’. It is interesting to note that writings from the 17th century and earlier use words such as ‘dangerous’, ‘hideous’, ‘ghastly’ and ‘terrible’ to describe the very places in England (for example, the Pennines and the Lake District) that are now sought out for rest and relaxation. You might have ideas to explain the diametrically opposed opinions of different eras about the character of the English countryside.

If it is felt that more direct contact with nature is therapeutic, some questions of accessibility are raised. In crowded industrial countries, the countryside is largely land that is owned by individuals who use it to generate a living (e.g. through agriculture and forestry), and public access is limited. Land that is publicly owned needs to be maintained (repairs to footpaths, provision of car parks), and this incurs costs that may be passed on to the user. It can also be expensive and time-consuming to reach these places. For much of the population, this may restrict access.

The course also emphasized that the extent to which health is realized depends on how far individuals and groups are able to ‘change or cope with the environment’, but there was little reference to the natural environment. Parks and open spaces are found in lists of desirable features of environments that might promote health, but nothing beyond that. However, in this course we have identified some effects on health that arise from our interactions with the natural world. Furthermore, we have noted that these effects range from its amenity value to questions about its ability to support all the Earth's current population, or indeed any future populations. Many of the issues raised here are those where the ability of individuals to alter the behaviour of industry or society appears negligible. However, this may be deceptive, for we have seen a dramatic rise in the influence of grass roots organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. One of the benefits of modern communications technology is the way it enables individuals to join together as groups to influence those in power.

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