Environmentalism has had a strong commitment to human health and well-being, at home and in the workplace. But what health means, and how to attain health and among whom, are debates that resonate with key EcoTypes ideas. Below you’ll find an overview suggesting theme relevance, sample related axes, and an opportunity to take sides on this topic.
Human health is a major area of concern and interest in environmental scholarship. Traditionally, environmental health has been a branch of public health, with a strong emphasis on workplace and public exposures, including foundational legislation such as the U.S. Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the human health dimensions of environmental issues now extend to personal as well as public sectors, with emphasis not only on exposure to environmental toxics and pollutants, but promotion of full and healthy human lives; in short, environmental health is central to how many people practice their environmental values. Environmental health is also a recognized global concern, with focused World Health Organization and United Nations Environment Programme initiatives.
Health concerns relate to the three EcoTypes themes in important ways. Health matters to many people as they consider the Place theme question “What world do we want?”; for them, a healthy world—for oneself, one’s family and loved ones, indeed all humanity—is central to the kind of world they want. More deeply, however, this theme addresses the place of nonhumans vs. humans in the world, with differing ways to resolve the tension between the nonhuman and human poles. It is possible that human health could be understood as grounded fundamentally in the nonhuman pole, where wild Aesthetics, biocentric Ethics, and pure Nature support healthy ecosystems that promote healthy human lives. But more commonly, health concerns are grounded in the human pole of Place, where emphasis on a more crafted, anthropocentric, and hybrid relationship with the nonhuman world—e.g., as mediated via advances in health technology—maintains the priority on human well-being.
The EcoTypes Knowledge theme is significant in the context of health as well. The central Knowledge question, “What old vs. new ways of knowing will help us build the world we want?,” gets at an important tension in how many people understand health and well-being, and what sources of authoritative health information they trust. Advances in medical research—for instance, in monitoring the health effects of trace pollutants on vulnerable populations, or in treating the chronic effects of toxic pollutants—are seen as lifesavers by many people who depend on them, thus leaning toward the new pole of the Knowledge theme. Likewise, research continues to refine definitions of safe levels of exposure to toxic substances, sometimes leading to more stringent laws. These instances of new Knowledge, however, could be offset by trust in ancient wisdom, certain forms of alternative Science, and a general fear of Technology as fundamentally opposed to healthy lifestyles—all examples of old Knowledge. This tension between old and new Knowledge, while not fully evidenced in the scholarly literature, is nonetheless present among many people who reflect on their own environmental health.
Finally, the Action theme could be pertinent in the context of health policy: should we promote better environmental health for all via big Action such as legislation, or is this inefficient given the many health choices people make in their own lives—or possibly does it even constitute an invasion of privacy? The latter preferences would favor small Action, including incremental Change, emphasis on the individual Social Scale, and other contributing elements of the small Action pole. Indeed, the overriding emphasis on health in advanced industrial countries as lifestyle choice suggests that, in addition to big Action priorities such as adequate laws and enforcement concerning toxics exposure, the small Action pole remains relevant as people navigate health in their personal lives.
Overall, then, there is a leaning toward human Place and (to some extent) new Knowledge as people discuss environmental health, but the Knowledge and Action themes are quite mixed, given the complexities of health-related information and how to act on this information. Debates over health, however, may indeed boil down in part to differences over these fundamental EcoTypes themes.
Different takes on environmental topics may reflect differing takes on more fundamental environmental ideas. Below are a few of the EcoTypes axes related to this topic; these and other axes contribute to the larger theme-based patterns summarized above.
The EcoTypes Diversity axis raises the important question, “Whose health?” Better environmental health conditions have often been associated with richer, whiter neighborhoods, communities, and regions—a fundamentally unjust reality. Yet improvements in these disparities over the last few decades—in part via the environmental justice movement—may lead some to prioritize diversity differently at present.
The EcoTypes Domain axis, one of the more difficult axes for many to understand, has clear expression in the context of health. Historically, movements such as faith healing and mind-body medicine have placed priority not on medical treatment but prayer, meditation, and right-mindedness…all resonant with the ideal Domain pole. Yet the material Domain pole is strongly evident in standard medical practice, which primarily treats environmental health as a physical phenomenon.
The EcoTypes Science axis is central to environmental health, with the mainstream pole embodying standard medical practice —say, in the realm of epidemiology—and the alternative pole embodying a range of practices not altogether endorsed by mainstream science but embraced by many people. The Science axis may indeed be one of the biggest areas of popular debate around health!
Similar to the Domain axis above, the Spirituality EcoTypes axis considers the metaphysics of environmental health and wellness. On the sacred pole of Spirituality you will find advocates of, for instance, energy medicine or a variety of health-oriented nature spiritualities; on the secular pole one sees a greater prioritization on biomedical science, and possibly even a rejection of certain spiritual approaches as quackery.
Take sides on this topic! It’s best if you are randomly assigned to a side, or pick a side you disagree with, as the point here is to try on a different approach than you may have, and to consider how differing takes on EcoTypes axes and themes may result in differing positions on environmental topics.
Following this tab are three positions—by no means comprehensive, but this gets us beyond the back-and-forth of a pro/con two-position debate. The first position is the default one, in some ways supporting what those interested in environmental issues have learned as the best way to approach this topic. Then there are two more positions that challenge this default position and/or each other. In each case you’ll find some details to get you started, and guidance on how each position may relate to EcoTypes axes and themes (do review the general material above, and feel free to explore other connections not noted here). The last tab lists all publications cited in the position summaries.
You could approach these three positions as a traditional debate, with each side attempting to win. Or, you could approach these three positions as starting points for environmental engagement around their creative tensions, hopefully to get to deeper, more meaningful, possibly complementary disagreement.
Have fun! Remember to fully try on your position, whether or not you personally agree with it. It is easy to say “Each has a point,” and indeed each position presented here is worth serious consideration. But as you’ll discover there are important differences, and you have the opportunity and responsibility to make up your own mind in light of these differences.