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.
Position One: The Natural Way is the Healthy Way
The default position is one that has gone far back in ecological thought, summarized by one historian as “Arcadian ecology” (Worster 1994). In this approach, humans thrive by aligning themselves with natural processes and rhythms—by some sort of harmony with, vs. mastery over, nature. Just Google “natural health” and you will see a huge selection of results (almost 2 billion!) extolling natural living as healthy living. This position resonates with the nonhuman pole of the Place theme, as much a general stance on what kind of world we want and the place of humans and nonhumans in it (the central Place theme questions) than a restricted biomedical position on health.
Defending this position could invoke these many popular approaches to natural health suggested above, but you will also need to search for justification in literature. One option could be studies of complementary and alternative medicine—much based on natural health principles—which generally suggest some efficacy and strong consumer demand (e.g., Tabi et al. 2006; Ovadje et al. 2015; Montross-Thomas et al. 2017; Salamonsen and Ahlzén 2018; Scarton et al. 2018). The literature also, however, points to challenges in this approach, such as delays in patients receiving conventional care for serious diseases given overreliance on natural medicine (Lahiri et al. 2017; Mohd Mujar et al. 2017), or even contamination by toxic substances (Genuis et al. 2012).
This position admittedly has one major weakness: what is “natural”? It is hard enough to define health—one person’s path to wellness may be another’s vice—but to suggest that natural living is the key to health begs this question. (Is it, for instance, natural for humans to wear clothing to keep warm?) Those defending the default position may want to avoid getting into details about what “natural” is or isn’t, and instead invoke the long history of nature spirituality (e.g., Albanese 1991; Taylor 2010), popular among many people, that generally supports natural living as healthy living. Or, it is much easier to suggest that certain “unnatural” things like exposure to anthropogenic radiation or toxic amounts of mercury are unhealthy.
Ultimately, natural medicine is a thriving field (e.g., Pizzorno 2013), whether justified or not (and the correct answer is probably a bit of both); your opportunity in defending this position is to lean into this groundswell of perennial support, complemented by whatever specific evidence you can muster.
Position Two: Health Comes From Modern Medicine, Not Green Superstition
The second position is a repudiation of the first one, significant not only in the context of human health but in the larger context of EcoTypes axes including Nature, Science, Spirituality, Technology, and others, where these two positions are in many ways polar opposites. The position stems most broadly from literature promoting science and rationality as authoritative guides in human affairs (e.g., Weinberg 2001; Pinker 2018); to its advocates, nebulous claims regarding “natural health” would be akin to others that amount to little more than superstition.
This argument has taken on anti-environmentalists for their supposed irrationality (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1998), but the more pertinent application for our purposes are critiques of environmentalists by other environmentalists, alleging irrationality and refusal to listen to mainstream Science (e.g., Lewis 1994; Pearce 2012), or critical appraisals of New Age medicine for its grounding in alternative Science (Albanese 1993; Hess 1993), or demonstrations that popular views on key policy issues are sometimes at odds with views of scientists (Pew Research 2015). A strongly worded version of this argument is evident in the Wikipedia article on alternative medicine, which even in defining the term states “Alternative medicine, fringe medicine, pseudomedicine or simply questionable medicine is the use and promotion of practices which are unproven, disproven, impossible to prove, or excessively harmful in relation to their effect.”
Similar to the first position, there will likely be literature that either defends or opposes this position in the specific context of environmental health—there is evidence on all sides! It may be more fruitful to defend the more general stances this position takes, such as endorsement of the mainstream (vs. alternative) Science and secular (vs. sacred) Spirituality poles. It may be helpful (though more complicated than some references above suggest) to demonstrate that natural healing is fundamentally irrational and does not build on scientific research: here, too, detailed literature could possibly justify, or fail to justify, this argument.
In the context of EcoTypes themes, this second position would be an endorsement of new Knowledge in particular; perhaps this is its most powerful card, in conjunction with evidence around recent medical advances. You may, then, want to review the Knowledge theme and contributing axes.
To be sure, this is a strongly worded position, given its challenge of “green superstition”; do your best to defend this (non-inclusive) approach!
Position Three: Only Environmental Justice Will Bring Health For All
The third position offers a different take on environmental health from the first (advocating natural health) and second (advocating modern medicine); rather than focus on how environmental health is best promoted, it focuses on who are the recipients of improved health. The third position maintains that the whole debate over nonhuman vs. human Place, or old vs. new Knowledge (essentially the first vs. second positions on health), misses a more significant need for equity in environmental health, i.e., that the benefits be arrayed fairly among different people.
Equity comes out most strongly in two EcoTypes axes: Diversity (with less vs. more emphasis on diversifying environmental participation) and Society (with consensus vs. conflict versions, the latter supporting attention toward power and justice). In terms of themes, conflict Society is associated with big Action (the Diversity axis is new, but also appears to be correlated with the Action theme), so this may a strong way to present the third position, i.e., by arguing for the more radical, structural action that must occur if we indeed need to achieve better health for all—and possibly against the utopian leanings toward pure Nature or mainstream Science in the first two positions (Pepper 2005).
This position will, of course, be bolstered by standard arguments in environmental justice, which are also summarized in the Diversity axis (e.g., Gottlieb 2005; Pellow 2007; Bullard et al. 2008). But it must argue that a focus on natural health or modern medicine are insufficient, as neither necessarily achieves more equitable levels of health among poor and nonwhite populations. The prevalence of environmental health challenges among these populations, who often live in proximity to toxic sites, was the founding call of the environmental justice movement (e.g., Bullard 1990), yet some more recent extensions have offered context and critique to this wholesale charge (Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2007; Foreman 2000, 2011, 2013; Walker 2009; 2012). You should be aware of some of these critiques so that your presentation of environmental justice is fully up to date.
In addition to standard environmental justice arguments, this position may be bolstered by noting the political ecology of related global health inequities, for instance of the tobacco industry (Benson 2011), Third World indoor air pollution (Bruce, Perez-Padilla, and Albalak 2000), Dengue fever (Nading 2014), or, indeed, global hunger (Yates-Doerr 2015). For additional related resources, make sure to browse the World Health Organization and United Nations Environment Programme initiatives provided in the summary above. These cases expand traditional environmental justice to remind us that power differences among people in a variety of global contexts may be key drivers of environmental health injustices, though often in complex and surprising ways.
As noted in the comprehensive bibliography here, all EcoTypes references are stored in a group Zotero library. Those below are the ones cited on this page.