Clean Living – Link between Health and Sustainability

by Terence Jeyaretnam

Some of the earliest environmental laws were decreed as a consequence of ill health effects resulting from pollution, specifically those resulting from air quality and water quality impacts from a combination of industrialization and population growth. Public health impacts formed the corner-stone of early environmentalism, from Benjamin Franklin leading a group of Philadelphians in 1739 to petition the government to stop tannery factories from dumping into a tributary of the Delaware River to Rachel Carson’s portrayal for DDT’s impacts on biological systems through biomagnification. Environmental protection was intended to add value to the community by improving living conditions.

Today, environmentalism is seen as something quite different. It is widely believed that environmental protection is a cost imposed on society for protecting flora, fauna and the ecosystems. Somewhere along history, the environment has gone from being the community’s ally to an “issue that needs to be managed”, within the boundaries of trade-offs. The link, I believe, was severed when nature and humankind were separated through industrialization. We no longer associate pollution in a creek with our own health, as water now comes from a tap after going through purification processes which we don’t see, but have come to accept as adequate, thanks to the ingenuity of engineering. However, the need to articulate the clear link between health and sustainability has never been more important. The Australian Climate Commission notes that climate change is harming our health in Australia and poses a significant threat, yet some people do not make the connection.

Politicians and community leaders now need to rebuild the inextricable link between health and sustainability to garner community support to one of humanity’s most significant challenges. There are two key links. One is the link between environmental sustainability and public health discussed above, which is about focusing on the environment for public health outcomes. The second is more forward-looking, but untapped, which is about focusing on lifestyle health burdens for environmental and social sustainability outcomes.

The increasing health burden in developed countries is as an outcome of the lifestyles in these countries, primarily consisting of calories rich food and calorie shaving lifestyles. Australians spend over $110 billion on health each year, a figure that continues to climb. A focus on reducing manufactured food in diets combined with increasing levels of activity in day to day life and work will not only have positive health impacts, but also significant positive environmental and social impacts through reduced energy use in people’s lives.

The key is to conceive policy that brings about a return to community-based, active lifestyles that are built on the foundation of fresh, local food. This may include policies that encourage cycling, walking and public transport instead of motor vehicles; those that incorporate environmental and social cost into food and beverage (such as taxes on sugar, salt and manufactured food); and approaches that build risk profiles into health insurance that take into account preventative activities, diet and active/non-active lifestyles. Professionals working in related sectors such as local government, utilities, transport and health have a significant role to play in advocating and working on solutions for cleaner living or be in danger of being accused of inadvertently contributing to the causes instead.

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (terence@netbalance.com), 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne.