An Environmental Medical Model

In the previous post we explored the idea of the human body being analogous with the Earth, and that illness could be used as a metaphor for the current environmental crises we face. Now we develop this idea in greater depth. We compare the different medical models (allopathic, naturopathic and integrative), discuss how each of these models might be applied to the successful management of the environment, and propose a new medical model for environmental health We explore how environmental damage, depletion of natural resources, and loss of biodiversity may impact our health and ultimately, our survival on this Earth.

This is neither a criticism nor an endorsement of one medical model over another. It’s an exploration (albeit a very simplistic one) of the different ways each model approaches the treatment and management of health issues, and the potential application of each model in an environmental management context.

The allopathic medical model

The ‘mainstream’ or ‘conventional’ model of Western medicine emphasizes a reductionist approach to science and medicine, works on the level of the physical body and focuses on the objective basis of disease. This model is concerned with the cure, not the cause of disease, and the elimination of symptoms with surgery and pharmaceutical intervention. This model is evidence-based and backed by extensive clinical research. It is vital in the management of acute health issues, but it may not be as effective in the management of chronic disease. It is considered invasive, but critical in emergency situations.

The naturopathic medical model

The ‘alternative’ or ‘holistic’ model is underpinned by six fundamental principles:

  • the body heals itself under the right conditions (nutrition, rest, exercise, clean air, fresh water)
  • do no harm – using methods to support the body’s self-healing mechanisms and avoiding suppression of symptoms
  • identify and treat the underlying cause of a disease
  • treat and heal the whole person
  • the practitioner facilitates the healing process, but the patient must take responsibility for their health
  • prevention is best – the patient must develop habits that promote and restore health

This approach incorporates less invasive therapies based on ancient Eastern modalities.

The integrative medical model

This model takes a broader approach and seeks to combine treatment protocols from both conventional (allopathic) and alternative (naturopathic) medical models. All factors influencing our health are considered, including physical, psychological, emotional, social, spiritual and environmental. These factors create a unique picture of our state of health and should be managed holistically. Therapies and protocols used in treatment must be safe, effective, less invasive, supported by critical research and evidence, and may be drawn from both Western medicine and the medicine of other cultures. This approach stresses the importance of the relationship between practitioner and patient.

A medical model for environmental health

Many environmental problems are currently managed from the perspective of the Western, reductionist scientific paradigm. We tend to respond to problems after they occur, instead of creating the ideal conditions for environmental health. But environmental damage doesn’t occur in isolation. The impact of our actions is sometimes immediately apparent, but issues of scale (in time and space) often come into play. If an impact is not seen straight away, it’s assumed there has been no effect. But often the impact only becomes evident sometime in the future, occurring far from its original source.

I believe in preventative medicine, maintaining a strong immune system and an optimum state of health, so I’m less likely to get sick. Instead of trying to find solutions (cures) for environmental problems, why not prevent those problems from occurring in the first place (causes)? Can an integrative medical model be successfully applied to environmental health, where indigenous wisdom informs modern scientific theory? The ancient cultures of the Earth have a lot to teach us (and vice versa). Indigenous communities have lived sustainably with their environments for thousands of years, yet our modern industrial society is unsustainable over the long-term.

Climate change is an example of how different medical models may be applied in environmental management. Again, this is a very simplistic analysis, as the issues and challenges underlying climate change are extremely complex. The argument is whether our approach should be one of mitigation or of adaptation.

Do we manage the impacts of climate change after they have occurred (adaptation) or should we prevent the worst effects of climate change from occurring (mitigation)? Scientists argue that our response must utilize both strategies, as the required approach is not an ‘either-or’ one.

Mitigation involves eliminating or reducing the impacts of climate change predominantly via emissions reductions (the cause), whereas adaptation involves implementing various strategies to prepare for and cope with the consequences of climate change (the cure).

For example, chemical fertilizers used in industrial agriculture damage the marine environment. A major threat to the Great Barrier Reef, Acanthaster planci (Crown-of-Thorns Starfish), thrives in waters polluted by chemical fertilizers. A 2012 A.I.M.S. study found a 50% decline in initial coral cover (from 28% to 14%) in the GBR since the 1980’s. 42% of this loss is attributed to recurrent infestations of A. planci.

Instead of pouring millions of dollars into eradicating A. planci (the cure), shouldn’t we be eliminating or reducing the amount of chemical fertilizers entering the oceans (the cause), by stopping the use of fertilizers at their source?

Projected models by A.I.M.S. researchers showed the GBR has a substantial capacity for recovery if populations of A. planci are reduced. Without intervention, coral cover is predicted to fall to 5–10% within the next decade. They suggest strategies around global warming and ocean acidification must be applied (mitigation) if the GBR is to survive, however these are unlikely to occur in the short-term. Direct action (adaptation) must occur to reduce populations of A. planci and avoid further coral loss.

Environmental crisis as medical metaphor

In Taking care of the earth body: Using the metaphor of illness to approach environmental issues, Sandy Penn believes environmental events are symptoms of the Earth in a health crisis. She uses some excellent examples to illustrate how different medical models may be applied to environmental problems. Hurricanes and floods are sudden (acute) incidents requiring immediate emergency response, while gradual incidents such as melting glaciers and declines in fish populations are chronic ailments. Chronic events may benefit from preventative measures like reducing risk factors (ending destructive fishing practices) and lifestyle modification (reducing our fish intake).

Environmental damage, resource depletion and biodiversity loss

According to Michael Mann and Dr. Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University, climate change adaptation strategies are usually only spoken about in the context of potential impact of climate change on humans, not on the environment. Marine ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change, and ecosystem services (including fish as a source of protein) will likely be affected. Climate change has been linked to overfishing, when fish stocks are exploited beyond the point where they can be sustainably managed (there is evidence this is already happening with certain stocks).

When confronted with an environmental problem we have created, instead of changing our behaviour and correcting the problem at its source, we try to find a solution that not only enables us to continue the behaviour that created the problem, but the solution is often worse than the original problem. For example, instead of ending destructive bottom trawling that harvests shrimp (and everything else!) from the ocean floor, we farm shrimp using unsustainable aquaculture practices that destroy mangrove forests and the economies of local communities. Hey, it doesn’t matter if we trash the Earth, we can always move to Mars.

In Nature and The Human Soul, Bill Plotkin says: “When we take an honest look at the people in charge of the governments, corporations, schools, and religious organizations of industrial growth societies, we find that too many are psychological adolescents with no deep understanding of themselves or the natural environment that makes their lives possible.” I would argue it’s not just those in positions of power who lack this deep understanding. Many of us live in ignorance or denial that the Earth provides the resources for the lifestyles we take for granted; the lifestyles we assume we will always have.

We need to move away from a reductionist model towards a holistic model of environmental management. There will always be environmental crises that require our immediate response, but many of the challenges we face are due to our unsustainable lifestyles. A change in attitude and behaviour is desperately needed.

© 2015 Environmental Warrior
Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash

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