Putting a Human Face on Environmental Issues
Guest Blog by Kate Davies
With Earth Day fast approaching, it’s a good time to think about what the environmental movement has achieved over the past year. Although there’s some good news, such as the massive rally against climate disruption held in February and Beyond Coal’s success in retiring almost 150 coal fired power plants, most of it is bad. Despite the movement’s best efforts, it has failed to win federal legislation on its top priority – climate disruption, there’s broad support for the Keystone XL pipeline, the boom in fracking continues largely unabated, and Americans are getting more complacent about the environment by the day.
So what’s the environmental movement to do?
A few activists may have an answer – re-frame the issues in terms human health and well-being. Instead of talking about rising temperatures, pollution or wildlife conservation in the abstract, focus on what it means for human health.
Just consider the facts:
- According to the World Health Organization nearly one-quarter of all human illness is due to poor environmental quality. Tragically, the proportion is even higher for children – about one-third.
- Over 180 diseases and disabilities have been linked with environmental toxicants, including asthma, many different types of cancer, heart disease, birth defects, reproductive problems and developmental & learning disabilities.
- Globally, climate disruption already kills more than 300,000 people a year and seriously affects 325 million.
- Almost half of the U.S. population lives in a county that exceeds one or more of the national air quality standards, one in four Americans live within four miles of a Superfund site and about 49 million drink water with illegal concentrations of chemicals, radioactive substances or bacteria.
Even from this quick overview, it’s clear that emphasizing human health makes a lot of sense.
Ever since 1978, when Lois Gibbs organized her neighbors to protest the health effects of toxic wastes leaking from an abandoned dumpsite in Love Canal, New York, environmental health activists have put a human face on the issues.
There are now environmental health groups in every state and city in the U.S., as well as a vibrant international movement. One worldwide social networking website for sustainability lists about 10,000 environmental health organizations and people. And the U.S.-based Collaborative on Health and the Environment has almost 4,500 members in nearly 80 countries and all 50 states.
Unlike most environmentalists, who focus on protecting the natural world, the environmental health movement shines a spotlight on human health and well-being.
So has this strategy worked? You be the judge.
Deliberately avoiding Congressional gridlock and working mostly at the state and local levels, environmental health activists have organized countless communities to protest hazardous facilities and draw attention to local problems. These tactics have resulted in numerous legislative victories. Over 900 toxics policies were proposed or enacted in the U.S. between 1990 and 2009, and between 2003 and 2011, 18 states passed 71 chemical safety laws.
At the same time, environmental health activists have reached out to the victims of environmentally-related diseases and their caregivers across the entire country. By gaining support from breast cancer survivors, the parents of children with learning and developmental disabilities and other health-affected groups, they are showing that it doesn’t matter where you live. Everyone is at risk.
Although the environmental health movement is only a small part of the larger environmental movement, its strategy is starting to get attention. Beyond Coal is highlighting the health benefits of closing coal fired power plants and a few climate disruption activists are beginning to talk about health. Although scientific facts and figures will always be important, humanizing environmental issues touches people at a deeply personal level that can inspire them to act.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Just think about what’s more compelling to you. Hearing the story of a breast cancer survivor talk about she copes with the disease or listening to a paid lobbyist pontificate about the results of the latest risk assessment?
Although environmental policy should always be informed by science, it’s time for the environmental movement to put a human face on its issues.
Kate Davies, MA, DPhil, is the author of a new book called The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement. She is core faculty in the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle and clinical associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. She has been active on environmental health for 35 years in the U.S., Canada and other countries.
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