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Where Sustainability Meets Public Health

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Daphne Stanford

It may sometimes feel as if private citizens are relatively powerless in the face of wide-scale pollution and drastic global climate change.  However, we should remember that, in addition to the triple bottom line that companies can and should adhere to, individuals can also follow a simple set of principles and sustainability guidelines to benefit the planet.  

In addition to the planet, we should be comforted by the fact that sustainability also benefits the least powerful among us: the poor, young and disenfranchised.  Simple actions such as supporting community gardens and public transportation or alternative commuting options like walking or bicycling can help address not only air quality but also food deserts, cardiovascular health statistics, and nutritional education.  

It’s as simple as remembering there’s a human side to sustainability: That is, in addition to rising water levels, flooding, unseasonably high temperatures and storms and their impact on ecosystems, people are also being affected. This demonstrates how sustainability is not only an environmental issue but a social justice issue, as well.

Public health and sustainability


If this focus on sustainability and prevention strikes you as different from past understandings of public health concerns, this is because many public health concerns historically focused on infectious epidemics — many of which have come under control as the result of immunization standards.  It is only more recently that climate change has created new public health concerns.  Among the many climate-related threats are heat waves, extreme weather events, reduced air quality and climate-sensitive diseases.

A recent article in the journal Nature points out the importance of recognizing the various overlapping, related priorities. The authors positioned a report on the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development as representing “a new coherent way of thinking about how issues as diverse as poverty, education and climate change fit together.”  They point out that countries can’t ignore overlaps by attempting to address targets individually.

Linda Fried, a Columbia University professor of public health, also recently addressed the climate change connection, using the Zika virus as one example of a climate-related illness. She argues that more awareness must be created, along with a way to integrate climate science into health decision-making.

Personal sustainability measures

On a personal level, we can take steps to make sure our living space is as energy-efficient as possible. Little things such as conducting a home energy audit, checking windows and doors for heat loss, insulating and weatherstripping our homes, and only using energy-efficient light sources can all help reduce unnecessary fossil fuel use.  The Environmental Protection Agency also offers a more comprehensive guide, if you’re interested in more ways to live sustainably and help minimize greenhouse gas emissions.  

We can also encourage our friends, family, and community members to walk or bike to work, school, errands, or social functions as often as possible — not only for the sake for the environment, but also for the sake of our health and well-being. It’s important for young people to develop healthy habits early, so the more we can make daily exercise into a way to socialize, the better.  If exercise becomes an everyday habit—as opposed to part of a temporary fitness plan to lose weight, for example—it stands a better chance of altering people’s lifestyles for the better.  

According to the University of Nevada at Reno, in addition to poor eating habits, today’s children also have poor exercise habits: “Only 50 percent of boys between the ages of six and 11 got the advised 60 minutes of daily physical activity, while just over one third of girls in this age group did.  This rate continued to decline with age.”  By encouraging healthy behavior in young ones and incorporating exercise into fun, family activities—such as bicycling downtown to lunch or the movies, on the weekend—you’ll be helping to improve not only bodily health, but also air quality and environmental health.  

Climate change is most certainly a public health issue, but it is up to all of us to connect the dots and help facilitate change on a tangible societal scale, rather than merely a political policy scale.  Share one piece of information or action you could share with your own community in the comments section, below!

Image credi: Flickr/PermaCultured

Daphne Stanford writes poetry & nonfiction, and she believes in the power of art, education, and community radio to change the world.  Since 2012, she’s been the host of “The Poetry Show!” Sundays at 5 p.m. on Radio Boise.  Follow her on Twitter @TPS_on_KRBX.

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