Public health…what is it good for?

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Before we begin our journey, and before you read below, I want us to close our eyes and think of what public health means to us. What would your definition be? For what end? For whom? By whom? What is “health”, “healthy”?
What did you come up with? Did anyone expressly think of improving the health of sand flies in California ? Of the dead zone in the Gulf? Of desertification in the Sahel
The mouthful, but often heralded, WHO definition of public health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” However, it is implicitly accepted that this is anthropocentric. Do we all agree that this is ideal? Humans are animals. Evolution is not over. We are not the end of “progress”, yet we act as if we are the terminus. We tacitly accept and believe that improving the health of humans is the focus of even global public health; interpreting the global as wherever humans are. 
Now, to state my conflicts of interest outright, I believe that the environment has intrinsic value. If you ask me: “what good is it to save sand flies”, I would reply with what good are you? Humans seem to think that we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of our utility: that we have intrinsic value. Even other humans which we might deem to have negative societal impact deserve these universal human rights. Perhaps this is why we are all in the field of public health, but, what I want to ask is…why are we so special? We need to move towards a treatise of universal natural or biotic rights. 

A nice sentiment, but is it lacking in scope?

Interestingly enough, it seems to becoming more and more clear that a biocentric worldview does in fact improve the health (life) and happiness of individuals more than an approach focused solely on humans. Our society and science imply that the solutions to current environmental problems are not a strong paradigm shift of human behaviors, but only more (attempted) mastery of the Earth and Earth processes. We will solve global warming by pumping C02 into the ground (á la Jeffrey Sachs). I don’t think there could be a more anthropocentric, arrogant-in-the-possibility-of-science-solving-our-problems-without-us-having-to-change-our-ways “solution” to our behavior caused problem. It will all come around in the end as we realize that our anthropocentric (“unnatural”, [“artificial flavoring”]) way of interacting with the earth leads to unhappiness (depression, phobias), early death (cancers), and the weakening of the rivets in our global ecosystem. We won’t be around to see the distal effects, but the proximal results are already in print, we just don’t know how to read them since we systematically eradicate thinking truly (creatively) outside the box. Let us be truly humble humans, realizing that even if we surround ourselves with concrete we are inextricably linked to nature, and with the precautionary principle winning the day. 

I need your help though. What is the answer? If I wish to live in American society I must be ready to sacrifice some of my ideals. How much do we sacrifice? How do we decide what to sacrifice and what to fight? I want to never own a car. People say “good luck”. 
How do we change the paradigm? How do we get there from here? What does this mean for global biotic health?
Brad Wagenaar is a guest contributor on MethodLogical.  He is an MPH student at the Emory School of Public Health, focusing on Global Epidemiology. He is a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Cameroon who loves biking and crazy ideas.
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This entry was posted in biocentrism, ethics, future, paradigm shift. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Public health…what is it good for?

  1. Jason Kerwin says:

    The key challenge for improving the environment is to get people to care about it. If you want to do that, I think the best way is to appeal to anthropocentric measures: do it or we all die.

    Perhaps the best bet is just to get everyone to read Cormac McCarthy's “The Road”.

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