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Bringing into Being the Future We Wish to Live in
The University of Western Ontario Ecosystem Health Program
Our Health and the Environment
When people are ill from asthma, do their doctors suggest they think about how much they use their cars or what kind of car to drive, to keep the air clean? Or when was the last time your doctor reminded you that environmentally-friendly behaviour and keeping ecosystems healthy was important to keeping people and you healthy?
Perhaps this isn’t happening very often just yet. But at the University of Western Ontario (Western) a new program in the medical school is teaching doctors in training to think about human health in a new way. The UWO Ecosystem Health Program helps both students and staff learn to look closely at the links between human health and the state of the surrounding ecosystems in which they live.
Until now, traditional Western medicine has been human-centred. It considers the immediate factors in a person’s life diet, exercise, stress, exposure to bacterial or viral causes of disease, heredity, and, in the case of environmental sensitivities, their daily surroundings to be the most important factors affecting health. In the field of environmental health, a person’s environment is examined as a potential hazard that can affect his or her health in a negative way. But looking at the health of ecosystems, of nature, on which all living beings including humans depend for their own well-being, has not traditionally been part of doctors’ training.
How is Human Health Connected to Ecosystems?
The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat are all directly connected to ecosystems. Trees filter dust from the air, forests cool local climates and retain moisture, soil and wetlands filter and purify water, birds and insects help control pests which can destroy human food crops. All of these active, living environmental agents depend on the health of the systems of which they are part to do their “work.” They maintain what some scientists are now referring to as “ecosystem services.” What are these essential services? Here is a list of some of the “services” that healthy nature provides for humans (and all other creatures on earth):
- purification of air and water
- detoxification and decomposition of wastes
- generation and preservation of soils and renewal of their fertility
- maintenance of biodiversity
- protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays
- dispersal of seeds
- pollination of crops and natural vegetation
- cycling and movement of nutrients
- control of the vast majority of potential agricultural pests
- partial stabilization of climate
- mitigation of droughts and floods
- protection of coastal shores from erosion by waves
- moderation of weather extremes and their impacts
- provision of aesthetic beauty and intellectual stimulation that lift the human spirit
Without these vital life-supporting “services” of ecosystems, we cannot be healthy physically, mentally, economically or emotionally.
The UWO Ecosystem Health Program Thinking in Systems
The goal of Western’s Ecosystem Health Program is to encourage students and faculty to “look outside the box” of traditional medical training, and include a study of the two-way relationships between human activity and the environments in which they live, to ask
- how do natural environments affect humans?
- how does human activity affect natural environments – and change the affects that those environments have on humans?
Medical and dental students are taught to look not only at the health of a patient, but also at the health of that person’s community, the local and global populations, and the biosphere. They look at “the big picture:” they include the medical, environmental, economic and socio-political aspects of health. The Program also works with people from other academic disciplines to encourage a multi-disciplinary approach focused on the links between ecosystems and human activity. Doctors investigating ecosystem health examine natural systems in somewhat the same way they do people they consider prevention (how can ill-health be prevented?), they use the tools of diagnosis (what’s wrong?), and prognosis (what are the chances of improving?) and then they consider the relationships between ecosystem health and human health. From this study, they hope to understand and make the most of ecosystems’ ability to renew themselves while meeting reasonable human goals.
Western’s Ecosystem Health Program Activities
The Ecosystem Health Program has developed a range of activities in addition to full courses. The Ecosystem Health Team makes presentations to different departments in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, to community groups, and at conferences and seminars.
They have also developed a collaborative project with the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph called EarthFiles. This program brings together medical, veterinary and environmental science students to discuss ecosystem health issues through a case study.
Another department activity is the development — with the International Society of Ecosystem Health (ISEH) — of an International Course in Ecosystem Health. This course has been held at the University of Western Ontario since 2001.
Western also offers a summer forum on ecosystem health for medical students from across Canada, as part of the National Initiative for Ecosystem Health (NIFE).
Ecosystem Health and Climate Change
Observing the health of ecosystems over time is an important way to monitor change. The growing scientific and medical interest in the watching the health of ecosystems over time will create a record of how these systems respond to climate change. It will then relate these changes to human health, and help determine actions that might be taken to mitigate unwanted change.
One of the early symptoms of climate change is a migration of new organisms including unwanted carriers of disease towards warming northern climates such as Canada’s. These organisms can affect both human and ecosystem health. Climate change can also have effects on water availability and quality, an important public health issue.
Bringing the medical community into the environmental field is a new and significant move which will change the way people think about health.
- G. Daily, editor. 1997. Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
- V. Smil. 2003. The Earth’s Biosphere – Evolution, Dynamics and Change. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Examine the list of ‘ecosystem services’ that are provided for all life on earth. For each service listed explain why this service is important to living things including humans. HINT Imagine what it would be like without each service,
- Answer these questions from the article: a) ‘ How do natural environments affect humans?’ b) ‘ How does human activity affect natural environments and change the effects which those environments have on humans?’
- What health issues will be affected by climate change?