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Rx for complexity

By Nancy Myers My colleagues and I at the Science and Environmental Health Network often focus on the problem of complexity in environmental health: the fact that multiple factors figure in health and disease, that these diverse factors often work together and create multiplying effects, that small assaults have cumulative impacts, that genetics and environmental exposures often work together in mysterious ways, and so on.

Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging is a fascinating study of how some of these complex influences work in the human body. Many threats to healthy aging, of course, start before birth in the environments of womb and mother.

We believe the precautionary principle is the best prescription for changing our behavior in the face of this complexity: we must do our best to reduce harmful influences on health, even when science can’t provide all the answers on cause and effect. (There. I just paraphrased the precautionary principle once again. It is true there are many definitions of the principle, as its critics often point out. That is because it is so sensible that anyone can put it in her own words.)

But complexity and interrelation are not only characteristics of environmental health. What is “environmental health,” anyhow, but the health of everything. Health of people in their earth context and health of the context itself. When we talk about environmental health we’re acknowledging that it’s all related. We’re all related. We’re one with everything.

Duh, would say mystics and Indigenous people.

It’s fun to watch serious Western thinkers join us in trying to articulate this obvious truth and prescribe ways to make us stop doing harm to the earth and ourselves.

John Ralston Saul, the Canadian philosopher, calls the perception of oneness “animism” and described it this way in a recent speech:

“Animism is an idea of the world, of the planet, of the Earth, as a seamless web. Everything is one. Thus that severed link—severing us, in effect, from the idea of the Earth as seamless whole—is . . . what makes us think that human beings somehow have rights to change and alter the nature of the Earth and to take non-precautionary risks even though they may be dangerous. That’s the sign that we’re out of control: we’re no longer linked with the Earth. We have cut off the animistic from our ethical, moral, religious, intellectual way of life.”

He prescribes government and social institutions animated by animism but he acknowledges the idea is hard to sell. He’s tried it.

Perhaps he’s using the wrong word. Jeremy Rifkin uses a more scientifically respectable term for oneness: “biosphere.”

“The biosphere is the narrow band that extends some forty miles from the ocean floor to outer space where living creatures and the Earth's geochemical processes interact to sustain each other. We are learning that the biosphere functions like an indivisible organism. It is the continuous symbiotic relationships between every living creature and between living creatures and the geochemical processes that ensure the survival of the planetary organism and the individual species that live within its biospheric envelope. If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are entwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism.”

He has a slightly different prescription for changing behavior. He believes we can harness the innate human capacity for empathy (in other words our instinct for oneness) and the oneness of communication to inspire responsible behavior. He asks, “What if our distributed global communication networks were put to the task of helping us re-participate in deep communion with the common biosphere that sustains all of our lives?”

I wonder what that means? I guess I’ll have to read Rifkin’s book, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis.

Or tramp on my snowshoes to visit a particularly sustaining tree in the middle of my sustaining woodland in Southwest Michigan. And tell you about it.