A healthy future for Sophia

Is this really a world that doesn’t care about its children?

Sophia, my granddaughter, just had her second birthday. She is a delight. Her smile, her giggle, her dance, even her “no” all bring joy to her parents, family and friends. And delighted that others smile and laugh with her, the love and pleasure mutually grow. In her innocence, she so loves her world that she takes the flower I pick for her and brings it for her dolls, stuffed animals and even the creatures in her books to smell.

Sophia is still breast-fed; she eats organic, drinks purified water and doesn’t watch TV. Her parents obviously love and care about her, yet I’m concerned for her health and well-being: It’s difficult, if not impossible, to be healthy in an unhealthy world.

Health, from the Old English “hal,” means whole. Ecology, from the Greek “oikos,” literally means the understanding of home, in this case our home, the earth. Human health depends on all of our relationships, both social and biological. But health is much more than the absence of a specific disease; it is the optimal functioning of the entire system — and, by extension, of the whole earth. We must ask, then, whether it is even possible for us to be healthy in a world that, put simply, is both a biologic and a cultural mess. Merely to ask myself this question is to stir up a deep grief.

In a few short centuries (and especially in the past 100 years), we have made the earth a toxic waste dump. The earth’s atmosphere, soils and waters have a finite ability to absorb and transform toxic materials, and we are long past the point of safety. There is probably no one alive today who doesn’t have a smorgasbord of toxic chemicals in their bloodstream and tissues. “Many newborns at the moment of birth are contaminated with more than 200 chemical substances,” said European cancer specialist Dominique Belpomme. “Up to 75 percent of cancers are provoked by chemical pollution.”

The nervous, endocrine and immune systems are especially vulnerable to these chemicals, which lead not only to cancer but to genetic, developmental and immune-system diseases. Whether they start out in the air (mercury from coal-fired power plants) or as pesticides or herbicides in soil and water, these toxic chemicals first enter the food chain and then our children’s bodies. Some products containing phthalates are rubbed directly into our skin.

The story of health is told mostly from this purely biological perspective. But it is the cultural or social framework — the industrialized production of food and consumer goods and services — that has determined how these poisons reach our children’s bodies. In turn, this framework is embedded within the more general belief that humanity is somehow qualitatively so different from — and hierarchically above — the rest of nature that we can treat the natural world as a mere resource to exploit.

Over the past 10,000 years of cultural evolution, we have split — psychically, emotionally and spiritually — from both our fellow beings and the rest of nature, becoming accustomed to violent, exploitive relationships with other humans, the land and the more-than-human world. Ecopsychologist Andy Fisher calls this a “double violation” that despoils both the so-called natural world and our own human nature. In short, we’ve forgotten that we belong to the family of life.

Whether we tell this story using spiritual or scientific language, the truth is that we’re all made of the same stuff. But we have a long history of abusing and exploiting those with whom we don’t easily identify, whether they are people of color, other ethnicities and religions, children, women or forests and oceans.

We have now arrived at the apex of this psychopathology. As the global gross domestic product soars above $40 trillion, ecosystems worldwide are in collapse. From the demise of ocean fisheries, the spread of coastal dead zones and coral reef die-offs to the worst species-extinction crisis in the past 60 million years, we confront the challenges we have so far ignored, denied or been unwilling to face head-on — even as an exploding population swelters in our human-produced greenhouse.

In a profound way, we must enter a period of recovery; we must learn to love ourselves and the world once again. As Stephen Jay Gould once said, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well, for we will not save what we do not love.”

Our genius as a species lies in our ability to self-reflect, to play, to celebrate, to share, to find joy in the joy of others and sadness in their sadness. We are also set apart by our creative imagination, our ability to envision a future that is different from the past.

It comes down to this: Each choice I make — turning on the light or not, driving more or less, buying the local apple or beer or the one that’s traveled thousands of miles — is a visionary step toward, or away from, a healthy future for Sophia.

But along with countless others, I must also choose to first resist and then transform the institutions that support corporate greed at all levels — especially global-market fundamentalism. Sophia and all of her descendants require no less of us.

May we have the vision, courage and determination to create a healthy world that truly cares for its children — in deed as well as word.


Newly retired physician Richard Fireman serves on the state steering committee of the N.C. Interfaith Power and Light, a program of the N.C. Council of Churches. He can be reached at firepeople@main.nc.us.

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