What would a green health system look like?

Molly Scott Cato
There seems to be chemical cures for every possible human condition - from obesity to shyness. What we really need are more healing hands, argues Molly Scott Cato

It has become something of a cliché amongst environmentalists that our society, or the planet itself, is sick. Healing is the order of the day and a lucrative business opportunity. I have a tendency to become a little impatient with people who over-use this metaphor, suspecting them of projecting their own inner troubles onto the planet.

It is the kind of conversation you might hear in Hampstead or Totnes: people explaining patiently why they cannot become involved in politics or campaigning until they have themselves properly sorted out. How can they offer anything of value while their inner selves are less than perfect? They may then segue painlessly into a discussion about whether this year's annual Ta'i Chi fortnight should be spent in Hawaii or Corfu.

So this column is not about that sort of healing; it is about ‘medicine' in the sense of ‘medicine man' rather than ‘medication'. My own favourite witch doctor is our local herbalist Nathan, a self-confessed ‘lapsed intellectual' who supports us in our life journeys rather than making us feel mad, bad or sad.

Animal instincts

Animals in the wild apparently graze on plants suitable for soothing any bodily irregularities. We sometimes experience similar urges for crisps in hot weather or liver after childbirth. These are signs that we have not become entirely disconnected from mother earth. Nathan sees his role as finding the native plants that will best help us to reconnect with our physical selves and the earth that nourishes us.

Where did this alienation of ourselves from our bodies and from the natural world begin? I learned about it first hand when engaged in fieldwork for my PhD in the South Wales Valleys. Nobody could force their body to endure the pain and imminent danger of working in a deep coal-mine without making a conscious effort to disconnect body from soul.

The agony of the production line requires a similar discipline of purposeful disconnection to survive the repetitive tedium. Here we find the source of persistent ill health amongst those who live in the former industrial regions of this country, a cause far more potent than the smoking of cigarettes or the eating of too many chips.

Having extracted our labour and its value, capitalism moved on to commodify our health. Every aspect of dissatisfaction or dis-ease - many the direct effects of the economic system we struggle with - has now been medicalised and pills and potions invented to counteract it.

Shyness, tiredness and frustration are all accorded scientistic acronyms and matched with over-priced, over-packaged chemical cures. If you doubt the marketisation of medicine you should ask yourself why there are pills for slimming and tanning but no cures for diseases that disproportionately assault the poor, such as sleeping sickness or malaria.

Greening your health

So what would a health system look like in a green economy? It would mean a move away from TCP and back towards TLC. Love and care would be at the heart of our health services, which would centre around the hands-on treatment that sick and sad bodies need - and that cannot be out-sourced to China. Profiteering by companies manufacturing hugely expensive machines that go ping and over-prescribed prophylactic drugs would no longer dominate spending priorities.

But most importantly we will begin to realise that real health begins at home. Ecofeminists identify the disembedding of people from their planet as the source of the environmental crisis. Our failure to prioritise the fleshly basis of our existence and our misguided conception of ourselves as so many ghosts in machines or brains in vats leads to personal and planetary dislocation. Real healing will not be found in a two-week retreat in California but right there, where you live, in your native soil.


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