What Are the Health Implications of Human Disconnection from Nature?
Humans are living longer than ever before. Data gathered from The World Bank https://data.worldbank.org/ shows that worldwide life expectancy has risen steadily between 1967 and 2015, with a dramatic 15-year increase in average life expectancy over just a 40-year period.
Worryingly, the quality of those longer human lives is not increasing alongside life expectancy. Poor health, manifesting as excess weight, inactivity, and lifestyle related non-communicable diseases (now affecting developing countries at an increasing rate; no longer the diseases of “affluence” they once were); higher prevalence of mental health issues, excessive reliance on technology for entertainment, overconsumption of non-nutritious foods, chemicals in the environment, and a disconnection from nature and deeper meaning in life has led to a sickened humanity living on a polluted, suffering planet.
Excess weight and obesity are major contributors to poor health, and carry risks of disease and premature death, as well as implications for health spending and human wellbeing; general health, depression, low self-esteem, and social isolation.
“Overweight and obesity cause or exacerbate a large number of health problems, both independently and in association with other diseases, and are among the most significant contributors to ill health”
Diabetes prevalence almost doubled between 1980 and 2013. Much of this rise can be attributed to poor lifestyle, overconsumption of processed foods, excess sugar in the diet, lack of activity, and poor general nutrition.
There is no denying that the rising trends in obesity, excess weight, and diabetes are having profound effects on human health. But do these trends represent a disconnection from nature?
They certainly could, especially if we consider that when humans are connected to more natural ways of living and are ingesting nutritious, non-processed foods then they are closer to a “natural” diet, and are therefore more connected to nature.
A natural, plant-based diet has been shown to be beneficial in preventing overweight and obesity, and promoting weight loss. This means that if humans can reconnect with a more natural diet, they are necessarily closer to nature; they are eating natural foods, and they are more likely to be closer to natural, healthy ways of living and being in the world. It is an obvious (although often denied) assumption that the natural state of living is a healthy, vibrant existence, not a diseased and depressed one.
The chart below shows that overall percentage of deaths from disease have stayed steady, but that the decrease in deaths from non-communicable diseases and maternal, prenatal and nutrition conditions has gone down while deaths from non-communicable (mainly lifestyle-related) diseases has risen.
So, are we just shifting human health from one cause of death to another? If human health was improving alongside life expectancy, we would naturally expect to see a decrease in percentage of deaths overall (assuming that many communicable disease deaths would be considered premature). The data is not showing this decrease in overall deaths, so while we may be gaining in one area, we are most certainly losing in another. There is no overall improvement.
So how does human health connect to the health of the environment? The two have degraded in parallel, in large part due the prioritisation of economic growth above all else; environmentally, and in healthcare. These degradations in parallel are not the only connections; it goes much deeper than that.
Humans and their relationships with their own bodies represent a microcosm of the environment at large, when humans treat themselves with respect and love, they are more likely to treat others, animals, plants, and indeed all of nature with the same respect.
This understanding stems from the concept of the interconnected self; a model of human self-awareness which situates the self within the complex ecosystem of life and is connected to all of nature. This model is based on responsibility and community rather than individual rights, and sets itself apart from the patriarchal systems of modern life by considering a holistic view of existence and a relational model of human connections and interactions with nature.
The lack of this responsibility and relational understanding within capitalist culture has led to the degradation of the environment alongside the decline in human health; pollution, overfishing, deforestation, overuse of water resources, industrial farming and agriculture, and the threat of extinction to many plants, animals, and fish species demonstrate how the push for economic growth above all else has sacrificed our most precious resources for financial gain.
Emissions are rising, polluting the air and the atmosphere; Figure 6. Figure 7, below, shows the decrease in overall worldwide forest area, with projected future decreases.
The chart below (Figure 8) shows worldwide health expenditure in US$, with future projection along trend lines.
Health expenditure does not equate to improvements in health, in fact, health expenditure could be argued to be a result of poor human health, with the need for increased (and significantly above inflation) expenditure to treat conditions related to the downward trend in human health. “Determinants of health have consistently been shown to be biosocial, with socioeconomics, education, housing, employment and lived environment (which are all moulded by social and structural factors) determining 90% of health outcomes while just 10% are determined by biomedical healthcare.” So why the huge investment in health spending, especially when we see that the US spends the most money, but comes last in international rankings?
It’s all about the money. In the same way that the environment has been sacrificed for economic gains, human health has been sacrificed for the same reasons, after all, healthy people don’t turn a good profit for anyone except themselves.
So, what is the solution? Reconnecting humans with a natural diet could help them to understand the need for treating nature with the same respect they treat themselves, through establishing an interconnected sense of self as a complex part of the whole of existence. Reconnecting humans with natural medicine (including understanding the role of food as medicine) could help develop an understanding of the holistic nature of true health, as a system of connected awareness rather than disconnected parts in need of individual repair. The basis for these reconnections is the development of an interconnected sense of self. This can be developed, in practical terms, by connecting humans with themselves and their own bodies, and with the natural environment. Yoga, meditation, exercise, education, a move away from reliance on technology, processed foods, and pharmaceutical medicine would be a positive foundation for positive change.
The solutions to the extreme and calamitous issues facing human civilisation are simpler than we think; a paradigm shift in thought is the key to changing life on earth for the better, and for the benefit of all of nature, including humans. Interconnection, consciousness, and awareness applied to all aspects of living would bring humans closer to nature, closer to their interconnected selves, and therefore closer to true, interconnected health and vitality.