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Sustainability and Health: Finding Connections

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Sometimes aphorisms like this one can hit a little harder than intended. It’s easy to take things for granted in our lives. This past week, I was hit by one of the worst viruses of my life, resulting in the virtual halt of my regular life for over a week, as I lay in bed and my body attempted to rid itself of fever and its subsequent fatigue and dizziness. It may not sound like a long time, but an active, social person such as myself–and one with looming deadlines to boot–the experience was more difficult that I could have imagined.

It’s not like I haven’t been sick before. Usually after a day or two of rest, however, I bounce back and am ready to participate in society once more. I also don’t mean to over dramatize the situation given that many people in this world suffer from much more severe and/or long-lasting health conditions.  What I do mean to say is that this small ordeal has freshly revived my appreciation for the importance of health and well-being in our everyday lives – and its role in sustainable living.

At the individual level, health is one of the most important factors in determining well-being and quality of life. At the societal level, governments spends billions of dollars each year on not just health care systems, but public works, infrastructure, and other policies, in order to reduce health hazards.  Public sanitation and solid waste management are classic examples of basic health needs that the average person might not think of in such a way.  Without an appropriate public sanitation system, the risks of contracting water and sanitation-related diseases are numerous.

A number of my peers (as well as myself) are part of a program at my university which looks at issues exactly such as this. The Bridge Program is a graduate fellowship program, the focus of which is to solve public, environmental, and occupational health issues by connecting the public health, engineering and policy realms. The idea is that by training with others in different fields, the disconnects which exist between researchers in these different disciplines can be resolved, and innovative solutions can be developed. For example, my own research will collect valuable information about the use of garden food assets, which could be used to help decrease food security in disadvantaged communities. My research will also provide information about how social capital–a social determinant of health–is being created within the context of community gardens.

There’s a number of current projects going on that are part of the Bridge mandate that are intimately related to the search for a more sustainable world. For example,  there is a  “Cycling in Cities” research program, that investigates the use of bicycles in urban transport, and looks at how urban transport infrastructures can affect the risk of injuries to cyclists.  There are also projects that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, while simultaneously improving human health, by doing things like improving combustion technologies and/or changing fuels in home cook-stoves and auto rickshaws.

I know a number of fellow students who are working on these projects, projects which relate simultaneously to larger health and environment issues. So for those environment-focused students who never thought of themselves as into health research, or felt themselves ill-equipped for the task – think again!  Health research doesn’t just involve medical doctors.  In fact, it might be a bigger part of the story than you thought.

Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.

Posted on: August 24, 2011, 9:00 am Category: The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , , ,

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