Rest up. There is much work to do in the new year.
By Heather Shayne Blakeslee
During the holidays, most of us plan to take some time to reconnect with ourselves and our families. A break is in order after a year of the world feeling particularly topsy-turvy. It’s time to check in with our priorities, and maybe check out a holiday blockbuster or two.
For many people, taking care of our own physical or mental health isn’t at the top of the to-do list, even though preventive medicine really is the best medicine. In one innovative program in Philadelphia, NaturePHL, doctors are actually prescribing outdoor time to kids to help them with a host of health issues and to foster the development of their young brains and bodies—adults could do with a regular dose as well.
We should be thankful that we live in a country where, in most places, sending a child—or ourselves—outside for a media break, some exercise or a meditative stroll won’t send our health spiraling in the wrong direction: In Delhi, India, where there is little environmental regulation, just breathing the air is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Industry might not like regulation, but our lungs do.
And here’s where the holiday break comes in: Rest up, because there will be a lot of work to do in the coming year. The degradation of the environment remains a critical issue that is having real-world impacts in Philadelphia and beyond, and regulations are under attack. We’re heading in the right direction as a city, but at the state level, fossil-fuel interests continue to prevail over public health. At the federal level, we have Scott Pruitt, who spent his time previous to occupying the top position at the Environmental Protection Agency suing the EPA over regulations that help keep our air and water clean. It seems he came complete with a twirlable handlebar mustache and a script that included the you-had-to-see-it-coming reversal of the Clean Power Plan and withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. Spoiler alert: This one doesn’t end well for humanity.
But not all villains are directly out of Central Casting. Mostly, our tangle of politics, policy, advocacy and personal choices are more complicated than that. I was once asked to interview Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA under the Obama administration, for a Philly Tech Week public health forum, and to submit my questions in advance so there would be no surprises. But I was in for one of my own—I wasn’t allowed to ask her a question about environmental justice.
The message was clear: Even at an event in a liberal city where we were to speak about the connection between the environment and public health, we should steer clear of territory that might make a corporate sponsor uncomfortable. I was prepared to ask the question anyway, but I didn’t need to: McCarthy has always been a community-centered pro, and she brought it up herself, reminding the audience that more people die early in America every year from largely invisible air pollution (usually more than 200,000 people) than from the more visible scourge of gun violence (approximately 33,000 gun-related deaths in 2016)—and that communities of color consistently bear the brunt of pollution and its effects.
The very idea of pursuing health and wellness starts with the presumption that it’s possible to be healthy, and that’s just not true for everyone. We still have work to do making sure that the basic elements our body needs, including clean air and water, are universally available.
So relax, and take a break while you can. The work we do later this winter calling our legislators and making our voices heard may save us from another silent spring.
Heather Shayne Blakeslee