To Your Health

Rest up. There is much work to do in the new year.

Dec2017_EdNotes.jpg

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
Editor-in-Chief
heather@gridphilly.com

We’re excellent collaborators, but what are we building?

Sept2017_EdNotes.jpg

Walls and Windows

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

We’ve long debated what makes us human. But as our understanding of other species becomes richer and more complex, brick by brick we’re dismantling the imaginary wall that separates us from the natural world. 

We’ve learned that we are not the only species to have verbal language (whales), emotions (cows) or self-awareness (magpies). Other species use medicine (sheep), build housing (beavers), solve math problems (dogs), have social rules and are offended by a lack of fairness (chimpanzees), the latter of which we’ve attributed to a moral compass in our species, but it turns out to be basic biology. Not all species share these traits, of course—but even one other distant relative who also mourns their dead (such as elephants) or performs an activity out of sheer joy (such as dolphins) should help unite us with our fellow Earth dwellers. 

We do hold the distinction of being best equipped to dominate whatever habitat we’ve claimed. According to the venerable biologist E.O. Wilson, Homo sapiens exist alongside a dozen or so other species—among the millions on the planet—that have been so successful. Our brethren include ants, termites and a handful of marine species. 

In his book “The Meaning of Human Existence,” Wilson gives us a window into what makes this subgroup special: Each of these super species nests, and also cooperates within a societal structure. If you think about the similarities between a city and an ant colony, you will start to visualize our kinship. We have collectively decided to make a go of it in certain places that are hospitable to our survival and then divided up our labor and resources—in the case of humans, not exactly evenly. 

There are massive differences among these species, of course. Our ability to reason is more advanced, as is our ability to communicate complex abstract concepts. Termites can build subterranean nests, arboreal nests and nest towers that are 30-feet high—but they’ll never have Paris. 

But as with any trait that gives you advantage, it can also be your downfall. Too good at cooperating and at building structures? You may think that there are no limits—that an unlimited number of you can live anywhere on the planet. 

But we’re building houses of cards: We continue to cover up our swamplands with concrete, build houses next to the ocean, and live in climates where extreme heat or extreme cold require extreme amounts of fuel to keep us alive. In doing so, we pump more carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate change that has taken aim at the houses we’ve built on sand.  

Our perceptions of safety and abundance are comforting but fanciful notions. Perhaps what makes us human is our ability to say, “It’s fine!” as the house falls down. But that’s getting harder to do as the hurricanes grow more destructive, as each drought brings more political destabilization and as each ensuing refugee crisis grows more volatile and heartrending. We can see more clearly that we’ve altered the planet’s chemistry—and that we are losing people and whole cultures as a result. 

We have tried forever, in both spirit and practice, to wall ourselves off from nature, and each other. How long we continue to do so will be the window through which future humans take the measure of our species.

The time is here to use our abilities in the service of better city planning that takes into account social equity and the limits of place, for better building codes that help us mitigate and adapt to climate change, and for energy-efficient design that keeps carbon emissions to a minimum—all initiatives underway in Philadelphia. We are up for the challenge. We must be.

Blind Justice?

Reckoning with our past and future requires us to open our eyes

Sept2017_EdNotes.jpg

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

The images are terrifying: white civilian men armed with semi-automatic rifles, staking out ground around Justice Park in Charlottesville in August. It’s terrifying, but not surprising in its entitlement; it’s also not surprising that one woman died and many more were injured when the visual violence quickly evolved, as it does, into bodily carnage. 

The park was once named Jackson Park, after the equestrian statue of Confederate Gen.“Stonewall” Jackson that serves as the focal point of this public space, lined with benches and manicured flower beds underneath mature trees. The land was bequeathed in 1919 by Paul Goodloe McIntire, whose father served as mayor of Charlottesville when the slave trade was still supporting our national economy. 

According to the Charlottesville-based C-Ville Weekly, the statue was donated in 1924, “a time when Ku Klux Klan membership was at its peak,” and the park was one of four donated by McIntire—of note is that one other was designated for whites only, and another specifically for use by blacks. 

The history of Justice Park, colored now with both past atrocity and present tragedy, is a microcosm of our larger national history: Who owned and accessed what places, spaces and land; who owned the housing; and, most importantly, who owned whom. As scholar Carolyn Finney explores in her book “Black Faces, White Spaces,” the places we pass by every day, and those distant reserves we must travel to for scenic vistas and quiet contemplation, are often “public” in name only, cordoned off by the concrete measures of distance and capital, as well as harder to quantify, but no less real, cultural bias and institutional racism. 

It doesn’t seem a question that a towering figure of the Confederate army looking down upon park-goers is a not-so-subtle reminder of who is welcome, and who is not, given that no counter narrative or iconography balances out the power. It is also risible to think that armed black men would be allowed to peaceably assemble—if one can peaceably assemble while toting a semi-automatic weapon—in the same way.

Recognizing and rectifying our racial and cultural divide is in and of itself a massive undertaking, a reconstruction project that will go on for many more generations, and now we have a global crisis laid on top of and intertwined with the changing power structures within our borders: At this particular moment in time, both the cultural and physical temperature are rising. 

These nefarious manmade crises—catastrophic climate change and ongoing racial animosity—should be our top priorities to reckon with as a country. Lives are at stake. 

It is therefore undeniably dangerous that many of our countrymen refuse to recognize either as a problem, willfully ignoring thermometers, history and the sights and sounds around them on a daily basis—including the hateful rhetoric coming directly from the current occupier of the White House, who once said that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in New York and still win the presidency. (Need he take up actual arms on the lawn of the White House or ask for the nuclear codes for Congress to cut short his dangerous and ignoble presidency?) 

We must confront head on the hard questions of who owned and owns the life-giving—and capital-generating—land and water, and also whether that land, water and air will support us. Any of us.

We, the people, all need clean water to drink, healthy food to eat and an economy not subsidized by fossil fuels. We all breathe the same invisible air, which most of us take for granted. But, just as with making visible our history of slavery and systematic oppression, it is critical to our future to recognize what is right in front of us. We do otherwise at the price of our collective peril.

Heather Shayne Blakeslee
     Editor-in-Chief
heather@gridphilly.com