Photo: Environmental health is a matter of intergenerational justice

It's not fair that we leave our descendants to pay with their health and security for the environmental damage we created, knowingly or unknowingly. (Credit: Peggy Olive)


Peggy Olive is Scientist Emeritus at the British Columbia Cancer Agency. Her research focused on the use of DNA damage as a way to predict patient response to cancer treatments. She is involved with the Suzuki Elders, a voluntary association of self-identified elders working with and through the David Suzuki Foundation to mentor, motivate and support other elders and younger generations in dialogue and action on environmental issues. Docs Talk asked Dr. Olive to share her thoughts on the intergenerational dimension of environmental health issues.

Docs Talk: What motivated you to volunteer as a Suzuki Elder?

Dr. Olive: In November 2009, I awoke to hear CBC's Vancouver morning-show host Rick Cluff announcing a meeting to be held that day at the Vancouver Public Library. The Suzuki Elders were hosting an Elders and Environment Forum. Although I'd been a volunteer with the David Suzuki Foundation since retiring earlier that year, I hadn't known about this group, so I attended the meeting, which led to my joining the Association of Suzuki Elders with the intention of motivating myself and others to action on critical environmental issues. We've recently organized a successful second forum, and our membership is growing.

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Docs Talk: How is environmental health an issue of intergenerational justice? Can you give us an example of an environmental problem that will have an impact on the health of future generations?

Dr. Olive: Greenhouse gases emitted when we burn fossil fuels will accumulate and persist in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, increasing global warming and associated drought, forest fires, migration of species carrying infectious diseases and damage to our coastlines. Species extinctions have reached a record high because we are destroying habitats and polluting our environment with toxic chemicals. Our growing human population is responsible for rapid deforestation, desertification, collapse of fisheries and depletion of fresh water, ultimately threatening the health of hundreds of millions of people. It's not fair that we leave our descendants to pay with their health and security for the environmental damage we created, knowingly or unknowingly. When we don't take action to protect the environment for future generations, we place their wellbeing in jeopardy.

Docs Talk: How do we balance our needs and wants with those of future generations?

Dr. Olive: The World Commission on Environmental Development concluded that "sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". The impacts of the development of Alberta's oil sands make us appreciate the importance of those words; even the current generation is paying a price with their health. Without doubt, the scale of lifestyle changes required by the wealthiest countries to meet the 2009 G8 summit global emissions targets more than 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2050) is huge. One might wonder whether this sacrifice itself could come with health consequences as the price of food and shelter rises, but a modelling study published in New Scientist concluded that an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K. would reduce the GDP by only 1.4 per cent and increase the price of most basic goods by less than three per cent by 2050. Parents naturally balance their own needs and wants with those of their children. We need to extend this attitude between families and beyond one or two generations. It helps to regard these changes we need to make today not as sacrifices but as opportunities to ensure a better quality of life for ourselves and our descendants.

Docs Talk: What are some actions we can take in our daily lives to have a positive impact on the health of future generations?

Peggy Olive Dr. Olive: Our unsustainable lifestyle has already reduced the quality and safety of what we eat, drink and breathe, and these conditions are unlikely to improve if we add a billion people to the planet every decade in keeping with current trends. Moving to a low-carbon economy should improve our health and almost certainly that of future generations, and living more simply could reduce negative stress and improve nutrition. Deciding to live less wastefully and ending excessive consumerism are steps we can all start taking. Reducing our carbon footprint, the amount of meat (especially beef) in our diets, eliminating the use of chemical toxins in our homes and gardens, and consuming foods grown locally and organically will improve our health and hopefully inspire future generations to do likewise.

Docs Talk: What hopes do you have for the future, in terms of the environment and health?

Dr. Olive: The UCL/Lancet Commission report of 2009 concluded that climate change could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, with the potential to affect the health of billions, particularly low-income families. My hope is that every person on this planet will recognize the scope of the problem facing us and respond to this crisis before we find ourselves at the precipice. I hope we can reach a peak in greenhouse gas emissions before 2020 and a peak in population soon after that, even though this will not let us off the hook completely. Help will be needed to make this transition, including government and social incentives and disincentives. I think our greatest challenge is to re-imagine ourselves in partnership with all life on our planet, and this will require that we make the decision to live sustainably and equitably in terms of human population and remaining resources.

February 7, 2012

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