Drought-stricken towns in Australia are awaiting news of a billion dollar federal stimulus, as some prepare for an ‘unimaginable’ water crisis from drought worsened by climate change, a predicament more familiar to developing countries, as Reuters has reported.
With the Federal Government still refusing to take meaningful action on climate change, Dr Joseph Ting – a Queensland-based emergency, prehospital and aeromedical physician – says it is up to those who are able to take action at home and work to lead the way, even when individual action can feel hopelessly insignificant.
That’s not just about cutting back long haul flights and car use, but looking after our own health better to reduce the demand on carbon-intensive health care, challenging wasteful practices at work, and honestly examining our responsibility in Western nations to live equitably and consume modestly.
Joseph Ting writes:
The small battle each of us wages against climate change and global warming can feel like part of a losing war. It is like twinkling water running over a bottom dwelling boulder, unable to leave a trace let alone shift the fixity an inch in the direction of favourable change.
Individual action to palliate environment degradation and reduce our carbon life-print gains little traction in the face of widespread shortsightedness from our leaders and election-cycle impetuosity in gifting the community the rights to “living to the fullest in the here and now.” (My phrase). No elector could resist that!
Profit maximisation and economic prosperity, and the maintenance of life’s comforts in the pursuit of personal and family happiness, further damage our ravaged and overcrowded Mother Ship Earth.
The clarion call from super-wealthy entrepreneurs like Elon Musk to board a “Noah’s (Space)-Ark” and set up home on other planets should Earth descend into a fiery uninhabitability is reminiscent of fiddling while Rome burns. Meanwhile, taking a long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than are produced in a whole year by the average person in dozens of countries around the world.
The federal government argues that Australia contributes a minuscule amount to global warming and climate change, blithely disregarding our world-class per capita consumption and carbon footprints.
My pessimism deepens in the realisation that the many of us (seven and half billion and counting) each draw from the scarce currency of dense living spaces and limited natural resources.
The moral obligation of our being birthed astride the grave (borrowed from Samuel Beckett) is to live equitably and consume modestly to restrain our lifelong ecological spend as much as possible.
At cross purposes on action
Lives lived free of the acute harm and chronic disease related to alcohol, nicotine and recreational drug indulgence, diabetes and obesity inducing diets, and sedentary non-activity are effective prevention strategies to reduce burgeoning demand for health care.
Effective public health interventions cap that demand by reducing strokes, heart attacks and smoking-related chronic lung disease.
A healthier average weight and daily moderate activity takes the wear and tear stress off weight-bearing hip and knee joints, preserving daily pain-free function for longer, and delaying or reducing the need for joint replacement through elective surgery.
Surely a healthily long life, lived at home with family and friends, is preferable to regular hospital admissions and assisted living? As health care is carbon intensive (7 per cent of Australia’s carbon emissions emanate from our hospitals and health services), less per-person use of it will benefit the environment.
Yet getting and staying healthy, driving less, having fewer kids and living in smaller homes – when these are choices we are able to exercise – require commitment and discipline.
They can go against mankind’s inclination for instant gratification inscribed in AC Pigou’s view of our “faulty telescopic faculty”, where what most of us want or desire now is deeply craved, with the imperilled future of Earth a distant idea best backgrounded into a (will we ever do) to-do list.
In this respect, we are at cross-purposes: professing care for the environment and a desire for sustainable living yet wedded to “me-now” economic prosperity and resource-intensive high standards of living.
What can we do?
The Australian Medical Association (AMA), Climate and Health Alliance and Doctors for Environmental Action, among others, continue to agitate for local, national and global policy change in a bid to avert humanity’s descent to irreversible ecological and climate catastrophe.
Under President Tony Bartone, the AMA recently declared climate change a health emergency, agitating for appraisal of the evidence regardless of political allegiance.
We adults also should take heart from outspoken school kids protesting around the world against the poisoned, heated and chaotic world that their parents may have bequeathed future generations.
They are morally consistent heroes turning global attention to systems change, policy advocacy and stoking the buried consciences of entrenched short-termism of their parents and grandparents.
What can we as individuals do while waiting for system corrections which are so slow in the birthing and implementation because long-term mitigation strategies do not attract crucial votes and popular appeal?
The empowerment of personal action
After mourning the short-term outlook of voters who have prioritised new coal mining jobs in Queensland, resisted weaning themselves of free single-use supermarket plastic bags, and remain mute on once-thriving rivers bled dry by irrigation/diversion/overuse, I gain solace in the empowerment of personal action.
As a hospital doctor, I rally with colleagues against burgeoning single use medical waste (bulging surgical kits with only a single item used, metres of rubber tourniquets discarded). We recycle IV sets, lobby for bans on Styrofoam cups and bottled water, and seek to move to paper-free clinical practice. These are but four simple examples that are relatively easy to implement.
On my rounds, I counsel patients about unhealthy lifestyles predisposing to diabesity and smoking related lung disease, hoping to reduce demand for carbon-intensive acute and chronic hospital care, such as joint replacements for worn out knees.
As a public and preventive health advocate, I urge public transport, cycling and walking options as healthier and less stressful than driving, if they are available. We know a small or shared car ameliorates the surge in mammoth vehicle sales and saves on fuel expenses.
Such action translates to lower health care demand in communities, reducing demands on environmental resources at large and in our health services.
As a citizen, I reduce consumption of single use disposables by bringing my moulded coffee cup (often gaining a discount at cafes), refusing plastic straws, and frequently bringing my own cutlery (fork, spoon, chopsticks).
And I am acutely aware of food waste, in a world where one-third of perfectly edible food that is discarded globally disrespects the plant and food animal that is meant to feed us.
Besides being environmentally detrimental, food waste is also a moral issue. The ultimate disrespect for nonhuman life is in thoughtlessly wasting what we kill. Even animals euthanised without pain and suffering do not deserve to go into landfill.
It is not difficult for a doctor, indeed any individual, to make a whole lot of accumulated difference by simple acts of reducing use, reusing and recycling. Although it takes thought and some planning at a personal level, these individual acts allow our professed eco-advocacy to align with how we live our daily lives.
There is real value in practising what we preach, both at home and at work.
Dr Joseph Ting is an emergency, prehospital and aeromedical physician as well as adjunct professor at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Public Health and Social Work He is a Senior Staff Specialist in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Mater Hospital Brisbane. He holds post-graduate research qualifications from the University of London (clinical trials, biostatistics, peer review, critical appraisal, observational/qualitative studies and epidemiology).
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