Research & Writing

Ecological Medicine and the Grey Area of Individual Treatment and Systemic Change

In my academic life, I’ve taken an interdisciplinary approach when considering human & ecological health. Because of the way that knowledge is fragmented, playing within the bounds of one discipline confines my understanding to that portion of the whole system. None of the disciplines gets the full picture; they are not meant to. It’s deliberate and purposeful fragmentation, now inappropriate for the complex challenges that the planet faces.

The term ‘ecological medicine’ was coined in 2001 by Carolyn Raffensperger, Executive Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. Ken Ausubel, founder of Bioneers, has really engaged in this field. He describes some basic tenets (extracted from here):

  • The first goal of medicine is to establish the conditions for health and wholeness, thus preventing disease and illness. The second goal is to cure.
  • The earth is also the physician’s client. The patient under the physician’s care is one part of the earth.
  • Humans are part of a local ecosystem. Following the ecopsychological insight that a disturbed ecosystem can make people mentally ill, a disturbed ecosystem can surely make people physically ill.
  • Medicine should not add to the illnesses of humans or the planet. Medical practices themselves should not damage other species or the ecosystem.

A sensible tool for implementing these ideas is what is called the precautionary principle. Raffensperger articulates it to mean that science and industry must fully assess the impact of their activities before they impose them upon the public and the environment. Simple, sensible…an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The precautionary principle makes far more sense than the risk paradigm. This term (articulated by Ausubel) essentially means that it is society’s burden to deal with the risks and potentially destructive consequences of new industrial processes and scientific technologies. He continues:

There is a global effort afoot today to replace the risk paradigm with the precautionary principle, which is based on a recognition of science’s limits in fully predicting consequences and possible harm. The precautionary principle acknowledges that all life is interconnected. It shifts the burden of proof (and liability) to the parties promoting potentially harmful technologies, and limits their use to experiments until they are proven truly safe.

Nicely articulated. As he said, it shifts the burden in the system.

Ecological medicine illuminates the relationships between ecological health, animal health and human public and individual health. The Lyme disease epidemic, for example, is a prime example of the systems that converge and all the elements that interact in regards to the spread of disease. Many of the health issues faced today need to be looked at in context to the environment in which they occur, and I don’t think practitioners can or should keep a narrow focus on just the individual.It’s not within the scope of this post to elaborate on all the intricacies of this movement, so I’ll share some valuable sources for the reader. The organization Science and Environmental Health Network is a fantastic resource, as is Health Care Without Harm. The books Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves is edited by Ken Ausubel and looks fantastic and Conservation Medicine: Ecological Health in Practice (ordered it, haven’t read yet) dive into the subject thoroughly, as far as I can tell. Additionally, a book I’m REALLY excited about is Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives by Timothy Lee Scott, which expands on the theory and practice of these principles.

We’re at a time where we can’t really isolate individual versus social practice anymore. It’s a useful distinction in regards to the professional roles in which we’re required to function—and those roles are really a social construct anyway.

About Author

Renée A. Davis MA RH is a designer and educator in botanical and mycological medicine. Her training began at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in New York City and concluded in biomedical sciences at the University of Washington. She currently directs research and development for a nutraceutical mushroom company in the Pacific Northwest.

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