Saturday, 27 May 2017

'Natural' or 'non-human' - problems with terminology

I'm working on a final lit review, looking at one of the underlying questions of my thesis: are there commonalities between promoting equity and promoting environmental sustainabiliy?

The answer so far in the thesis is an ethical one, around the 'ethics of care'. This has been a position in both health promotion and the environmental movement for many years: care for others, care for the earth.

However I'm also trying to look at it in terms of logic and evidence, particularly around: are there common causes for inequity and environmental degradation? Are there synergies in addressing both together?

The question for inclusion in this final lit review (using terms: 'health promotion' OR prevention AND equit* OR 'social inclus*' AND environment* OR 'climate change') is:

Does the research or intervention in the article seek to promote environmental sustainability as well as health and equity benefits?

That's proved to be the defining question. Nearly all the articles that have come up are about promoting health (or at least preventing illness - another contentious issue that I won't go into here although I think it is important) and addressing inequalities (even though inequalities and inequities are not clearly defined, but I've pointed that out throughout the thesis so don't need to explore it again here). However many of them don't appear to be promoting environmental sustainability.

I've included in the thesis a discussion about what environmental sustainability means. I looked at a range of definitions and the best one I found was this:

"meeting the resource and services needs of current and future generations without compromising the health of the ecosystems that provide them,
…and more specifically,
as a condition of balance, resilience, and interconnectedness that allows human society to satisfy its needs while neither exceeding the capacity of its supporting ecosystems to continue to regenerate the services necessary to meet those needs nor by our actions diminishing biological diversity."
(Morelli 2011)

That seemed the best one because it addressed the 'thinking like a planet' issue raised by Joni Seager in 1993. (I have just found a rather disturbing thing. As far as I know, Joni Seager should be credited as the author who used this phrase first in 1993. But if you google it, the person who comes up is a male author called J Baird Callicott, who wrote a book by that name in 2014. I will try to follow this up later)

In the lit search one of the problems was that health promoters use the term 'environment' frequently and in a broad way, including when they only seem to mean social and built environments. I tried narrowing the search by using terms such as environmental or ecological sustainability and variations, but that excluded too many, reducing lists to two or three records. So I've had to do it through reading abstracts in terms of my question above.

However that's revealed some grey areas: for example should environmental health issues (eg issues like mining or asbestos) be included when the author seems to be addressing them only in terms of the impact on human health rather than a broader concept of environmental sustainability? I've tended to include them so far, but then thought, why aren't I including tobacco smoke, or environments that restrict physical activity? Common sense says those things are not really 'environmental' issues in the sense I'm talking about, but why not?

I've come to the conclusion that this is about the questions of thinking like a planet (as part of the ecology) rather than just as a human. It could be addressed by using the term 'natural environment' but that falls into the fallacy of the nature/culture dichotomy ('man' vs 'nature' etc). Human beings are part of 'nature' or the ecology, we are not separate from it, so social and built environments are legitimately part of the 'environment' or 'ecology'. They just don't compose the whole of it.

So I've come to the conclusion that in order to meet my definition of environmental or ecological sustainability, as in Morelli's definition above, authors need to be also thinking about the 'non-human' parts of the environment or ecology as well as the human parts. So they can't just be thinking about the environment in terms of human needs (human health impacts), they also have to be thinking about the needs of 'non-humans' - other living species and other material things (like that recent case in New Zealand about the 'rights' of a river).

I don't think I'll be able to use this to exclude articles by looking at abstracts, and even when reading full texts I think if I used it as an exclusion criteria, I'd end up with very little literature, but I think I may be able to distinguish articles on this basis to some degree at least in the review. Interesting.

Pity that 'non-human' is such an inelegant term, but I can't think of a better one.

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