How Saving Ecosystems Saves Lives
Like many places in the tropics, Borneo is burning—and the consequences are widespread.
Every year more than 2 million acres [almost 810,000 hectares] of Indonesian rainforest are destroyed. Between 2000 and 2010, nearly a quarter of Borneo’s diverse peat forests and their rich soils were drained, burned and cleared.
Before this trip, I’d known of the plight of orangutans, thousands of which have died as their forest habitat disappears. I also knew about the outsized role that clearing of these forests plays in driving climate change. I was less prepared for the impact that damage to these ecosystems has on human health.
For me, the burning forests were a nuisance to my visit. For the locals, they were a matter of life and death.
Though it’s hard to track the number of deaths from these fires and their long-term impacts, airborne particulates from previous fires here were associated with a 5- to 25-fold increase in cases of pneumonia alone, a disease consistently one of the biggest causes of death of both the elderly and young children in the region.
Burning forests are not the only health threats to the island’s people. Borneo’s rivers are plied by barges scouring river sediments for gold. The process they use releases tons of mercury into the rivers where families catch fish and practice aquaculture. Mercury contamination damages riparian ecosystems and results in smaller, more toxic catches for thousands who depend on rivers for their food security and livelihoods. Parts of the Kahayan River harbor more than twice the legally allowable level of mercury.
I left Borneo with a heavy feeling in my gut. In other places there’s warfare, or HIV or other headline-grabbing atrocities that capture our attention. Yet the sad truth is that a shocking amount of human suffering comes from far less sensational things, such as the silent scourge of environmental degradation and ecosystem loss, which destroy opportunities for healthy and productive lives.
In Borneo, it is the slow burn of peat forests and steady contamination of mercury that quietly, but gravely, threaten the communities living there.
The idea that the natural environment is important to human health isn’t new. It was foremost in Hippocrates’ mind (yes, that Hippocrates) more than 2,000 years ago. But compared to our reactions to other important factors for human health—consider the many public health practices we’ve implemented over the centuries as we’ve learned how disease spread—societies have done very little in the way of sensibly managing ecosystems to protect our health.
One reason we may have neglected our natural lifelines for so long is that we didn’t know just how closely human health is connected to our environment. But that’s rapidly changing thanks to recent scientific advances.
I recently worked with a team of scientists and public health researchers on a study of the links between ecosystems and human health. The evidence we know of, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, connects ecological health to a surprising range of human health dimensions:
- Nutrition. Nutritional deficiencies account for many of the leading causes of death and disability globally, especially for children. With insects, birds and bats pollinating about 1 in 3 food crops worldwide, nature’s role in pollination alone is essential for a big portion of nutrients and calories in the human diet. Meanwhile, fisheries and wild animal populations are key sources of nutrients for billions of people. Without wild game, children in Madagascar would experience a minimum 30 percent higher risk of anemia—increasing their risk for sickness and death in many ways. The global decline of wildlife poses a nutritional crisis for many, with the worst impacts felt by those unable to replace wild food sources with domesticated species or fortified foods.
- Disasters. Healthy mangroves and other coastal barriers defend communities against coastal storms. Researchers estimated one cyclone in Orissa, India would have killed three times as many residents had mangroves not buffered their villages. Global loss of mangroves, reefs, wetlands and dunes places in harm’s way millions who live near the world’s coasts.
- Infectious disease. From hunting to the destruction of habitats, people’s actions alter communities of wild species in many ways, often with unforeseen and significant consequences. Healthy wildlife populations can influence the continued function of ecosystems and check the spread of disease. For example, in both Panama and the Brazilian Amazon, reduction in the diversity of mammal species has been linked to increased risk of human exposure to Chagas disease.
- Climate change. Already the impacts of global forest loss—the combined result of a million matches, bulldozers and machetes—account for more carbon dioxide emissions than all passenger cars combined. As these and other human-caused sources of greenhouse gas emissions continue, the resulting climate shifts contribute to a range of human health impacts, including heat stress, air pollution, spread of infectious disease, respiratory allergens, natural hazards, food insecurity and water scarcity.
- Indirect impacts. Many consequences of ecosystem loss take less direct pathways. In Belize, it took detailed study to discover that fertilizers applied to croplands caused changes in wetland vegetation far downstream. Unfortunately for coastal residents, these changes favor a variety of mosquito much more effective at transmitting malaria. Farming practices in one place have unwittingly resulted in greater exposure to malaria many miles away.
Evidence is mounting that the ecosystems we’re destroying are important for a range of vital human health needs. But countries, communities and families don’t have equal ability to deal with these impacts.
In a wealthy country, low fish catch might result in an altered menu or a shopping inconvenience. In another country it could be a matter of life and death. Indeed it is often the world’s poor—those with few alternative food sources, with less public infrastructure, with limited health care and insurance—who feel the most immediate brunt of environmental losses.
But is money a panacea? In 2013, Singapore, a nation with one of the world’s most productive economies and most admired healthcare systems, found itself choked by smoke from burning forests in neighboring Indonesia. The nation’s otherwise moderate air quality reached “hazardous” levels for the first time ever, and residents flocked to hospitals with cardiopulmonary illnesses.
In the U.S., the potentially debilitating Lyme disease afflicts thousands annually, while West Nile virus killed nearly 300 Americans in 2012. For both diseases, researchers have found higher risk of infection in places where diversity of native animal species has been reduced. Mounting evidence supports the theory that a higher number of species can “dilute” the harmful impact of those few species most effective at transmitting disease.
I write these words from a hospital in Austin, TX. My father experienced a life-threatening infection earlier in the week, by a form of bacteria resistant to nearly all forms of treatment. Thankfully his condition is now improving. As I watch him getting back to cracking jokes and talking about his grandchildren, I notice the antibiotic in Dad’s IV: vancomycin. I remember that it is one of the world’s precious few “antibiotics of last resort.” And I think of its humble origins: a handful of rich soil from the remote forests of Borneo.
Earth’s biodiversity is, in fact, a remarkable storehouse of compounds and innovations that has provided more than half of all commercial medicines, and may harbor undiscovered cures for cancer, malaria or the next emerging infectious disease.
As we destroy Earth’s forests, reefs, wetlands and other ecosystems, we light a fire to our storm barriers, our air filters, our water towers and our medicine cabinets, all at the same time. But we can turn this around: Stewarding nature would unleash a powerful, vital force in sustaining human life.
The notion that death and suffering can be prevented has been a driving force in medicine and has completely transformed human existence. We’re rapidly learning about the health consequences of ecosystem loss, and the countless life-saving benefits that natural ecosystems give us. How much longer should we wait to use that knowledge to save and improve human lives?
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Arkilaus Kladit
My name is Arkilaus Kladit. I'm from the Knasaimos-Tehit tribe in South Sorong Regency, West Papua Province, Indonesia. For decades my tribe has been fighting to protect our forests from outsiders who want to log it or clear it for palm oil. For my people, the forest is our mother and our best friend. Everything we need to survive comes from the forest: food, medicines, building materials, and there are many sacred sites in the forest.
Map of the Knasaimos traditional lands.
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By Farah Aqel
Overthinkers are people who are buried in their own obsessive thoughts. Imagine being in a large maze where each turn leads into an even deeper and knottier tangle of catastrophic, distressing events — that is what it feels like to them when they think about the issues that confront them.
Ruminating<p>According to the late Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a professor of psychology at Yale University, <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5796420/" target="_blank">ruminating</a> involves replaying a problem over and over in your mind. We ruminate by obsessing over our thoughts and thinking repetitively about various aspects of a past situation.</p><p>It usually involves regret, self-loathing and self-blaming. Rumination is associated with the development of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. </p><p>People prone to such patterns of thought may, for example, overanalyze every single detail of a relationship that breaks up. They often blame themselves for what has happened and are overcome with regret, with typical thoughts being: </p><p>- I should have been more patient and more supportive. </p><p>- I have lost the most perfect partner ever. </p><p>- No one will love me again.</p>
Worrying<p>Worrying is wanting to predict the future. It involves negative thoughts about things that might and might not happen.</p><p>- They'll not like me in the interview; they'll not give me the job. </p><p>- I haven't heard back from other employers. How long will I be unemployed?</p><p>These thoughts are energy-draining and distressing. They could happen to anyone under stress. But when you reach the point where your thoughts and worrying are preventing you from doing what you want to do — from living your life to the fullest — then you should take action.</p>
Catch Yourself Overthinking<p>Reuben Berger, a psychotherapist at the university hospital in the western German city of Bonn, recommends several practical steps that you could employ in your daily routine when you catch yourself worrying or ruminating.</p><p>One effective remedy, says Berger, is the <a href="https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uf9938" target="_blank">thought-stopping technique.</a></p><p>"When the negative thoughts come or ruminations start, you say to yourself: 'Stop!,'" he says, adding that it is more effective when you actually say the word out loud.</p><p>He even recommends having a rubber band around your wrist to ping against yourself while saying the word. Adding a visual component by imagining a stop sign also makes the technique more powerful, he says.</p><p>The main idea here is conditioning yourself to stop the loop of worrying (making future predictions) or rumination (obsessing over past events).</p><p>Berger says the technique could take up to two weeks to take effect and that it needs to be practiced every day. "Consistency is very important," he says. </p>
Thoughts Are Just Thoughts<p>Another way of dealing with negative thoughts often used in modern therapy is realizing that thoughts aren't facts, says Berger.</p><p>He says it is important when we think something to ask: Is that real? Did that really happen? What is the worst thing that could happen?</p><p>Flight anxiety is one example where untrue thoughts are accepted as facts. Although air travel is the safest way to get around, people suffering from fear of flying accept their thoughts and fears as reality, then act upon them by refusing to fly.</p>
Mindfulness<p>Berger also recommends the use of mindfulness techniques, in which attention is paid to experiences in the moment without judging them, as a way of reducing worrying.</p><p>"Mindfulness helps you to distance yourself from your thoughts and to be more present in the moment," he says.</p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3432145/#R2" target="_blank">Several studies</a> have shown that mindfulness has a positive impact on reducing stress-related behaviors such as rumination and worrying, as focusing on the moment makes anxiety about other problems impossible.</p><p>Mindfulness can be practiced during routine activities by paying attention to your body and your surroundings. For instance, when you leave for work in the morning, you can focus on sensing the breeze, listen attentively to birds, feel the gravel under your feet and monitor your breath. </p>
Trick Your Brain Into Happiness<p>People plagued by obsessive thoughts do not always choose healthy ways like mindfulness to distract from them, however.</p><p> Dr. Edward Selby, a psychologist at Florida state university, has shown in a study that people try to avoid rumination by engaging in a range of uncontrolled behaviors, such as binge eating and substance abuse.</p><p>But he says that a much better way to overcome such distress is by distraction and shifting attention away from problems that are obsessing us.</p><p>There are many activities that can be used to distract from rumination, he says, and people should choose the one that works best for them. Here are some examples:</p><p>- Listen to music</p><p>- Read a book</p><p>- Take a hot shower</p><p>- Dance or exercise </p><p>- Talk to a friend (not about the problem)</p><p>- Watch a movie</p><p>- Mindfulness meditation</p>
Changing the Perception of Events<p>The way people perceive a situation largely influences their emotions and behavior. It is not the situation itself that determines how they feel, but rather the way they interpret it.</p><p>Reframing negative thoughts can lead to positive emotions and, subsequently, healthier behaviors — including a reduction in damaging overthinking and worrying.</p><p>Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is currently a gold standard in psychotherapy. CBT aims to change the way people think and act. It largely involves challenging unhelpful beliefs or attitudes such as overgeneralization — thinking "I always fail at public speaking" when you have had one bad experience in front of an audience, for example — or "catastrophization," i.e., imagining the worst possible outcome to a situation. </p><p>A psychotherapist can teach people how to implement such thought-changing techniques into their lives. Techniques vary depending on their issues and goals.</p>
Solutions Are at Hand<p>Try to find ways of avoiding worrying, rumination and overthinking that make you feel most comfortable.</p><p>Incorporating any routine in your life when you're stressed isn't an easy task, but you can do it! If you feel overwhelmed, you can always seek professional help. </p><p><em>If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, <a href="https://www.befrienders.org/" target="_blank">at this website.</a></em></p>
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By Michael Baker, Amanda Kvalsvig and Nick Wilson
On Sunday, New Zealand marked 100 days without community transmission of COVID-19.
Deaths From COVID-19 Per Million Population<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU0ODIyOS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MjkzMDc1OX0.7Yp1h1hokihlMJUurDukGmq-Y8NJB0V-07O1ukEjGt0/img.png?width=980" id="0fe6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bce85a610aee18e2f4f1c1caca7b8a0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
<div id="77fff" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce7b34f8986d3d36bee5d4d83ac0822c"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1292270210238447616" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">COVID-19 Update There are no new cases of COVID-19 to report in New Zealand today. It has been 100 days since t… https://t.co/Cz55ixGZUz</div> — Unite against COVID-19 (@Unite against COVID-19)<a href="https://twitter.com/covid19nz/statuses/1292270210238447616">1596936201.0</a></blockquote></div>
Getting Through the Pandemic<p>We have gained a much better understanding of COVID-19 over the past eight months. Without effective control measures, it is likely to continue to spread globally for many months to years, ultimately infecting billions and killing millions. The proportion of infected people who die appears to be <a href="https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.03.20089854v4" target="_blank">slightly below 1%</a>.</p><p>This infection also causes serious <a href="https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m2815" target="_blank">long-term consequences</a> for some survivors. The largest uncertainties involve <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02278-5" target="_blank">immunity to this virus</a>, whether it can develop from exposure to infection or vaccines, and if it is long-lasting. The potential for treatment with antivirals and other therapeutics is also still uncertain.</p><p>This knowledge reinforces the huge benefits of sustaining elimination. We know that if New Zealand were to experience widespread COVID-19 transmission, the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3310086/" target="_blank">impact on Māori and Pasifika populations</a> could be catastrophic.</p><p>We have previously described critical measures to get us through this period, including the use of fabric face masks, improving contact tracing with suitable digital tools, applying a science-based approach to border management, and the need for a dedicated national public health agency.</p><p>Maintaining elimination depends on adopting a highly strategic approach to risk management. This approach involves choosing an optimal mix of interventions and using resources in the most efficient way to keep the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks at a consistently low level. Several measures can contribute to this goal over the next few months, while also allowing incremental increases in international travel:</p><ul><li>resurgence planning for a border-control failure and outbreaks of various sizes, with state-of-the-art contact tracing and an upgraded alert level system</li><li>ensuring all New Zealanders own a <a href="https://www.nzma.org.nz/journal-articles/mass-masking-an-alternative-to-a-second-lockdown-in-aotearoa" target="_blank">re-useable fabric face mask</a> with their <a href="https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12354409" target="_blank">use built into the alert level system</a></li><li>conducting exercises and simulations to test outbreak management procedures, possibly including "mass masking days" to engage the public in the response</li><li>carefully exploring processes to allow <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2020/06/16/preventing-outbreaks-of-covid-19-in-nz-associated-with-air-travel-from-australia-new-modelling-study-of-alternatives-to-quarantine/" target="_blank">quarantine-free travel</a> between jurisdictions free of COVID-19, notably various Pacific Islands, Tasmania and Taiwan (which may require digital tracking of arriving travellers for the first few weeks)</li><li>planning for carefully managed inbound travel by key long-term visitor groups such as tertiary students who would generally still need managed quarantine.</li></ul>
Building Back Better<p>New Zealand cannot change the reality of the global COVID-19 pandemic. But it can leverage possible benefits.</p><p>We should conduct an <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2020/06/11/five-key-reasons-why-nz-should-have-an-official-inquiry-into-the-response-to-the-covid-19-pandemic/" target="_blank">official inquiry into the COVID-19 response</a> so we learn everything we possibly can to improve our response capacity for future events.</p><p>We also need to establish a specialized national public health agency to <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2017/12/20/the-havelock-north-drinking-water-inquiry-a-wake-up-call-to-rebuild-public-health-in-new-zealand/" target="_blank">manage serious threats to public health</a> and provide critical mass to <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2020/02/05/a-preventable-measles-epidemic-lessons-for-reforming-public-health-in-nz/" target="_blank">advance public health generally</a>. Such an agency appears to have been a key factor in the success of Taiwan, which avoided a costly lockdown entirely.</p><p>Business as usual should not be an option for the recovery phase. A recent <a href="https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=12353555" target="_blank">Massey University survey</a> suggests seven out of ten New Zealanders support a green recovery approach.</p><p>New Zealand's elimination of COVID-19 has drawn attention worldwide, with a description just <a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2025203" target="_blank">published</a> in the New England Journal of Medicine. We support a rejuvenated World Health Organization that can provide improved global leadership for pandemic prevention and control, including greater use of an elimination approach to combat COVID-19.</p>
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