Guest post: When You Come To a Fork in the Road, Take It.

Today we have a guest post from a friend of mine who recently won the OPHA essay contest! The topic was health and the environment and her essay really helps you to take your health into perspective and find the little ways you can make a positive difference for yourself! Thank you Vera for all of the great ideas and information. Enjoy!

When You Come To a Fork in the Road, Take It.
By Vera Vos

The Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterfly lives in a small strip of coastal rainforest in Papua New Guinea. Its entire range is about 100 square miles. With a wing span just over 1 foot, the female Birdwing is the largest butterfly in the world. Their niche within the jungle ecosystem is very specific. Eggs are laid on the leaves of the pipevine plant which the caterpillars consume vigorously for about 1 month until they enter the pupa stage. Pipevine is poisonous and by eating the leaves the caterpillar incorporates poisons into its body making it, as well as the adult butterfly, toxic to most predators – a handy adaptation. Adult butterflies live at the top of the tree canopy seeking nectar from specific flowers that are large enough to hold their weight and breadth.

Unfortunately, three specific things have happened which has placed the Birdwing on the endangered species list. In 1950 nearby Mount Lamington erupted changing a large portion of their former range to a more diverse rainforest with fewer pipevines and fewer high canopy plant species bearing large flowers. Birdwings were not adaptable to these changed conditions. In the last several decades, many acres of their current range were converted to palm plantations, further depleting their habitat. Thirdly, because of its large size and rarity, the species is prized by collectors, adding a unique and very resourceful predator to the mix.

Coyotes are a very different kind of species than Birdwings. Despite habitat destruction and intense hunting pressure by humans, or maybe because of it, coyotes have expanded their range from mainly the southwest to almost the entire North American continent. They are predators with excellent hunting skills and the ability to learn new tricks to capture prey. But they also do fine eating spoiled meat left by other predators, plants, nuts or whatever their particular area has to offer. If their current habitat changes and no longer meets their needs, they move on. Where the Birdwing sees certain death outside their specific niche, the coyote sees opportunity. They are very adaptable.

As a species, humans are like coyotes, adaptable. We thrive on every continent in the world except Antarctica. If our current habitat no longer meets our needs for whatever reason – politics, religion, depleted soil, boredom, weather – we seek new lands to explore and inhabit. We also have an ability, unique to our species, to change our habitat to fit our needs. For example, early Americans burned the prairies to stimulate growth of young, nutritious grasses which increases game species. All over the world humans have converted a myriad of ecosystems into farmland to grow crops. Our ability to harness the environment to our benefit has led us from living in nomadic tribal communities to permanent villages, towns and cities.

Our adaptability and ingenuity has certainly expanded our range on this planet. But we have achieved something even more remarkable. In the last 200 years humans have experienced an unprecedented increase in health and longevity. Obviously, inventions such as better farming tools, mills, etc have played a role. Louis Pasteur’s discovery of microorganisms and their role in disease prompted changes in sanitation which certainly lead to improvement. But there has been something much more basic afoot in the last few centuries. During the period of Enlightenment, humans began to understand that their lot in life is not set in stone but determined by social norms. A higher being did not decree that some are Royalty and others peasants. We discovered that personal choices can change life’s path. It seems obvious today that we can decide to be a doctor or farmer or move to Florida, but it took centuries of human cultural evolution to reach the point where the social environment supported the writing of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.

However, though the words declare that all men are created equal, this does not translate to – all who live in America have equal opportunity. Just like the Birdwing butterfly whose biology restricts its environment, humans are restricted by their social strata. Our special niche is where we are born and where we live. Breadth of opportunity is shaped by one’s neighborhood, school, parents and peers. One’s personality within this niche is a large contributing factor. But, ultimately, we are adaptable like the coyote and have the ability to move ourselves into environments more conducive to health and well being.

As a group, modern society has made improvements in our overall environment that have promoted health for everybody. We have laws that mandate safety of food, cars, equipment, workplace, etc. We have compulsory education, the backbone of any opportunity.

But most of our environmental and societal changes have been shaped by factors other than health. Urban sprawl is a result of the success of automobiles for personal transportation, advertising for increasing consumerism and fear mongering for
segregating communities. The need for continuity to support food franchising has led to factory farming which enables consumers to have a McDonalds hamburger in Tulsa, OK that tastes exactly the same as a McDonald’s hamburger in Rochester, NY and San Diego, CA. So many factors come into play to create an exact replica of any food product. The science behind a McDonald’s hamburger, a Lay’s potato chip, a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, that is the same wherever you are in this country, is vast and has led to the very powerful food production infrastructure we have today.

And that’s the rub. Our unique ability to harness the environment is a blessing and a curse. For everything gained, something is lost. Building a permanent village increases the chance of flood or fire and disease. Converting the natural ecosystem to farmland and communities decreases diversity. Developing food based on same taste and appearance sacrifices nutritional needs. The more homogenous an environment is the more susceptible to biological and natural disasters.

That’s where we are today – in the midst of a biological disaster. You really wouldn’t know it to listen to the news. The economy and the price of gas dominate with political finger pointing as the backdrop. A war that seems unending and has killed tens of thousands while destroying the environment and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of others gets mention now and then. Climate change is a hot topic examining a very real natural disaster. But, how many have heard that 6 out of 7 American workers have a chronic disease and that 55% have two or more? In 2009 11.3% of the population had diabetes and 35% had prediabetes. Worldwide, 63% of deaths are due to chronic diseases also called non-communicable or diseases of affluence versus communicable or diseases of poverty. Sixteen to 33% of children depending on age are obese in this country.

This brings us to the staggering and heart wrenching conclusion that for the first time in human history, the next generation is likely not to live as long as we will. Despite all our efforts to achieve the immense improvement in infant and early childhood mortality in the last 100 years, children born today can expect to have shorter lives than us. And, maybe even worse, for many, their shorter lives will be plagued by the pain, misery and financial devastation of a slowly progressive and debilitating disease. This is an unprecedented personal, societal and economic disaster in the making. Despite Oregon’s outdoorsy and healthy feel we are in the thick of things when it comes to chronic disease. The Milken Institute State Chronic Disease Index ranks all 50 states by concentration of disease. Utah at #1 is healthiest. West Virginia at #50 has the most per capita, reported chronic disease in the nation. Oregon ranks #30, in my opinion, a dismal place to be.

Like the frog in a pot of slowly warming water, the majority are oblivious to the implications. We enjoy the taste and convenience of fast and processed foods. We like the protection from weather and strangers in the comfort and safety of our personal
vehicles. We enjoy being with people with similar values and lifestyles as our own. And we are busy at work and at home. It takes most of our energy just to fulfill our daily obligations. But at some point, the water heats enough to cause damage. In real experiments, the frog always jumps out but that’s a lot easier than changing habits.

In a misguided effort to address our health crisis we are throwing money at our health care system, a system that is sustained by and profits from disease, not wellness. Our governments attempt to address health by such things as food pyramids or plates are almost comical in their gyrations to use real science while kowtowing to industry demands.

This audience understands the causes of chronic disease – poor nutrition and lack of exercise exacerbated by socioeconomic factors and environmental degradation. Governments and health care systems are incapable of facilitating change. The more they spend, the worse our health. Change happens when individuals speak up and information spreads. Books like Fast Food Nation, The China Study, Cradle to Cradle, movies like Who Killed the Electric Car and Forks Over Knives and many others educate and inform us about our current environment and it’s implications to our health and well being. Many also offer guidelines to change. These authors and movie makers as well as grassroots individuals and organizations are the facilitators of change. Locally, we have them to thank for our wonderful Portland Farmers Markets, a growing commitment by restaurateurs to local, seasonal foods, the ever growing business of sustainable products and our pretty good mass transit system by American standards.

In addition, I am eagerly anticipating the keynote address of Dr Richard Jackson at the next OPHA conference. The built environment is a huge factor in our ability to maintain and achieve health. Places to walk, shop, work, gather and play in our neighborhoods are the foundation of biological, emotional and economic health.

Recently, I met a young man at Portland’s Better Living Home and Garden Show who is touring the nation in his biodiesel RV to educate people about living that sustains human and environmental health. I am inspired by him and so many others and feel that this movement towards health and sustainability is at the cusp of continued human evolution.

So many people are adding their knowledge and expertise to address this issue. What I think has been neglected in the current dialog of environment and disease is our biological roots. The coyote doesn’t change its environment because it’s curious to see what’s on the other side of the mountain. Nothing feels better than the comforts of a known environment. It changes because its current habitat is no longer safe or does not provide food. It is forced to move. There have always been a few humans who are curious about what’s on the other side, be they mountains or compostable toilets, but most of us, just like the Birdwing, thrive in our specific niche and are reluctant to leave except in overwhelming circumstances such as oppression, famine, natural disaster, or, currently, economic necessity. Changing ones environment can bring opportunity but also new dangers, stressors and challenges.

The goal for people to achieve and/or maintain health is by actively creating a healthy microenvironment or niche in a world of temptation. Neither coyotes nor Birdwings can do this but humans can. This approach not only achieves the absence of disease, it has the potential to support a vibrancy, vigor and sense of well being that few individuals’ experience. The challenge is overcoming the biggest obstacle of all – our biology, which for very good evolutionary reasons chooses the familiar path of least resistance.

In biological terms a species ideal habitat or environment is that place that provides nutritious food and safe, non-toxic shelter to maintain individuals. Breeding opportunities and a healthy place for raising young are essential to maintain the species. A
microenvironment or niche is the place within a habitat where a certain species thrives. The Birdwing lives in the lowland coastal rainforest habitat and thrives in the large flowers of the upper canopy. Coyotes live in multiple habitats but thrive in areas with plenty of rabbits and far from humans who wish them harm.

Currently, humans in the U.S. live in an environment where most food has been replaced by commercially reproduced artificial products, CRAP for short and where exercise is something you must do in addition to your employment and family obligations. Poorer neighborhoods have less food and more CRAP but no one is immune.

As individuals, we have two choices. We can wait for government and industry to change our environment to a healthy one or we can recognize our resistance and excuses as evolutionary based biological traits but forge ahead anyway to muster the self discipline and build our niche or microenvironment into a place where we and our children, thrive.

Following are some examples:

  1. Food – It’s simple. Eat fresh, whole foods in their most natural state as possible. These are nutrient dense, meaning they have much nutrition packed into fewer calories. We are lucky to have access to some of the best food in the world in Portland. Check your cupboards and fridge to see how your food microenvironment measures up. If products are packaged and list more than one ingredient, no matter what its claims to health, it’s CRAP. So, dried pinto beans are fine, granola bars are not. This kind of eating requires cooking and having access to cookbooks that offer simple, nutritious recipes. For a general guideline I recommend Andrew Weil’s Food Pyramid. Though I agree with the conclusions drawn from the China Study that a vegan diet is ideal, that may be unrealistic for many people and Andrew Weil’s Food Pyramid is a good compromise. Breakfast lunch and dinner are the times to eat. Children may need healthy between meal snacks but adults don’t. Restaurants and processed foods cater to taste and for human taste buds that means plenty of fat, salt and sugar. These ingredients are biologically essential but required extra effort to come by throughout most of human history. Unfortunately, that means we have a strong craving for the stuff. Our bodies, however, do not know how to use them when taken in excess especially in the setting of very limited physical activity. In a nutshell, this is the cause of chronic disease. Encourage healthy nutrition in restaurants by choosing those with a general understanding that nutrient dense foods taste good on their own.
  2. Shelter – Since the 1950’s the goal in new housing construction has been single level as much as possible. Even today, having stairs in ones home can decrease its value. The irony is that stairs in our homes are the best and easiest thing to incorporate exercise into our daily lives without a trip to the gym. Hips, knees and ankle joints and the muscles surrounding them stay strong and flexible much longer in a microenvironment that includes stairs. If you’re looking for a home, think stairs. With the same goal in mind, shun elevators in buildings and seek the stairs. Think about cleaning products and their impact on your health more so than the impact on stains or odors or “germs”. Water and elbow grease are the best cleaners maybe with some vinegar and baking soda thrown in. Our backyards, patios or decks offer opportunities to grow some of our own food and to create areas for relaxation, fun and exercise. Set up a badminton net and have a neighborhood tournament culminating in a nutrient dense meal. This provides exercise, camaraderie, fun and nutritious food – a successful recipe for optimal health.
  3. Education – Learning is the foundation of our democracy. An educated populace generally, over time makes good decisions for themselves and society as a whole. We are lucky to have not only libraries available but now the internet as well. All information is laced with personal agendas and some are more factual than others, but over time truth slowly percolates to the top. Keep your mind active and engaged by seeking out new knowledge about everything that interests you but most especially, health.

The list goes on but the message remains the same. Humans can and do overcome the obstacles of fear, inertia, lack of knowledge and biology to create microenvironments in which they and their children thrive and continue to inch towards a longer and healthier life span. And as more people do this we may will reach a tipping point as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same name, where both healthy micro and macro environments dominate and our world becomes one that is sustainable for us and our fellow creatures.

We are at a fork in our human road. Which one will you take? I’ll leave you with a nursery rhyme that has been around for several hundred years:

The best 6 doctors anywhere
And no one can deny it.
Are sunshine, water, rest and air,
Exercise and diet
These six will gladly you attend
If only you are willing
Your mind they’ll ease
Your health they’ll mend
And charge you not a shilling.

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About Kelly

Working at changing the world, with the little things we do, every day. I am the Doer Team Manager and the Do Good Doer at Brown Paper Tickets. My hope with this blog is to help spark a change. To look at the little things we do everyday and see how we can be a positive impact on everyone around us. The more each of us do, however small it may seem, the better world we will all have.

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