On planetary change and human well being | MIT Information
When anthropologist Amy Moran-Thomas first went to Belize in 2008 to begin ethnographic research, she planned to record human health concerns, with an emphasis on diabetes. Then she learned that the local diet that contributed to such chronic illnesses changed due in part to losses in the oceans’ food webs, and kept hearing stories of how local plants were in trouble.
“Over the years, I’ve listened and tried to learn from what people said. I have found that human health and the health of the planets are closely related, ”said Moran-Thomas, associate professor of anthropology for career development at Morrison Hayes at MIT. “When I think of health now, I think of disorder in larger ecosystems and infrastructures that also end up in the human body.”
Moran-Thomas recorded the effects of diabetes in her 2019 book, Traveling with Sugar (now openly available at MIT Libraries), but she tells this story – of a global epidemic estimated to be between Jan. Kills, 5 and 4.2 million people a year (a gap in our basic knowledge to tell) – is just a small piece of a larger narrative.
“Changing weather makes it difficult to grow food and vegetables. The dwindling fish populations are also changing the human diet. The chemicals used to stretch depleted soil or enable sick agricultural crops to survive can contribute to later chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes in humans, ”explains Moran-Thomas. “Clinical medicine treats cancer risk by screening our genes, but not by monitoring our water and air, which are increasingly saturated with carcinogens.”
This spring, Moran-Thomas started a new course, 21A.312 (Planetary Change and Human Health), to give students the opportunity to explore such complex addictions. As the Covid-19 pandemic escalated, students read about the viral ecologies that link human life and animal health. In the fall class’s second semester, students discussed the effects of the California wildfires – and Moran-Thomas added a new unit on the anthropology of mental health and climate change.
“In addition to worrying about physical safety when going outside or whether inhaling smoke can make respiratory illnesses worse,” she says, “it can be a psychological burden to wonder if you need to evacuate or look up at the strange color. “
Addressing all of these interconnected issues requires an approach that doesn’t treat people as an afterthought, says Moran-Thomas. “Climate change is not just or even fundamentally a technological problem,” she says. “It is a societal problem that needs to take into account the role of human choices over time and their unequal consequences for people.
“There can be a tendency to counter climate denialism with more data, and I don’t think that’s the problem,” she says. “Data is not wisdom; Its value depends on how it is collected, interpreted, and framed. “
Think with communities
While Moran-Thomas worked on “Traveling with Sugar”, she returned to Belize time and again and gained insights into slow processes of change – also for people, some of whom have lost loved ones and limbs to diabetes over the years, and for the land of the country affected by erosion and sea level rise.
“At one point in southern Belize, where I did my first interview more than a decade ago, the entire front street and over 20 houses went into the ocean,” she says, noting that the maintenance of bodies and infrastructure is often interrelated connected is. For example, if a road or bridge goes under water during a flood, it can have a huge impact on whether people can reach the hospital in times of crisis or whether they have access to preventive care. “Still, I kept seeing people repairing and redoing. I wonder what could be possible if designers focused their insights on how health and climate erosion are intertwined. “
In many ways, says Moran-Thomas, chronic wear and tear pile up on both the planet and humans like an emerging storm. The painting in the above slideshow by Belizean artist Pen Delvin Cayetano, which also appeared in her book, shows the effects of Hurricane Hattie, a storm that devastated Belize in 1961. The artwork shows the souls of those who died between the waves. In Belize, Hurricane Hattie has sometimes been used as a metaphor to talk about diabetes emergencies and losses, says Moran-Thomas, by people trying to convey how slow change can suddenly break out into crisis.
“It’s also a reminder of how long people have grappled with these intertwined battles for climate and health,” she says, “that many experts elsewhere are just beginning to notice.”
Co-designed design and climate adaptation
Adaptation has become an increasingly popular keyword among those concerned with impacts on the climate. However, Moran-Thomas notes that these efforts could do more to learn from the insights people are trying to provide in the places already hardest hit. “Whose definition of ‘adaptation’ will be enforced?” Ask Moran-Thomas. “For example, climate adaptation is widely used in politics to construct buildings, a style that has long been used in the Caribbean,” she says, pointing out that hurricane stairs are often built to withstand flooding.
Now that many communities and families include someone with mobility issues associated with a diabetic amputation, such steep steps make their own problems. “Before government policies and insurance companies incentivize climate change for homes and buildings around the world, it is important to think twice what designs do this in a way that doesn’t pose a major setback to the rights of people with disabilities, ”says Moran-Thomas.
“People are trying to envision future designs that will enable hurricane-proof homes while providing wheelchair access, as well as prostheses that can be used fundamentally in the ecologies their families live in, such as walking across sand between homes. Organizations developing guidelines and drafts for customization should listen to what stakeholders are trying to share about the usage issues they have identified. “
In such cases, it is especially important that the design is considered collectively, as the unequal effects of climate change, chronic weathering and other racial inequalities often converge. “That’s why I appreciate the social perspective that starts with the questions: What work is already being done at the grassroots level that might be invisible from a distance? What visions do people have and what would this work support? What would a proposed technology mean in local life? ” She says.
Community ecologies across generations
In order to deal with the social dilemmas associated with climate change, according to Moran-Thomas, anthropology can also trigger bottlenecks in the surrounding area. Thinking with communities can be a way to shed some light on why some US citizens don’t see climate change as real. Borrowing an idea from Émile Durkheim, she explains: “He said that science did not gain credibility by being true, but by the community that created it. And that people could lose faith in science if they lose this connection to the community. “
The ecology of the community across generations is once again the focus of Moran-Thomas’ current project, which focuses on the intertwined fossil fuel and social world stories associated with the coal, oil and gas legacy of their home state of Pennsylvania. With support from the 2020 Levitan Humanities Prize, she explores the legacy of the carbon economy, the inherent notions of heritage and the region’s long history of segregation and localization that continues to impact health and politics today.
To find a way forward, everyone has to make an effort. Therefore, Moran-Thomas is encouraged by the lively discussions surrounding MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges Initiative, the multidisciplinary effort to accelerate the next phase of climate research at the institute.
A number of speakers in recent public panels suggested ways for MIT to model ethically and socially balanced responses to climate problems. Brainstorming to build climate research communities at MIT included the idea of a new center for the humanities, arts, and science with a focus on climate and society, a proposal that Moran-Thomas contributed to along with many others at MIT-SHASS. Whatever happens next, she hopes that research, working towards jointly planned responses, will shed further light on the links between planetary change and human health.
“People often forget that MIT co-founded the country’s first public health graduate program with Harvard back in 1913,” she says. “Then MIT later narrowed to focus on technology. But so much right now reminds us of how health research can be stronger when it is transdisciplinary – when science and technology unfold in dialogue with the social input of a wider public. I hope the growing conversations about climate health around MIT can help regain a multidimensional, humanistic vision of health. “
Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Author: Kathryn O’Neill