I just got done reading The Making of a Tropical Disease: A Short History of Malaria by Randall M. Packard, and published throguh Johns Hopkins University. It’s an incredibly fascinating read; while the writing occasionally gets into more academic territory, it’s still easily accessible by the layperson. I’m not any sort of medical student or health professional, but I do like to read about unusual things (I read a A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States by Stephen Mihm a couple of months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it).
Packard’s book on malaria captivated me for a number of reasons. I’m the kind of person who loves to read National Geographic cover to cover, so reading about the actual reproductive cycle of the parasites that cause malaria, including both the stages inside the mosquito and inside the human or other mammalian host, was interesting in and of itself. However, what really got me was how thoroughly the author described the economic, social and environmental conditions that historically led to malaria outbreaks as well as suppression/elimination, and how these patterns exist in malaria-ridden areas today. Essentially, malaria hits the poor the hardest, partly due to compromised immune systems from malnutrition, and partly because these people are the ones most likely to be exposed to malaria. Many people think of malaria as a tropical disease; however, it plagued the southern United States during the Civil War, and had a substantial presence in England for quite some time.
What really struck me with this book was the demonstration of how a problem can’t truly be solved with a single-focused attack. Packard made it very clear over and over again that simply throwing a bunch of chemicals–insecticides and suppressive medicines–has proven to be less effective and even counterproductive over the long run. Instead, he advocates a multilayered approach that not only takes individual regions’ needs and conditions into consideration, but looks at everything from the environment (standing water for mosquitos to lay eggs in) to economic issues (migrant workers moving in and out of malaria-plagued areas) to social status (the poor often have greater exposure to malaria and fewer resources to combat it with) and how neglecting any of these areas can sabotage efforts to control this disease.
This really got me thinking not only about public health issues and the problems in our own largely privatized health care system, but also about applying multilayered approaches to my own pet causes. Take environmentalism, for example. It’s easy for me to sit back and say “You should buy organic produce because it lessens the amount of chemical burden on the environment, and it’s better for you”. In some cases I’m preaching to the choir; a lot of people I know either buy organic, or are at least aware of and in agreement with the need to. However, in some places organic produce is a lot more expensive than conventional produce; I’m fortunate in that I’m in an area that’s very organic-friendly, so the prices aren’t that much more (and are often the same in the prime harvesting months).
Recession or not, there are a lot of people (including in the pagan/etc. community) who are living hand to mouth, or at least on a tight budget. Outside of that community, it’s the same. It would be foolish of me to go to someone who’s scraping by on food stamps and other social assistance, who may live in highly substandard housing, and say “Go buy some organic carrots for $2.99 a pound”. Chances are that person is going to be less concerned with chemical pesticides and fertilizers going into hir body, and more concerned with making sure hir body gets food, period. Add in that a lot of low-income neighborhoods don’t even have decent grocery stores, let alone easy access to organic produce, and I wouldn’t be doing much good.
However, let’s look at the promotion of organic produce from a multilayered perspective. Specifically, the most immediate problem we run into is money. People who aren’t making enough money usually aren’t interested in spending more than what they have to. At times when I was living on half a shoestring, I was interested in what was cheap, not necessarily what was organic or free range. Not having enough money can come down to several factors. Not having enough formal education can severely limit your job prospects, which can then limit your potential income. Inadequate transportation, either personal or public, can also contribute to limitations in employment. The same thing goes for the local job market–all the experience and qualifications in the world won’t do you any good when there aren’t any jobs to be had. Additionally, even when people have money, a lot of folks have no idea how to handle it. While knowing how to handle money, including even the simplest things like balancing a checkbook or knowing how to arrange a monthly budget, can go a long way in making one’s resources go farther.
A lot of the above issues then funnel into education. Some of it is access to formal education past high school, as well as convincing people to stay in high school and actually pay attention–assuming that the school is well funded enough to have the necessary materials to offer a decent education. College, of course, becomes a more expensive proposition each year, even for two year degrees and trade schools. On a more personal level, there are no formal instituted guidelines on how to handle money itself–we learn how to deal with money usually from family members, and if they don’t have a good relationship with money, chances are we won’t either. It’s no good having resources available–either formal education or financial know-how–if you have no idea why they’re important or what to do once you have them.
This then links into the allocation of public funding by the government. Since we have the War That Never Ends going on right now, a lot of money is getting shoved into defense. Imagine how much we could do for public education if we rerouted even a fraction of the defense budget towards public schooling and other education resources. Education starts at home, too–however, if your home life is punctuated by abuse, gang wars and shootings, rampant crime, and general social malaise, your education may have more to do with basic survival under environmental stress and pressure. And schools in such areas tend to be more poorly-funded, which certainly doesn’t help the situation any.
And this is just tracing environmentalism through economics, specifically the availability of money–and I’ve barely scratched the surface of that topic. Never mind widespread apathy, misinformation on all sides of the issue, lack of good solutions in some cases, and educating people about possibilities and what we can do. When you think about it, it’s amazing that things are as green as they are, relatively speaking!
I’m very glad that I read that book on malaria, because it really made me think. However, thinking isn’t enough. Thoughts need to be applied to perceptions, and perceptions need to inform our actions. I’m getting better at this process. For example, I have consciously changed a number of my habits to be more Earth-friendly. I never go to the store without reusable canvas shopping bags, and I’ve started tucking some clean used plastic bags for veggies and bulk items in there, too. I turn the water off when I lather my hands up with soap. I carefully consider a lot of my everyday purchases, from laundry detergent to kitchen implements to clothing, with things like transportation/shipping and origin of components in mind. And now I want to expand that awareness to include factors that weave into environmentalism. Healthier, happier people are more likely to be conscious of their actions, and may have less of an impact on the world around them. Additionally, social consciousness often links into ecological consciousness–a factory that responds positively to criticism about sweatshop labor may also do so with criticism of toxic emissions.
One of the big problems that progressives have is that we often have a habit of partitioning off our individual causes and try to make ours more “important” than others. This isn’t universal, of course, but sometimes it’s hard to work together when one person insists that women’s rights are the most important, while another argues that ending white slavery should take precedence, and never mind that person over there who’s screaming about the drowning polar bears. If we look at all of the issues–feminism, queer rights, first amendment rights, free vs. fair trade, environmentalism, public health, etc.–for long enough, we can find ties among all of them. That doesn’t mean that we can’t specialize; on the contrary, spreading ourselves to thin is as dangerous as turning a blind eye to others and only focusing on our pet causes.
But The Making of a Tropical Disease made me really realize just how intertwined all of the issues really are. Therioshamanism, as I’ve mentioned, is an ecologically centered paganism, focused especially (though not exclusively) on animals, physical and spiritual. It’s important for me to remember, though, that I can’t just limit myself to making donations to the Defenders of Wildlife and working magic to help eco-friendly bills pass. I also need to be aware of the pressures on the human beings who may be negatively affecting the fragile ecosystems. Many people involved in things like deforestation in the Amazon or poaching of African wildlife are people who are impoverished and just doing what they can to survive. They may not care so much that there will be no elephants or rain forests tomorrow, if there’s a chance they can eat today.
This will, of course, take more thought and consideration along the way. But on the more physical end of therioshamanism, this multilayered awareness has become more important and, in my opinion, more crucial. If this is to be an active spirituality, one that truly engaged the concerns that I have and that I am called to address and act upon, then I have to do more than offer lip service.