Conservation Health

It’s called "conservation medicine," but perhaps a better name would be "conservation health," implying a preventive approach that embraces the precautionary principle. The basic idea is simple, but it’s seldom observed: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

© Jerry Russell

This principle would lead us to fully test drugs and chemicals before allowing them on the market, and would ensure that we’d proceed very cautiously in our contact with natural ecosystems. Conservation medicine is beginning to make clear the consequences of upsetting nature’s balance, in terms of human, animal and planetary health.

Conservation medicine embraces many fields and disciplines. The science is complex, but most people would find the theory intuitive: Human health is fragile, and dependent on the larger world around it. Yes, it is about AIDS, SARS, mad cow, West Nile, malaria and monkeypox, but it is also about the interconnectedness of all life and the fact that human behavior has consequences.

This emerging science describes the myriad ways in which climate change brings new viruses to the fore, through rising waters and heat shocks. It describes how sea turtle tumors result from the human-caused agricultural runoff that pollutes coastal areas, and how diseases in land animals and marine creatures can leap to the human population. It notes that increasing human populations are forcing closer human-animal contact, resulting in diseases whose origins can be hard to track.

Conservation medicine analyzes deforestation, the bush meat trade, global traffic in endangered species and other factors that are causing us to lose control of public health. And it details the way our fast-paced global transportation system moves people, animals—and diseases—around the world. Every action has a reaction, and some of our activities as lords of the Earth have lately exhibited a vicious kickback.

Among other things, our cover story on conservation medicine is a primer on the consequences of our horrendous relationship with the other animals on this planet, from the ones we crowd together, feed to one another, shoot up with drugs and then eat to those in the wild that we arrogantly displace through reckless actions and unchecked population growth.

Will we learn a lesson from the new diseases stalking our planet, what author Laurie Garrett calls "the coming plagues"? Maybe. But for conservation medicine to work effectively, we need to thoroughly revamp the approach that keeps doctors, veterinarians and ecologists all working within their separate spheres, with little interaction.

Conservation medicine is a vitally important issue but I’m doubtful it will get a fair hearing in our sound bite, shout "em down media world—that is, not unless the environmental movement makes a concerted effort to see that it does. Here’s an issue that the green community can rally around, and put its best minds to work translating what can be impenetrable scientific jargon into real, graspable issues. Nothing less than the health of our planet—and of our own species—is at stake.