Our economies are killing us. Here’s how to fix them.

By Ben Martin, Green Economy Coalition

Today is World Health Day, which every year is a great excuse for journalists and editors to trot out finger-wagging articles about how unhealthy we’re all getting. We’re drinking too much, not exercising enough, our food is basically just sugar and chemicals, and our lungs are clogged with car exhaust.

But these aren’t just symptoms of unhealthy people. They’re the side-effects of an unhealthy environment – and a diseased economy. Diesel fumes, contaminated chicken and asbestos in the attic are just the most obvious warning signs of a deeper malaise: an economy which profits from poisoning, and is blind to the damage done to the air, food and water that are supposed to keep us healthy.

Poisoned planet equals poisoned people

Some of the threats posed to human health by the brown economy are obvious: water contaminated by industrial run-off, processed meat stuffed with chlorine, antibiotics and hormones, cities choked by smog. A 2017 report in the Lancet found that environmental pollution contributed to more than 9 million deaths annually – one in six of the total – with low-income countries like Bangladesh and Somalia particularly affected.

And the health implications of unchecked climate change are also well understood, with heatwaves, disease outbreaks, natural disasters and malnutrition all intensifying as the world warms. “Business as usual” is cooking the planet into a carbon fever, with potentially deadly consequences for millions around the world.

Even in wealthy countries, our economies are increasingly harmful to human health. As our air becomes more polluted, our food less nutritious, and our lives ever more frantic, fragmented and stressful, it’s no surprise that the cost of treating people affected by related health conditions is swelling.

The World Bank estimates that air pollution alone costs the global economy more than 5 trillion USD every year. Just one city in the US, Flint, Michigan, faces projected costs of 400 million USD after toxic lead from industrial run-off contaminated the city’s drinking water. And the rise of unhealthy processed foods has resulted in an obesity and diabetes crisis in the West: by 2035, the NHS is projected to spend 20 per cent of its total budget on diabetes-related illnesses alone.

But these financial figures, grim as they are, do not capture the most pernicious effects of the brown economy, which cannot be measured in monetary terms: simple human pain, suffering, and loss.

Paying the price

Of course, it’s important not to forget that public health has improved massively since the industrial revolution, and that modern societies have delivered benefits to their citizens in terms of longevity, freedom from disease, better sanitation and so on.

But the massive expansion of material wealth that has fuelled these medical advances has been bought at a cost – a cost borne by the environment, whose natural capital is harvested as raw materials, and the poor, who live and work in unhealthy and sometimes outright dangerous conditions, often to produce goods and services for the global economy.

These deferred costs are starting to come home. Healthcare systems are creaking under the strain, and politicians are struggling to explain how our societies will pay for this rising tide of debilitation, while simultaneously investing the trillions required to avoid climate catastrophe.

We might need to amputate

We can’t fix these problems by sticking plasters on symptoms. Instead we need to root out the cause of the disease: our broken economy.

When governments make economic policy, people’s health is at best a secondary concern, too often ignored or subordinated to the pursuit of profit and GDP growth. Too many businesses make profits from selling unhealthy, harmful products while leaving society to pick up the bill. And the global economy incentivises the giddy exploitation of nature, heedless of the impacts that will have on the natural world that supports us.

Even the fatcats at Davos are now arguing that policymaker’s obsession with growth is damaging our societies and our planet. Could we instead put human health and welfare at the heart of the global economy, the prime policy goal of governments and business alike? If our social and economic systems were designed to prioritise people’s wellbeing over profit, and policies, industries, jobs and lifestyles were designed to support that goal – what would that society look like?

We think it would probably look a lot like the green economy.

A green economy is a healthy economy

As Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level demonstrated, more inclusive, equal, and cohesive societies have markedly lower rates of obesity, drug abuse, depression, teenage pregnancies, and violence. Redesigned energy and transport systems will not just cut air pollution, but also encourage healthier modes of movement like walking and cycling. And reforming markets and businesses so that they are accountable for their impacts on society and the environment would end private profiteering at the expense of people’s health.

The positive health effects of action on inequality, decarbonisation and economic reform are well known. Indeed, a 2014 IMF paper found that strong carbon pricing would be in countries’ economic and social best interests even if climate change didn’t exist – because it would reduce air pollution and substantially improve citizen health. Rather than spending billions on treating people harmed by their increasingly noxious environments, we could save money and increase human happiness by making our planet a healthier place to live.

There’s almost nothing that’s more important in most people’s lives than their own health and wellbeing, and that of their families. Shouldn’t it be the most important thing in our economies too?

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