It’s Time We Framed Environmental Issues as Health Issues

To an activist, the benefits of reversing and protecting against climate change are evident. The environment is one of the most purely intersectional issues, touching a myriad of social and economic issues as well. However, problems that are perceived to be coming in the future, are largely invisible, and dealt with on a macro scale are hard for people to be conceptualize. How can one person face the insurmountable problems facing the planet, when they have daily and personal problems to address? Furthermore, even many environmentalists pick their battles — you may compost, but if you buy red meat, you are furthering deforestation and greenhouse emissions. You might use reusable shopping bags and coffee mugs, but accept Styrofoam to go boxes at restaurants. It’s difficult.

Photo I took of inner harbor

So, why do we think telling people who don’t care about the environment that they’re stupid, heartless, or uninformed will work? We could spend the next few years feeling morally and intellectually superior, while the earth burns down around us, thanks to bad communication.

Instead, many environmental problems can be tackled on a more personal level by framing them as issues of health. Take the Chesapeake Bay. It’s disgusting. A waterwheel meant to remove trash from the water as it enters the harbor can fill a dumpster in about 1.5 hours. A typical dumpster weighs six tons. In a recent short film, shot and produced by students in American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking in conjunction with Maryland Public Television, they explore an environmental disaster from a public health perspective.

The film, called Healing Baltimore’s Harbor: A Pipe Dream? addresses the waste that accumulates in the harbor as dangerous not only to the wildlife, but the people who live and work in Baltimore. The water is too dangerous to swim in, to fish from, or even to touch. One researcher from Blue Water Baltimore needed to be hospitalized after coming in contact with contaminated water, even though she was wearing protective gear. It just takes a little bit to become violently ill.

The waste doesn’t come from litter thrown directly in the harbor, it washes into it from roads and parking lots, and from an ill-maintained waste management system. These contaminants get into storm drains and their pipes, which flow into streams and rivers. The water feeding into the harbor and the harbor itself have both tested positive for oil, gasoline, and human fecal bacteria, among other pollutants. One of the most dangerous to humans is the fecal waste, which seeps into the water drainage pipes from poorly maintained sewage system. In heavy rains, waste water can even back up and flow into people’s homes, contaminating everything they touch. The filmmakers interviewed one family that had to throw out everything in their basement and replaced the drywall to make their home safe again, after a storm sent waste water gurgling out of their toilet and bathtub, covering the entire basement.

This is the kind of reporting that can help put environmental issues into perspective and catch the public’s attention. Instead of addressing the many issues and considerations that flow into the harbor, instead the general issue of its contamination is distilled into a human issue. Community members mourn the loss of their harbor and wonder if their children will ever be able to play in the water. Others face damage to their homes. Still others have lost their livelihoods. It also helps to educate the public, showing small but concrete steps to helping clean the water, which could be simple as being mindful of what one flushes down the toilet. The harbor will take billions of dollars and years to clean, but it’s still a possibility. We just need to present the issue to people in a way that resonates with them.

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