The Sustainability Buzz

Connecting the Sustainability Pillars: Ecosystems and Human Health

People walking in woodsSometimes at iSpring we’re asked what our definition of sustainability is.  Rather than haul out the traditional Brundtland definition, which really applies more to sustainable development than sustainability itself, we’ve taken to using the definition from an unnamed African elder, “Enough, for all, forever.”  It’s pretty clear what that means.

It’s also enormously broad.  To make it more manageable we often think of sustainability in terms of three components – the economic component, the human component and the environmental component.  The correlation between the economic component and the environmental one is often the easiest to grasp.  If I replace my incandescent light bulbs with CFLs, I’ll save money on my electric bill.  Likewise, if I put solar panels on my roof, I’ll have a quantifiable savings. Some of the other correlations are more difficult to see.

Lately, because of the Green Performance Strategies (GPS) work that we’ve been doing with the Pool Health Care Trust and the Health Care Council of the Lehigh Valley, we’ve been thinking more about the human component of sustainability.  Specifically, we’ve been thinking about the factors that influence human health.  Coincidentally, a news flash from the EPA’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities (SHC) research program showed up in our inbox announcing the launch of the Eco-Health Relationship Browser.

The Browser is an interactive tool that, in the EPA’s well-crafted words, “illustrates the linkages between human health and ecosystem services – benefits supplied by nature.”  It provides an opportunity to investigate the correlation between the human and environmental components of sustainability.  These are often the correlations that seem intuitive (yes, I think if we make that environmental change it should help) but can be hard to quantify and capture.  The Browser draws from more than 300 peer-reviewed scientific studies to “document the many tangible and intangible services and health benefits that are provided by our surrounding ecosystems.”

The interesting thing about the Browser is that the user can view the correlations from three perspectives.  There are four ecosystems that are defined – agro-ecosystems, forests, urban ecosystems, and wetlands.  Six services that ecosystems provide are also defined – air filtration, engagement with nature, heat mitigation, promotion of physical activity, water filtration, and water regulation.  The third perspective is health outcomes covering 33 different conditions, ranging from ADHD to thyroid dysfunction.

The interactive nature of the graphic makes it easy to view the correlations.  For example, if I click on “forests”, I discover a definition of forests as well as the five services that a forest ecosystem provides, with a definition of how those services work.  If I choose to look at a service like “water regulation”, I discover a definition of how ecosystems affect water regulation, the three ecosystems that provide water regulation, as well as the nine health outcomes that are affected by water regulation, all with detailed explanations and reference to supporting studies.

To give it a try, the introduction to how to use the Browser is here: http://www.epa.gov/research/healthscience/browser/introduction.html and the Browser itself can be accessed here: http://www.epa.gov/research/healthscience/browser/RelationBrowser.swf

It’s obvious that a walk in the woods in the fresh air is healthy and that clean water is preferable to polluted.  However, it’s often the more subtle interactions between humans and the environment that have a long-lasting impact.  Yes, that green roof on your house in the city may save you money in the long run, but combined with your neighbors’ green roofs and the local parks and urban forests, it will also contribute to heat mitigation that reduces the chances of heat stroke, hospital admissions, and deaths during the next heat wave.  That may not be as obvious as the money in your pocket, but for someone, it could be a lifesaver.

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