Human health and wellbeing in an uncertain environment

Yesterday I attended at UFZ Leipzig a lectured led by Professor Michael Depledge DSc, FRSB, FRSA, FRCP from European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School entitled “Human health and wellbeing in an uncertain environment”. See bellow the abstract:

Throughout human evolutionary history we have lived in intimate contact with our local ecosystems. This has involved surviving threats from diverse natural hazards and learning to thrive by manipulating the natural world to acquire resources. Over the last two centuries, however, new ways of thinking have given rise to a vast range of novel technologies that have transformed the ways in which most of us live. A progressive migration away from natural settings now means that ca. 60% of the global population reside in urban, built environments, supported through the exploitation of natural resources. This proportion continues to rise rapidly with important implications for energy use, food and water security and especially waste handling and disposal.

In this lecture some of the interconnections between human activities and global environmental change will be explored and their consequences examined. Particular attention will be paid to the threats posed by climate change, weather, demographic change and emerging chemicals, including pharmaceuticals and nanomaterials. Chemical production worldwide has increased by over 2500 fold over the last 75 years and continues to escalate. Pharmaceutical use is also increasing rapidly. As these chemicals are released into the environment, intentionally or unintentionally, humans and wildlife may be exposed. The accumulation of increasing body burdens of contaminants poses potential threats to health, biodiversity and ecosystem sustainability.

Paradoxically, there are also many benefits to health and wellbeing that can be derived from natural environments. For example, there is growing evidence that time spent in natural settings can be used to promote physical activity and foster better mental health. These may be important factors in addressing the global epidemics of obesity and psychiatric disorders.

Public health programmes such as the Green Gym and the Blue Gym provide examples of the ways in which health benefits can be delivered. Such work raises questions regarding where exactly are the healthiest places to live? In the UK, for example, self-reported health is consistently better in coastal dwellers. Furthermore, there is a global trend towards moving to live in coastal areas. Indeed, more than 30% of the global population now live within 100 kilometers of the sea.

Interestingly, as climate change progresses and sea level rises, it is coastal areas that are most likely to experience more frequent flooding and severe storms, putting the human population at increased risk. The lecture will conclude with a discussion of the difficulties of minimising environmental threats and maximising opportunities through policy development.

The lecture and subsequent discussion raised interesting questions:

  • Living in coastal areas significantly affects wellbeing, research say. It is important to bring up a previous post where a research says that “individual’s level of personal well-being is strongly related to the level of wealth of the household in which they live”. In this sense, and according to the lecturer research even controlling the wealth of the household, the variable proximity to water is determinant.
  • Empirical evidence are rarely definitive. i.e. there is always a unobserved reality that does allow for consistent conclusions. This brings up the Popperian concept of falsability, that is, no number of confirming observations can verify a universal generalization, such as All swans are white, yet it is logically possible to falsify it by observing a single black swan. In other words, theories may be accepted provisionally, but never verified. In this context, the discussion raised the question “how (scientist) to communicate uncertainty” and, in turn, be credible.
  • Moreover, the lecturer starte talking about the risks the climate change infringe to our lifes. Some of them are the cost of having benefits on other hand and he raised the question: “what is an acceptable risk?”
  • Finally, the concept of “environmental empathy”. Do people living in urban areas has more or less environmental empathy? Is the fact of being in touch with nature a determinant variable of environmental empathy? It is logical to think that a person that benefit from his/her contact with nature will tend to have more environmental empathy. However, what is the concept of nature? For some people nature may mean “dangerouos snakes” or threatening wild pigs.
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Experimentalist governance

We note that although American pragmatism has influenced environmental sociology through the writings of Jürgen Habermas and his influence on the “participatory paradigm”-i.e. the idea that public participation is necessary to create legitimate decisions (Parkins and Mitchell 2005)-the generally negative attitude toward ecological reform in North American environmental sociology has somewhat obliterated the many positive aspects of a sociological pragmatism and its potential for environmental issues. Instead, American environmental sociology is captured by alarming stories about the world inexorably in environmental decline-sometimes marked under the label of “sociological criticism”-engulfed by rising oceans as the inevitable outcome of climate change, the human demand on the Earth´s ecosystem and natural resources, as well as the claim that capitalism is the source of all evils. In contrast, after a similar phase of doom-and-gloom literature in the 1970s and 1980s, today hardly any European environmental sociologist is interested only in, e.g., Marxist musings on ecological degradation or the purely negative stance on anything “modern” anymore. The general goal is to search for possibilities of human adaptation to natural changes, to fathom the resiliency potential of human societies, and strategies to successfully link ecological issues with social development. Along side of the well-known ecological modernization paradigm, in recent years a framework has resurfaced in Europe and elsewhere, which tries to develop a more experimental strategy at solving environemntal problems. This framework, although heavily influenced by North American pragmatism, leaves pessimistic North American environmental sociology behind.

Whereas the faith in total control and full knowledge of ecological system and social processes implies an ability to act only when everything is known in advance, an experimental approach allows us to accommodate different factors in spite of gaps of knowledge. Experimental governance is thus to be understood as a means to launch an environmental project in spite of uncertainties and uphold the project without disrupting the overall process. In this framework, experimentation is a mechanism whose aim is not to overcome or control environmental uncertainty, but to live and blossom upon it.

In particular, the neo-pragmatists lean much further toward the need to supplement ideal speech situations with active public experimentation.

Extracted from: Gross, M., & Heinrichs, H. (Eds.). (2010). Environmental sociology: European perspectives and interdisciplinary challenges. Springer Science & Business Media.

Church removal: coal mining, cultural heritage and social cohesion

Heuersdorf  was a village in the Leipzig lowlands, Saxony, Germany. The area of the village belongs to the city of Leipzig since 2004. After a long but ultimately futile resistance of the inhabitants since 1935 the village was evacuated and devastated. See bellow the description, taken from www.heuersdorf.de, illustrates the struggle:

The villagers were forced to accept financial assistance offered by MIBRAG to move from Heuersdorf, since they did not have the monetary resources for resisting the evacuation by legal means. For many years, younger adults refused such enticements to leave their homeland. They were raising families and wanted to preserve the village and its community values. However, any further refusal to give up their homes would now lead to forced eviction and unendurable financial losses. Contrary to the declared intention of the state government of Saxony to keep the village community intact, people from Heuersdorf have been resettled at more than a dozen different locations. The singular interest of MIBRAG over the years was directed at coercing individual families out of the village, eroding human bonds and heightening the insecurity of those inhabitants remaining

In 2007 the regional legislature approved plans to dig up the remaining town to get at some 50 million tons of lignite, or brown coal, to supply a nearby power station. Village authorities fought the plan for years but lost their appeal in Germany’s Constitutional Court in 2005. Most of Heuersdorf’s 320 residents were resettled, most of them farmers and/or retirees. In addition to individual compensation, one important fact deserve to be remarked. An important element of the local cultural heritage was also relocated: a 700-year-old Romanesque-style stone church. As part of the negotiations, the Mibrag mining company spent $4.2 million to move the church from their original location in Heuersdorf  to the near town of Borna.

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This operation represents a good example of engineering masterpiece, but also of cultural heritage conservation. It is also an example of how social cohesion is linked to such heritage. Any threat to this heritage is, therefore, a threat to the community itself:

Reference

Die große Reise einer kleinen Kirche; The long journey of a little church” (2007). Leipziger Universitätsverlag. Leipzig.

A Holy Journey: Church Moved to Make Way for Coal Mine. (2007, October 24). Spiegel. Retrieved August 24, 2015, from http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/a-holy-journey-church-moved-to-make-way-for-coal-mine-a-513286.html

Conversation with Prof. Dr. Sigrun Kabisch, Head of the Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Umweltforschung (UFZ).

Heuersdorf. Geschichte und Abschied eines mitteldeutschen Dorfes. Pro Leipzig Verlag, Leipzig 2009, ISBN 978-3-936508-36-9

Socio-spatial differentiation in southern Leipzig post-mining area

Bellow it is showed the three types of communities (Kabisch, 2004) adjacent to the coal mine, now pit lakes, in the southern leizig.

Rural villages: Dreiskau-Muckern (469 inh. in 2014), Oelzchau (610 inh. in 2014), Pötzschau (374 inh. in 2014), Mölbis (515 inh. in 2014), Störmthal (512), Auenhain , Wachau, Güldengossa (394 inh. in 2014): High satisfaction with the housing conditions regarding the apartment, very high satisfaction with the local living conditions (share of respondents who would recommend a good friend to move to their community), quiet location, attractive surroundings, pleasant social atmosphere, close to future recreation areas. (TOTAL POPULATION. APPROX: 4.000 inhabitants)

These communities are characterised by a relatively large proportion of farmers and farming employees, the other inhabitants working in the mining industry. The level of qualification is relatively low, while the average age is relatively high. Others: out-migration of younger, well-educated inhabitants during the last few decades. The main burden affecting these communities was their classification as “mining protection areas”. Although this classification was abolished after 1990, the local population suddently had to face new worries such as unemployment and early retirement.

Suburbs: Markkleeberg-Ost, Grossstädteln: hight satisfaction with the local housing conditions regarding the apartment, very high satisfaction with the local living conditions (share of respondents who would recommend a good friend to move to their community), quiet location, close to the city of Leipzig, varied infraestructures, good transport links, close to future recreation area.

Relatively high level of qualifications and higher household income among the inhabitants. Urban morphology: detached family housing. Most of the employees work in the city of Leipzig. Consequently, the collapse of the brown-coal industry did not affect these inhabitants to the same extent as the residents of the other community types. No out-migration tendency.

Small towns affected by industry: Gaschwitz (671 inh. in 2014), Grossdeuben, Rötha (3,704 inh. in 2014), Espenhain (2,267 inh. in 2014): Low satisfaction with housing conditions, very low satisfaction with the local living conditions (share of respondents who would recommend a good friend to move to their community), close to the city of Leipzig, good transport links, poor infraestructures, vehicle pollution, devastated landscape, buildings in bad state of repair. TOTAL POPULATION: APPROX: 7.000 inhabitants.

Most of the inhabitants worked in the former brown-coal industry. The majority of the residents rent flats in three-or four-storey blocks owned by the industrial enterprises. In this small towns, the collapse of the brown-coal industry led to social disaster, with unemployment suddenly mushrooming. High unemployment has persisted, despite the migration of sections of the population.

Reference

Kabisch, S. (2004). Revitalisation chances for communities in post-mining landscapes. Peckiana, 3, 87-99.

My research visit at UFZ Leipzig

I have been awarded a Erasmus Internship Scholarship by European Union to do a research stay at the Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology at Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ in the city of Leipzig (Eastern Germany) during July, August and September.

For this reason, I have decided to create a blog category (“Visiting UFZ Leipzig“) entirely devoted to my impression during this period. By impressions I mean reflections on the research I am conducting and also on the reading material I am consulting on environmental sociology and, particularly, on post-mining and restoration (a center topic in my dissertation). Moreover, I would like to share with you some of the interesting discussions I had so far with some of the department fellow. Well, I also hope to blog on the city and my everyday life in Leipzig, always trying to intertwine both my personal and academic experience.

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