Four dimensions of environmental wellbeing

If you’re involved in, or interested in, health and wellbeing, how do you think about the environment?

This is an attempt to map the four different ways that I think the environment is framed in any work to do with health and wellbeing. There’s an enormous amount of work to be done at every level, but my proposition is that we need to be acknowledging the unfolding realities of dimension 3, and starting to work much harder at dimension 4. I also contend that the Cultural sector has a big role to play in these new ways of thinking and working.

Screenshot 2018-08-21 12.25.34

Dimension Quartile Causes & implications Health & wellbeing impacts
1.     Personal resilience & mental wellbeing Socio-political + Individual Stressors (e.g. nature disconnection & competitive overwork, threat of resource insecurity, social division, loneliness & homelessness) mean that many individuals need help to maintain mental & physical health. Depression, social anxiety, anhedonia, apathy.

Sleep deprivation. Addiction – leading to ill health.

Domestic violence. PTSD. Childhood trauma. Etc.

2.     Population-level complex health risks Geophysical + individual The interaction of damaging environmental factors (e.g. air pollution, warming temperatures, agri-industrial chemicals, processed food etc.) means health stakeholders need to apply more systemic thinking to physical and mental wellbeing across populations. All the above, plus: Cancers. Respiratory disorders. Neurological/developmental disorders and dementias. Antibiotic resistance & immunity disorders. Obesity. Deaths of vulnerable people in heatwaves.
3.     Safe planet for future generations Geophysical + communal An unfolding ecological catastrophe of breached planetary boundaries, including rapidly worsening climate change, means that universally, everyone needs to wake up to the fact that without a planetary system sustaining biodiverse life, or stable human civilisation, there will be no wellbeing for humans into the future. All the above, but, also:

Mass starvation & dehydration. Mass deaths by drowning, fire & heat, Increase in fatal viral diseases such as ebola, increases in malaria, dengue fever & diarrhoea. Increases in injury, PTSD & disease from mass migration & homelessness.

4.     Regenerative alternatives to growth-based system Socio-political + communal The outcomes of neoliberal politics and a consumerist system mean that businesses, institutions and governments need to explore and test alternative ways of managing trade and currency, valuing geophysical & social capacities over economic growth, so that there is wellbeing for cities, regions and nations. All the above can be mitigated through systemic changes towards degrowth & regeneration.

I’d be grateful for comments. Is there a dimension, or stressor, or impact, that I’ve missed?

One response to “Four dimensions of environmental wellbeing

  1. A nice model, thank you. I particularly like the way each one builds on what comes before (though FYI I find the green used for quadrant 2 particularly hard on my eyes).

    I think you’ve covered everything. But I think there’s one more way of framing environment that almost no one talks about any more, except perhaps indigenous peoples. And that is environment as ‘us’.
    As in “When we hurt the environment we hurt ourselves.”

    To illustrate what I mean, I like this diagram created by Leonard Eisenberg.
    There’s a large scale version here:
    https://visual.ly/community/infographic/science/great-tree-life
    And an interactive version at evogeneao dot com.

    The diagram shows how all life evolved from a Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA).
    In other words, we are all cousins of all life on Earth.
    And all those cousins are different types of ‘cells’ in a larger meta-organism — what the LUCA has evolved to become — which some people call Gaia.

    What we call ‘the environment’ is not “the environment”. It is not something ‘out there’. It is simply other living organisms. Our cousins.
    Like the red and white blood cells inside each of us, we are living inside a giant ‘body’ without realising it. We are part of ourselves (as it were).

    So when we damage ‘the environment’ we damage ourselves. We limit our ability to become all that we might, to self-actualise.

    So a perhaps ‘missing’ frame is “environment as possibility of becoming the most that we could be.”
    This probably sits somewhere between 4 and 1. Or perhaps it overlaps again with 1 but at a ‘higher’ level of evolution. It talks not about depression and anxiety but as whatever the opposites of those things are for us as individuals. Inspiration, enthusiasm, self-actualisation, oneness.

    A trivial way of describing that would be to describe ‘Nature’ as restorative to people, healthy. But again that externalises ‘Nature’ in a way that I think is reductionist/reifing.
    I am talking about something much more ‘spiritual’ or eco-psychological than that. A viewpoint that sees us as Part Of Nature, not separate from it. And says that all our potential for living a worthwhile life comes from living in a way that is aligned with ‘Nature’ (as shown in the diagram).

    So I think the quadrants you show are about different kinds of ‘dangers’ from what happens if we treat what we have labelled the ‘environment’ badly. And I am trying to unravel the misinterpretations contained in that word ‘environment’.
    And I am also to shift the focus away from reducing dangers to increasing benefits: the possibilities that might come if we treat the environment well. (And there are probably four stages of those as well.)
    And ‘Benefit’ is too weak a word for what I really mean. Possibilities. Actualisation. Becoming. Individuation. Being.

    Something like that. 🙂

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