Personal and Planetary Wellness: Win-Wins

I was recently in Arizona interviewing teachers in Navajo Nation about the action steps they see as most important to enhance indigenous learner success. One of the stories I heard from a colleague while I was there was about a particular melon species that became submerged when a dam was built on lands that belonged to a particular American Indian tribe. The dam, and the subsequent loss of melons changed the course of the that tribe’s language and culture; the melon could no longer be used for food or ceremony, and eventually the word for it was lost for lack of use.

This story gave me pause: here was an example of a direct relationship between nature’s integrity and human wellbeing. A change to one species in an ecosystem had directly and negatively affected some aspects of human culture and language practices, leading to the extinction of both!

Another example came to light during the course of my research and activism on climate change; I work to make visible the harmful connections between animal agriculture and climate change. The raising, processing, refrigeration, transportation and consumption of beef, chicken, pork, cheese, and other animal products create more greenhouse gas emissions than any other industry. Climate change harms all living beings, for example children’s asthma worsens from the air pollution caused by cars; a recent Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) article found that eating red meat increases the risk factor for diabetes by a staggering 48%.  Many species face extinction from rapidly increasing temperatures.

Put simply, what is bad for us humans, is bad for the planet, and the reverse is true too.

Fortunately, we can change this relationship for the better so everyone wins. A plant-based diet is the most important action we can take to address climate change, and to reverse diabetes and heart disease. Veganism can also make a difference when it comes to saving rainforests and addressing animal cruelty in factory farms.

Another win-win for climate change lies in changing our daily behavior. In addition to what we eat, how we move, and how we stay warm and cool really matter for the climate. If we walk instead of driving, we avoid greenhouse gases altogether, and improve our health through the exercise. If we use evaporative cooling by wearing a wet t-shirt instead of using air-conditioning on a hot day, we use less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases. If we wear warm clothing instead of cranking up our heaters, we become more acclimated and use less fossil-fuel-based energy. Although climate change strategies are typically divided into mitigation (reducing climate change) and adaptation (coping with the effects), recent research suggests that adaptive behaviors can be the most effective options for mitigation as well.

Indigenous peoples, such as the Navajo teachers I visited last week, know how to live in harmonious and resilient ways that adapt to environmental conditions. It is essential to preserve indigenous knowledge and practices so that humanity can restore and regenerate the earth. However, each one of us, no matter where we come from, can make a difference every day when we make decisions about what to eat, how to get from point A to point B, and how to feel a little warmer or cooler. Turning the climate crisis around by changing our everyday behaviors is a win-win for human and planetary wellness. Why not?

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