Why can’t we live healthier lives to save ourselves and the planet?

The problem is that we live in environments where the easy choices are bad for us

Imagine if there was a pill you could take that would extend your healthy, active life span by 10 years, with the side effects of reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Would you take it?

We would all jump at the chance. A recent study in the British Medical Journal showed that both men and women could extend their life expectancy free of diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease by 10 years by not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising every day, moderating alcohol intake and eating a healthy diet. Another article, in PLOS Medicine, explained these actions would also substantially reduce our environmental impact through a reduced need for pharmaceutical drug production and pollution, reductions in energy intensive hospital stays, and lower impact agriculture through adoption of a plant-based or Mediterranean-like diet.

We know a healthy lifestyle will be beneficial for both ourselves and the planet, and the science supports it, yet we are in an obesity epidemic, nearly two-thirds of people over 65 have two or more chronic diseases, and we are degrading the planet’s life-support systems at a dizzying speed.

The parallels between personal and planetary health systems are striking. We are excruciatingly slow to act on both. We jump at the chance of promises of quick technological fixes, but are reluctant to make the changes to our shopping habits, transport, buildings and industries that are needed to flatten the curve of greenhouse gas emissions and species extinctions.


Easy choices

Part of the reason why individual choice to take preventative action for personal and planetary health is so hard is that we live in environments where the easy choices are bad for us. Feeling tired? Grab a can of energy drink rather than going to bed an hour earlier. Hungry? Fill that void with cheap and readily available fast food. Feeling bored or lonely? Go shopping for stuff you don’t need that will end up buried in a hole in the ground or around the neck of some poor unfortunate sea creature.

When activists call for systemic change to counter the environmental crisis, it means changing the easy or default options for the whole economy, not just tinkering at the edges with small changes that fit with the system. It means changing the environment in which we make personal choices, and making the easy options greener.

In our current system, many of the actions we need to take to avert the worst effects of the climate and biodiversity emergencies are expensive, run counter to the current economic drivers of accelerating consumption, and challenge long-ingrained cultural norms. Systemic change is hard to achieve without imagination, trust and conviction. A new vision needs to be painted together with the urgency to move away from the current systems.

Climate and biodiversity scientists alone will not provide the solutions and inspiration that we need as a society to make a fair transition away from our current fossil fuel-dominated economy to one based on renewable resources and their sustainable use. We need economists, artists, historians, geographers, psychologists, political scientists, linguists, mathematicians and practitioners across the board to reimagine and build a new system.

Sick care

We are living in a society where “sick care” dominates over “preventative care”. Preventative care for ourselves and the planet needs to be incentivised and it must be available and accessible to all. There are significant win-wins for the environment and our own healthy lifespans in taking action on the agricultural system and sustainable diets, providing clean air, providing safe and accessible blue and green spaces to exercise and travel in, and cutting down on excess consumption.

When Kermit the frog sang “It’s not easy being green”, he was bemoaning the ordinariness of being green, of being overlooked in a mostly green world. We are a long way from Kermit’s problem right now because being green is still not the norm. I look forward to the day when the systems around us will enable most of us to think “It’ll do fine, it’s beautiful, and I think it’s what I want to be”.

Yvonne Buckley is an ecologist, Irish Research Council laureate and professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin