A Path to Health

I’m sick of editorializing on the horrors I find each week in the mainstream media and scientific literature. So while lots of horrifying things happened this week, I’ve decided to talk about our health and the path to it that’s being created by people who have taken matters into their own hands.

First, I want remind you that health is not what you get at the doctor’s office. As we have said many times, health is not the absence of disease. It is not what you have when a health practitioner, whether conventional or alternative, can’t find anything wrong with you. Instead, as we say in our book Too Much Medicine, Not Enough Health, health is the capacity to lead a full, rich life.

The absence of disease is a condition. Health is not. It is a capacity, a state of being that includes, but is not limited to, the capacity to avoid and recover from illness and injury. It’s also—even mostly—the capacity to find happiness, fulfillment, enlightenment, and the many other things that we think of as what life is all about.

What I want to bring to your attention is my understanding that leading a full, rich life is not something you do on your own. You do it with others. Most importantly, I want to bring your attention to the many people, organizations, and movements that are working to build these capacities.

They do so by focusing on collective action at the local level. Your capacity to find happiness, fulfillment, enlightenment, and, not coincidentally, avoid and recover from illness and injury depend on the physical and social context in which you live. That context is necessarily collective. It is also necessarily specific to your place—both geographic and social.

Many organizations work with local groups, organizations, and governments to build people’s capacity for making change in their community. Community organizers have been doing this forever. What is new with organizations such as the Asset-Based Community Development Institute and the Transition Network is not just the traditional community organizing task of solving a specific problem but on actively transforming the community as a whole. For example, the center of gravity for the Transition Network is the transformation of communities to thrive in a post-carbon future. On the other hand, the Asset-Based Community Development Institute is more agnostic and works with communities to evaluate how to use a community’s existing assets to its best advantage.

Another thread in this emerging movement focuses on localism. It is not out of any romantic notion about small town America. I grew up in a small town. I live in a small town. I assure you, they have their problems. But organizations such as the New Economy Institute and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance are focused on enabling people to create economies on a human scale, self-consciously harkening to the work of EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

It is not romance or a desire to return to an idyllic past that gives force to that promotes health. It is the power to create political economies that reduce what economists politely refer to as “externalities” such as pollution while meeting people’s actual needs.

Another force in the advocacy for local economies is biological. For most of human history, we have gathered together in bands of 15 to 50 people, connected through tribal networks of hundreds or even thousands of people. We have survived as a species because we are eusocial animals: our biology makes us highly skilled at cooperation, empathy, learning from other people, meeting our material needs in the context of our band, tribe, and locale, and even finding the good life in the context of our band, tribe, and locale. Although technology might enable us to have thousands or even millions of friends in the global village, we are still biologically adapted for direct personal contact with a relatively small number of people. So, to put it perhaps too simply, our health, our capacity to lead a full, rich life is promoted by resilient local economies because, when done correctly, it communicates profoundly with our biology.

Another biological thread to localism and health is the focus on living within the ecological capacity of a locale. Sustainability and stewardship of local ecologies are promoted as a means to stability and resilience in providing our material needs. From that, it is argued, social stability and social justice follow. And, it seems to go without saying, follows the capacity to lead a full, rich life—that is, health.

The global political economy is ruining our health. Right now, potential energy is swirling around us, ready to materialize as a multitude of unique physical, biological, and social solutions to our material needs, solutions that will build our capacity, each and all, to lead a full, rich life.