• Photograph by Kate Morrison

Expanding our criteria for healthy living

“The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. The world is part of our own self and we are a part of its own suffering wholeness." 

-Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

As a child, my mother would wipe down and disinfect the doorknobs around our house throughout cold and flu season. The idea behind habitually cleaning the doorknobs was to avoid the exchange of germs on communal surfaces that people were touching each day, thus, proactively working to keep our family healthy.

"To promote a healthier society, environmental policies must place health at the centre, while working to end environmental injustice and inequities."

This is how I like to think about the environment. Every single person interacts with the environment every day, all day. These interactions are done in the shared space of our borderless environment. Keeping this space clean simultaneously keeps us healthy.

However, it’s not only about cleaning the doorknobs, it’s about making sure people know why they have to wash their hands in the first place. Many parents will tell you that simply implementing a rule does not always result in compliance. It’s the combination of both rules and an understanding of why the rules have been put in place that contribute to increased hand washing. This is similar to the government implementing laws and policies regarding the environment. People may comply, but not always.

To promote a healthier society, environmental policies must place health at the centre, while working to end environmental injustice and inequities.  At the same time, public health messages must contribute to society’s understanding of why these laws and policies are beneficial to their health. The ecological determinants of health are not separate from the social determinants of health, but rather are part of the social framing of health that is largely impacted by social policy.

Diagram-Kate.pngWhen citizens start expecting and demanding environmentally sensitive policies and when environmentally sensitive behaviour becomes the social norm (as opposed to radical behaviour), health benefits will follow. The Canadian Public Health Association’s report on Global Change and Public Health: Addressing the Ecological Determinants of Health states that,

“Without changes in values and norms, there is little prospect for change in our:

  • Social and economic activities and goals;
  • Understanding of our relationships with and responsibilities for other people, other species and the Earth;
  • Understanding of growth and development; and
  • Openness to engage in what we may perceive today as radical change.”

Environmental health, The World Health Organization states, “addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviours.” A key concept in environmental health is that natural processes are cyclical, not linear, such as the life cycle of a tree or person. As environmental analyst Lester Brown stated, “just as continually growing cancer eventually destroys its host, a continuously expanding global economy is slowly destroying its host – the Earth’s ecosystem.” Our economy relies on the natural resources of the Earth’s ecosystem to function. Natural resources are not regenerating as quickly as our economy grows linearly, leaving a dearth of resources to fuel the economy. This pattern is unsustainable. It doesn’t cultivate healthy relationships between humans and our environment – and undoubtedly this linear growth trajectory in a naturally cyclical system is making us sick.


“Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings. Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values.”

-Rebecca Solnit

1. Climate Change
2. Indoor and Outdoor Air Quality & Pollution
3. Urbanization and the Built Environment
4. Water Security
5. Food Security
6. Ozone Depletion & Ultraviolet Light Radiation
7. Odour Pollution
8. Noise Pollution
9. Ecosystem Health
10. Animal Health
11. Energy Sources & Consumption

Learning about the environment and how it impacts our health has convinced me that as a society we need to advocate for environmental health policies in order to: a) protect the environment and b) protect our health. Understanding ecological determinants of health allows people to evaluate their own health and societal health based on a larger set of criteria. This generates proactive and preventative care, which stimulates a healthier society now and in the future. By understanding the ecological determinants of health, Canadian citizens are enabled to become advocates for a healthier society.

Recently, MetroVancouver adopted a Healthy City Initiative (2014-2025). This initiative is an example of a policy decision to improve the social and environmental conditions of citizens in order to enable the highest level of health and wellbeing for the population. The initiative sets 13 goals that target early childhood development and education, housing, food security, income and poverty, social inclusion, social networks and engagement, access to nature, lifelong learning opportunities, personal expression, transportation, environment, and collaborative leadership initiatives that together will culminate in a healthier city.

Establishing healthier environments is part of the upstream solution to creating a healthier society.

Establishing healthier environments is part of the upstream solution to creating a healthier society. As the ecological determinants of health are a part of the broader set of social determinants of health, they too, allow for improvements to be made to human health, prior to reaching the traditional healthcare system setting. Therefore, working to improve the environment in which we live, work, and play, helps to create sustainable change that fosters health for generations. Ecological policies that advance water security, ecosystem health, and action on climate change  simultaneously impact the social factors that impact health and peel away bandage solutions to get at the root causes of ill health in society.

Recommended summer reading on this topic:

1. Silent Spring –Rachel Carson
2. Everything Under the Sun –David Suzuki
3. The Canadian Guide to Health and the Environment – Tee L. Guidotti & Pierre Gosselin
4. One Health: People, Animals and the Environment –Ronald M. Atlas & Stanley R. Maloy
5. Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment –Sandra Steingraber
6. Coming Back to Life – Joanna Macy & Molly Brown
7. Active Hope ­– Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone

Born and raised in Saskatoon, Kate Morrison is currently completing her Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Ecological Determinants of Health at McGill University. Kate is Upstream’s summer student intern. She is very excited to be interning at Upstream and believes that upstream thinking is crucial to fostering a healthier society. With her focus on defining the eco-determinants of health, Kate hopes to broaden people’s understanding and definition of health. During her free time, Kate enjoys spending time outdoors, walking and biking with friends and family.

Want to read more?

The end of neighbours: How our increasingly closed-off lives are poisoning our politics and endangering our health by Brian Bethune - "More than 30 percent of Canadians now say they feel disconnected from their neighbours."

Harry Leslie Smith Stands Up For Progress by Ryan Meili - "Humanity cannot evolve when its leaders are only interested in the profit and it's most affluent constituents and ignore the rest of the people."

Showing 3 reactions

Connect upstream.