Our health depends on a healthy environment – Rupert Hough

A vast windswept sky rolls to the horizon in a remote corner of the North East. Further down the howe permanent pastures give way to barley and potatoes. In the distance turbines turn to face the wind, shining white in the sun. A landscape with palpable connections to the past and a strong drive towards the future. The view from a lockdown window.

Rupert Hough heads up the Informatics & Computational Science Department at the James Hutton Institute.
Rupert Hough heads up the Informatics & Computational Science Department at the James Hutton Institute.

March 2020, this is my view. Time to stare, time to think. I am a scientist; I have worked in public health epidemiology as well as environmental sustainability. More recently I have moved towards the digital world and computer science. I work on systems; how different factors interact to shape our world. I think from many perspectives.

The swallows have returned to the barn. The hedgerow is full of activity. The stones are being sieved out of the tattie park and despite the wind the sprayer is moving slowly up and down the barley fields.

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At the height of this pandemic I wonder why we are prepared to go the extra mile for infectious disease. Our actions have been important, yet we do very little to combat many comparable or even greater health threats. 165,000 people die from cancer every year in the UK and while we tinker around the edges, we don’t go the extra mile. We still cover our food in chemicals, undertake activities that emit dangerous pollutants, fill our environment with undesirables, and use products that expose us to carcinogens.

The combine is out cutting, and the sprayer is in the tatties again burning down the crop. Three tractors with trailers make multiple journeys. It is less windy today and I can hear the buzz of the main road. A lone child walks across the fields to the recently re-opened school. The only child in a school of 25 who walks.

In 2019 Public Health England reported that up to 38,000 people a year die in the UK from air pollution but there was no outright ban on polluting activities. No ‘lockdown’ for non-electric vehicles. The magnitude of effect is comparable with coronavirus, but our response is nowhere. We are told that we risk the lives of the vulnerable if we ignore lockdown measures. The same could be said when we drive our cars. Our appetite for risk so different in the face of different threats.

Is it history? The Plague with images of bodies piling up in the streets. Is it culture? Dystopian films about killer diseases. Or simply that the NHS has budgeted for expected morbidity, and cannot cope with sudden additional demand? Is it that we have become too complacent as custodians of our planet, or just that our economy is driven by environmental exploitation?

Our health depends on a healthy environment. Once this pandemic is over, we should take stock. If we want to save lives and protect the NHS we need a Green Recovery that takes the effects of the environment on our health seriously. We need to be radical, to live differently in a de-centralised world. Shops and services and places of work on the doorstep and not a 100-mile round-trip away. Products built to last and easily re-used. Manufacturing closer to consumers. Food production and diets more localised, and crop protection needs new disruptive thinking. We need to accept less ‘stuff’ and enjoy the everyday more. We need to go the extra mile for our health and for our planet.

The sky is grey, and a cold drizzle is being pushed horizontal by the wind. The big machines are out in the tattie field harvesting the crop and spreading mud all down the lane. A lone child walks across the pasture and I think about his future.

Rupert Hough heads up the Informatics & Computational Science Department at the James Hutton Institute. He is a risk scientist working to improve our understanding of complex systems and multi-dimensional problems.

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