In 1989 I was a junior doctor in a sparsely populated part of north western Tasmania, Australia’s island state. One day, I discovered the journal Archives of Environmental Health. In it I found the proceedings of the first meeting of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE). This was tremendously encouraging, for reasons I will explain. The article with the greatest impression was by John Goldsmith, keynote speaker. He wrote:
"We, the environmental epidemiologists of the world, are the canaries, capable of giving warning of impending environmental disaster in time for remedial steps to be taken. Fortunately, our fate is not to have to die as the unfortunate canaries of the coal miners did, but to sing, to call out in clear tones the nature and type of impending health danger that threatens. It is the methods and criteria of scientific detection, analysis, and interpretation that give us our lifesaving potential."
Three steps towards environmental epidemiology
1. The Wesley Vale pulp mill and its link to ecological integrity
2. The lack of co-operation between industry and science
I developed an ambition to conduct a study of the long-term health of the pulp mill workers, and visited the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney to explore this idea as a research thesis. I received mild encouragement. But it was clear that I would need the co-operation of the mill management. Sometime later that year I asked a senior manager at the mill about this. I envisioned a careful scientific study, seeking to explore whether the mill workers, presumably exposed to higher OCL levels than the community, might have unusual patterns of illness. It was obvious that my own career depended crucially on a fair interpretation of the evidence. But his answer was violent: “anyone but f***ing you, Butler”. He clearly assumed I would be biased, yet I knew that no-one without a strong pre-existing interest would possibly have the motivation to conduct such a study. His opposition meant that any such study was impossible.
3. Herbicides, two mysterious deaths, and a tepid government report
The last key preparatory event was an encounter with a patient who told me an odd story of a healthy young woman riding a horse across the bridge at Forth, a nearby village, in the centre of a rich farming area. While crossing the bridge, a crop-dusting plane had flown overhead, discharging herbicides. My patient told me that within a year, both the woman and her horse had died.
At that time, health interest in climate change was just starting. The Brundtland Report ("Our Common Future") had recently popularised the term “sustainable development” and the Montreal Protocol was recent. The Green movement was taking root, not only in Tasmania but also in parts of Europe.
Environmental transformation is necessary to provide goods and services for humans, but doing so too hastily and on too large a scale was obviously dangerous. It seemed to me that environmental epidemiologists might be able to sound an effective warning.
We do need to continue to transform nature in ways that will benefit humans, but the process is not infinite. We also have to protect nature so that humans can continue to benefit. We have to wean ourselves from earth poisons. We have to slow population growth, by spreading female education and human rights. Many of us need to learn to live with less.
"Accredited” authorities remain optimistic about humanity’s future, though histories of the near future report our collapse as a civilisation. The scope of environmental epidemiology is growing, and now includes limits to growth. But not enough people are paying attention to we canaries. The noösphere - planetary consciousness - is evolving, but those who sound warnings need to tweet much louder.