Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. and most European countries. In the latest issue of Newsweek there’s a story about it called "Designing Heart-Healthy Communities." Here’s how it starts:
Forecasting heart disease is becoming an ever-finer art, as researchers learn more about the risk factors. But here’s a predictor you may not have heard about: street address. In a study published last year, scientists at the RAND Corp. scored 38 metropolitan areas on the “sprawl index” — basically a measure of their dependence on cars. When the researchers tallied disease rates for the same areas, an interesting pattern emerged. Other risk factors aside, people in densely populated places graced with sidewalks and shops had the lowest rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke. … Without even trying, the folks in those more-compact communities were apparently exercising enough to ward off chronic illness. As the RAND team deduced, “suburban design may be an important new avenue for health promotion.”
To their credit , Newsweek teases out the more general point:
In fact it may herald a whole new approach. Personal behavior may hold the secret to long-term health, but as researchers are now discovering, behavior is not just a matter of choice. Every aspect of our lifestyles — what we eat, whether we smoke, how much we exercise — is shaped by our surroundings. … “We’ve spent years making the healthy choice the most difficult choice,” says Ross Brownson, an epidemiologist at St. Louis University. “We need to make it the easy choice.”
Connections with other people affect not only the quality of our lives but also our survival. Study after study find that people who feel lonely are many times more likely to get cardiovascular disease than those who have a strong sense of connection and community. I’m not aware of any other factor in medicine — not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery — that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death.
A public health picture begins to emerge: To make people healthier, put them in denser communities where they walk more and drive less, eat better, are less isolated, see each other more, form more social bonds, and are happier and less stressed out.
Weird — that’s just what environmentalists want people to do!
Now, what do you think is more likely to bring about that result: a) guilting people out for driving big cars and demanding that they reduce their CO2 emissions, or b) educating them about what’s best for their health and the health of their families?
I remind you of Bill McKibben’s words:
No, the political force that finally manages to take [global warming] on is the political force that also understands and helps to nurture the deep-rooted and unsatisfied American desire for real community, for real connection between people. The force that dares to actually say out loud that “more” is no longer making us happier, that the need for security and for connection is now more important.
The broad public movement to fight global warming that everybody’s waiting for is never gonna happen. The subject is too abstract, too distant, too tinged with guilt and fear and sacrifice. What might happen is a public movement behind a healthier lifestyle, safer, more compact cities, and a turn from insatiable materialism to more rooted, community-based pleasures.
If it is to be solved at all, the riddle of global warming will be solved indirectly, as a side-effect of our efforts to solve humanity’s modern malaise.