Parvati Magazine’s Dr. Karen Ho interviewed Dr. Warren Bell of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), a group of over 4900 physicians and concerned citizens committed to a healthy and sustainable environment. As an organization, CAPE brings its health expertise to environmental issues and is an important voice for environmental health in Canada.
Parvati Magazine: Please tell us why you founded CAPE?
Warren Bell: CAPE was founded about 20 years ago because I and two other colleagues felt that the medical profession needed to address environmental issues, because they play such a big role in human health. We felt that if we brought forward the health impacts of ecological degradation, it would help motivate people to protect environmental values, as they realized that humans are wholly dependent on the ecosystem around them.
We also recognized that working as a group was more effective than simply working as individual practitioners or advocates. It’s fair to say that the late 20th and early 21st centuries is a time of group action, more than another age of heroic individuality.
PMAG: Do you feel that there is a sense of disconnect between personal health and societal health? That some decisions we make, seemingly not “health focused” may influence our health as a community?
WB: There often is indeed a disconnect between the way people focus on personal health and their awareness of the health of the broader community. One reason is the fact that much of the health care continuum is taken up by products or specific medical interventions. In the former, there is a steady stream of advertising telling citizens that purchasing a certain product is the best way to ensure their health. In the case of health related to society as a whole, the subject often involves interventions such as parks, walkways and bicycle paths, the planting of trees, and enhancing the availability of healthy and nutritious food. Because these don’t involve the sale of specific products, they are generally promoted in a much more understated way.
This is particularly true in protecting the integrity of the natural ecosystem. For example, many people have no idea of the effect that large trees have on air quality, or their role in mitigating noise and artificial light pollution. They are not aware of the fact that walking in the woods actually improves the function of the immune system. Yet for many people, care of a park would seem to be unrelated to health outcomes (beyond simple enjoyment), whereas ingestion of a drug would be considered an important health-enhancing act.
PMAG: What have you learned from these years of being a vocal citizen?
WB: I first became involved in environmental issues in the late 1970s and later became involved in the antinuclear movement and reform within the medical profession. What I’ve learned from all this is that the satisfaction I have gained from offering an informed opinion about injustice, the perils of violent conflict, the factors that influence health, the need to address conflict of interest, and the imperative to protect the integrity of our local and global ecosystems far exceeds the demands of time and energy, and at times the distinct pains associated with speaking out.
Someone once said “evil exists in the world because good people look on and do nothing to stop it”. I find it deeply rewarding to try and be a good person who does not simply look on, but actively tries to make things better.
PMAG: Tell us how you think Canada is doing right now in terms of its environmental policies.
WB: Canada over the last several decades has distinguished itself by being vocal about environmental issues but short on concrete and positive action. This is particularly true of the Harper years. Fortunately, provinces, cities and smaller communities have taken up the cause of ecological advocacy. Progress has been made on a more local scale, despite this gross deficiency at the federal level.
The new Liberal government has so far taken steps to redress some of the enormous wrongs committed by the Harper regime. But recently, with respect to such issues as Energy East, the Trans Mountain pipeline, fracking and LNG in British Columbia, and in particular its approval of the Site C dam, the resolve of the current government appears to be slackening. Meaningful action on climate change is still in abeyance. We are waiting to see what comes next, hoping that this time around things will truly be different.
Dr. Warren Bell is a family physician who lives in Salmon Arm, British Columbia. He is Past Founding President of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). He is President of Wetland Alliance: The Ecological Response (WA:TER). He has contributed prolifically to medical journals as well as various news and media outlets including The Guardian, National Observer and the Huffington Post.