Brooklynn: Hi Dr. O'Reilly, how are you?
Dr. O’Reilly: I'm good. Good to see you.
Brooklynn: We’re so excited for this podcast today, I'm just going to dive right in with the first question. So we were wondering, how do global health and the environment intersect?
Dr. O’Reilly: This is something that we think about in our international studies department, partly due to the history of our department. So, the first person who taught in this stream was an expert in global health and the environment. And, so, that's how that class came to be and how the sort of stream that you can concentrate in international studies came to be.
That being said, there are really clear linkages between global health, which stands to mean human health, and the environment which we can think of as ecological health or environmental health. So, it really gives us a chance to look holistically at the well-being of people, places, and ecosystems that human communities live in. There are also a lot of examples, where for example, poor environmental conditions lead to human suffering. And that can be health-related, it can be related to a bunch of other impacts as well.
But, often if you have poor environmental quality, that reduces human health outcomes. Also, you know, we don't understand yet the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. But there are some hypotheses that these are related to environmental conditions in which people more closely interacted with wildlife than what is healthy or markets or conditions where it was easier to transmit novel forms of the disease.
Veronica: I think that idea is interesting that global health is human health and environmental health is like ecological health, and so obviously like different cultures around the world are interpreting that relationship differently. In your experience, how do different cultures approach the relationship between ecological health and human health?
Dr. O’Reilly: Right, there are different ideas culturally about how to interact as human beings with the natural environment. And usually, in the west, this has to do with science, so when we think of the environment being in order or being healthy, we're often thinking of environmental quality indicators like air quality or water quality that you can measure and sort of read out the health of the environment.
Other cultures, including subcultures or cultural groups and non-Western cultures in the United States, will have different relationships with the environment. For example, if we're thinking about India, we read this terrific book in my class by Professor Haberman who's in religious studies at IU, called “River Of Love In An Age Of Pollution” and there, the rivers in Hindu tradition, are physical manifestations of gods and goddesses.
And so, to swim in the river is like prayer, it connotes blessings and so that makes the person clean and healthy. And of course, the book then looks at the contradiction, the contradiction apparent to people engaged in water quality standards and things like that— of what does it mean to purify yourself by bathing in a polluted river and how does that complicate the situation? There are different ideas of sort of purity and interacting with nature. And these come into conflict sometimes with the sort of widespread pollution we see around the world.
Brooklynn: Yeah, so that's really interesting to me, I actually took your class last year, and I really enjoyed that book. I was wondering if you could explain or take a deeper dive into how different cultures around the world are resilient in their own way of, I don't know if I'm going to pronounce this word right, but the epistemology. How do you pronounce it?
Dr. O’Reilly: Yeah, epistemology. Do you have more of the question?
Brooklynn: Yeah, sorry, I was just going to ask if you could explain how different facets of it affect resilience across the globe.
Dr. O’Reilly: Yeah well epistemology is about how we know the things we know. And, so, we have talked about science or religious worldview. And, a lot of this bleeds into another concept called ontology, which is how we build our worldviews so we have particular visions of the world, we inhabit and live in the world based on these ontologies. Which can feel really natural, but they're also something that we create as human beings as part of our cultural understandings and the learning that we do in our communities and from our peers.
There are a lot of ways to know the world that's epistemology so you can learn, you can know things sort of through intuition, which is also cultural through experience, through science, through practice, needing to survive in it. There are sort of ways to figure out and understand the world. So, that's really about sort of learning strategies. But then, how that contributes to the world views which are more totalizing really is, I think, where we get to this answer to this question about being resilient to environmental change.
And so, if we look at indigenous cultural groups, one of my classes that's traveling to the climate negotiations this fall just read “The Great Derangement” by Amitabh Gauche, and he talks about indigenous communities in India, which there are at least hundreds, knew not to live on the coast. You don't live on the coast because that's sort of a liminal zone, where if there are storms, storm surges, which are high tides hurricanes, or another sort of coastal weather or climatic events, they knew not to live in that marginal zone.
And so, Gauche talks about than how Western culture has really deemed coastal areas as prime real estate, as the expensive places where you want to live. Where indigenous cultures, and I don't mean to, sort of blanket all indigenous cultures, but the ones that Gauche was talking about in his book, knew not to live there, it was a risk zone, not a high-value place to build a permanent settlement.
And so, that different perspective and perhaps over a long period of observing and understanding and experiencing disaster, encouraged that cultural group where they have a longer period of experience in that area, knew not to live there and that was one way to be resilient— to let those spaces in nature that often experience or regularly experienced flooding, storms, you know shifts to the landscape, the coast moves and changes, you don't really want your house built where the sand is shifting around. And so perhaps that longer historical or even pre-historical perspective has helped some indigenous communities adapt, or be more resilient, when they're allowed to be.
Brooklynn: I was wondering if that's a common pattern that you've seen where indigenous communities, specifically the one you're talking about right now, often adapt to the environment where Western science more so creates science and technology to rather help themselves, if that makes sense.
Dr. O’Reilly: Thats a really good question, I do not know, there’s so much diversity in cultural groups if we move out of the big ones that we generally know and hear about, and look more into more marginalized communities. I mean, there are plenty of indigenous, cultural groups that drove themselves to extinction.
It's really important to not assume that all indigenous people and culture and cultural groups— they're human groups who made mistakes and learn from those mistakes or suffered the consequences of them. There's just so much diversity over time and space for humanity. That there also were some really brilliant lessons learned, so it's not simply, and it's even problematic may be, to assume that indigenous people are sort of at one with nature, or, you know, sort of closer to nature. That may be the case, but we don't want to presume that all indigenous people want to be considered that way.
So I think what's meaningful for sort of the climate crisis that we find ourselves in now is if there are sort of appropriate and respectful ways to learn more broadly, not just from science, not just from the ideas that we've sort of all been trained into, but to learn from people who have different understandings of the world, and perhaps a longer oral tradition of how to survive and environmental changes. Then we can incorporate those knowledge systems together, to have a fuller picture of how to move forward, at this moment.
Veronica: I think that the idea of ontology that you were talking about, like the science behind the way we construct our worldviews, is so fascinating. And I'm wondering, in your experience, how does religion play a role?
Just because I know that in America, obviously we're heavily influenced by the Christian worldview, which has certain environmental consequences based on things written in the Bible. And so, in your experience I know it's very general, but how does religion play a role?
Dr. O’Reilly: Right. And I study scientists, so I actually study sciences culture. So, I don't have the deepest experience in this, but religion is a deeply powerful and meaningful way for people to think ethically through how to interact with each other and with the world around them. And, so, even looking at the Christian biblical tradition, which again I'm just a casual sort of bystander not an expert on this, before I worked at IU, I previously worked at a Catholic liberal arts school in Minnesota and I would actually bring a theologian in to help us figure out this stuff.
And, you know, there are conflicting ideas in the Bible. There are ideas about dominion over nature, but then there's also a lot of messaging about conserving and being stewards of the place. So, I think in the Christian tradition, and in our religious traditions, there are really powerful insights into how to sort of live in-relationship with the environment, and that can be a really inspiring way to reach audiences that may be less interested in the science or know the science, but that's not what compels them to want to act, that's not their sort of source of sustenance or inspiration or meaning. So, I think in general religion as a framework of meaning and ethics, can be incredibly powerful toward finding environmental solutions.
Brooklynn: Since there are so many cultural perspectives, religious perspectives, scientific perspectives on how to interact with the world and the environment around us. Is there any way that we can scale when environmental justice and resilience have been reached? How do you view environmental justice and how can we as a public view success in that way?
Dr. O’Reilly: That's a really great question, and I'm generally an optimist about this, but we're not there in terms of environmental justice. So, environmental justice is looking at environmental issues through a human lens. This is a really great place where global health or health and environment intersect because environmental justice is about looking at sites of environmental degradation and seeing how it affects human communities.
And, in the United States, for example, it's usually communities of color that are more impacted, they're more likely to live near oil refineries, for example, and places that may have poor air and water quality, localized. And, so, I mean I guess a simple way to see environmental justice succeed, would be to see environmental harm sort of distributed across all of the socio-economic indicators that we use.
But, I want to take a little more optimistic approach to that and not just the harms distributed, but actively work to reduce harm and states where there's been disproportionate suffering and distribute the harms that way by reducing it across the board— with particular attention to were sort of history and economy and racism have contributed to decreasing lifespans, lower quality of life for particular communities.
Brooklynn: I don't know if this is your exact field, but I'm sure you kind of know, what is the history of environmental racism, specifically in America. And you can also discuss abroad in colonized areas, but how have these communities been able to be resilient in the face of this colonization and predisposition.
Dr. O’Reilly: Yeah, I don't know if resilience is the word. Sometimes when I think of resilience in these cases— people being resilient also look a lot like people who have no other choice, but just to move along, or to sort of stand strong in this. So, I think there actually needs to be some interventions to help people be resilient in a way where they can flourish, not being sort of strong in the face of suffering.
And this is a huge question and again, it's something that I care about and I teach about because I think it's really important to think about the environment in relation to the historic waves and the ways we continue to sort of perpetuating social inequalities and environmental harm— but it’s not a topic of my research.
And so, I mean there's a long story to this, and in broad strokes, there were European people and then white, sort of settler colonialists in the United States and elsewhere, who had some technological advantages, and who were able to choose to exploit groups of people in places. We see this in colonization, we see this in the history of slavery in the United States and elsewhere, and really when we look at where communities of color, particularly African American communities live— their choices are constrained still by economic opportunity and other racist policies that have legacies to them that control where their options are to live and where it's harder to live.
So, there's sort of housing policies having to do with this. There's more sort of explicit racism, you know, sort of the bureaucratic racism of policy choices that we've made and sometimes continue to live with. And then a legacy of slavery in the United States that we're still contending with and see the ramifications of in people's bodies and life chances and choices.
And, so, this also can transcend race. When you have sort of, when you're poor you have fewer choices of where you're going to live; you're going to choose housing that is cheaper, and that is going to be less desirable. And when you have a little bit of more flexible income, a little bit more economic power, you can choose to move away from oil refineries. As long as they're sort of homeowners associations and other and sort of fairness and lending and, and those sorts of issues that make moving away from those more polluted zones feasible.
So, yeah, it's a long, a long history— there's a lot of threads to pull on and I very between — well, you know, there are bureaucratic threads that we can unravel that would help start fixing this immediately, but there are also more systemic issues that no amount of policy tweaking can get to.
Brooklynn: I just want to say I really love your point of not defining this as resilience because these are just situations these people have been put in, and they shouldn’t have the responsibility to be resilient in the face of this oppression. I think that's a really important point to remember.
Dr. O’Reilly: Yeah, Bell Hooks wrote about this, and about the trope of the strong black woman being held up as sort of an ideal, but we also have to take into account what we as a society have done to force that trope to exist.
Veronica: Yeah, and bringing that back to like what you were saying before about constructing people's worldview, I mean, inherently if you're poor and you're being forced into this situation I mean, your worldview is going to be very different from somebody that's, you know, had the ability to make all these choices.
And, then, if you're in the position of someone who is able to make these choices, your lack of knowledge about what the poorest among us are experiencing is going to affect your decisions about these things, like climate change policy, and might explain why we haven't had as much movement on the issue as maybe we need to because the people in power aren't necessarily experiencing what the poorest among us have been forced to experience.
Dr. O’Reilly: There's a lot of reasons why we're slow-moving on this. Some of it is about being insulated economically as a country from some of the frontlines of climate impacts that are happening more in marginal places around the world, and less in the United States and we also have the economic might to address some of these disasters as they happen with FEMA, our Federal Emergency Management Agency. But, also, part of it is well-funded opposition to climate policies so there's only so much science understanding, so much science education you can provide. We need more.
There are only so many sorts of experiential accounts of climate disasters. When you have a well-funded lobby opposing climate policy, particularly in the United States— and really making substantial campaign contributions to all aspects of our American politics, particularly one party, but not limited to, we can really understand why we've stalled. So some of it is cultural and some of it is really sort of tactically planned over decades.