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Ecological Intelligence and Western Medicine

purple's picture

C.A Bowers says that the steps we need to take towards achieving and implementing ecological intelligence are three-fold: “the transition from thinking of intelligence as an attribute of the autonomous individual”, understanding “how language carries forward the misconceptions and values of earlier thinkers who were unaware of environmental limits”, and “how to revitalize the cultural commons.” Bowers expresses the need to achieve these goals through “educational reforms that foster ecological intelligence” (Bowers, 44). I think education is a strong field in which the transition towards ecological intelligence can be made, but I think there are also other areas of society in which these ideas can be implemented.

In the Medical Sociology class that I take, I think the idea of ecological intelligence comes into play. We discuss subjects in medicine and health by examining them through the lens of society and environmental factors. The idea of cultural brokerage and the need for cultural competency in medical practices is an idea that I think really plays into talking about ecological intelligence. Cultural brokerage is the necessary communication when a doctor and a patient are operating on different sets of cultural ideals that affect the way they interact with the illness or medical issue at hand. Cultural ideals affect the way we interpret and respond to health issues. For example, in some cultures, illness and health are deeply connected to areas like nature and religion. Many cultures rely on natural elements as remedies and have deep rooted spiritual beliefs that affect the way they think about illness and health. In contrast, in the Western world tends to idealize modern medical technologies as the leading method of health care. In the United States, we operate on a set of ideals native to the Western world, but are a society of people from a large variety of cultural backgrounds. The need for culturally competent health care acknowledges the need to recognize and understand the intersection of western medical practices and ideals of other cultures, and how both must be taken into account in treatment of a patient.

In the U.S. I find that we put a lot of trust into our technologically advanced medical practices to the point of which we regard them as superior to any other form of health practices. I think this is an issue that is encompassed in the article ‘Stacy Alaimo: Porous Bodies and Trans Corporeality:’ “In failing to recognize that we are interfaces with a broader world we also fail to recognize the ecological dimension of our being” (Alaimo). Based on this, to put so much trust in this one idea is to not place ourselves within the context of the world around us, and to not think with ecological intelligence. To have such a humanistic focus inhibits us from understanding how greatly the environment impacts our health. 

In class, we were discussing the difference between understanding the need to think more about our relationship with the environment, and actually changing what we do in our lives in response to this. We talked about how one difficulty of this is that it is difficult to alter what we do when there are no immediately evident consequences for our action or inaction. Health is an area that we value a great deal, and one that we, as a society, as extremely concious of because of how real the consequences can be to ourselves. For this reason, I think our health is one area in which it would be easier to begin thinking with more ecological intelligence. We know, for example, about carcinogens, and many other ways that our health is impacted by the environment. It would be useful if we focused less on using modern technology to create medical treatments to solve these issues and rather focused more preventatively. By focusing more on prevention, we could shift our thinking to the environment and consider our interaction with the environment. Paying attention to and changing our relationship with the environment could go a long way to improve our health, and make our interaction with the planet a more positive one.


Anne Dalke's picture

What I'm liking about this project is your taking the key concept of our class, that of "ecological intelligence," and using it to read another of your courses, on Medical Sociology; I appreciate the cross-class, cross-disciplinary move here!

What I'm hearing first is that the field of medical sociology is both receptive to and reflective of ecological values, in attending to context (via ideals like cultural brokerage and cultural competency). And what I'm hearing, second, is that the field of Western medicine, in particular, could be more responsive to historical context (Bowers would certainly push this angle), more reliant on natural  remedies and spiritual beliefs, less on modern medical technologies as the leading method of health care. Putting "trust into our technologically advanced medical practice," in Alaimo's terms, fails to acknowedge how are are "interfaces with a broader world"; focusing only on the health of individual humans also "inhibits us from understanding how greatly the environment impacts our health."

The move that I like the most here, though, is your final gesture towards health as a great pedagogical starting point for environmental studies: since each of us cares about our health, and that of those we love, taking our health as a starting point could really get our attention, leading out to questions about, and consequences for, environmental justice. Do you know about the new bi-co Health Studies Program? It might be fun (in your re-vision?) to look through the courses listed in that program to see if there is any environmental work going on (and/or vice versa, to look through the Environmental Studies listings, to see if health is a topic).