Health: Potential for global crisis mitigation

The primary aim of the One in a Billion project is to contribute to the mitigation of the multifaceted sustainability crisis bearing down on us (summarized here). As discussed in the first action plan post, each of the ten major categories covered in the One in a Billion project will be closed by three posts discussing the potential for crisis mitigation, the benefits to individuals implementing the strategy and the primary resistances to change that individuals are likely to experience. This first post will look at the potential for crisis mitigation under five categories:

  • Climate change – carbon footprint reduction
  • Resource depletion – ecological footprint reduction
  • Economic crisis – sovereign debt reduction
  • Social inequality – increase in social mobility
  • Societal complexity – reduction in interdependence and increase in adaptability

The estimates given below represent the potential impact if the average American implemented these strategies and reduced his/her need for healthcare by a factor of five. As discussed in some previous posts (1, 2, 3), this is certainly possible and, as illustrated in the figure below, a number of countries already spend less than 20% of the massive American sum while actually achieving a greater lifespan (you can also confirm this yourself on (American statistics are used simply due to the large pool of available data.)

Climate change

Living a healthy lifestyle based on a nutrient-rich plant-based diet and more travelling on foot or by bicycle can truly make tremendous dents in the average carbon footprint, but this will be covered in subsequent categories. Here we will only look at the carbon footprint of actual medical services themselves. The US healthcare sector accounts for roughly 8% of total CO2 emissions, implying that the American carbon footprint could be cut by 6.4% if people simply looked after themselves. 

Resource depletion

About 4.3% of the American ecological impact comes from medicine, implying that a factor of five reduction in health service consumption could slice off a good 3.4%. 

Economic crisis

This is the area in which better health can make the biggest direct impact. Based on the 2011 budget, the US currently pays about 36% of its tax revenues directly back in the form of Medicare and Medicaid. A healthy population would require about 20% of this sum, allowing the US to slash its spending by $668 billion (18.6% of total spending) and slash the humongous budget deficit by 53%. In addition, the increased productivity from a healthy population would increase the tax base. The average American worker takes about 14 days of sick leave per year for own illness and to care for the illness of a family member. Cutting this number by a factor of 5 gives 11 extra days or about 4.5% extra working time. If this translates in a 4.5% increase in the tax base, another $104 billion could be collected to further reduce the deficit. 

Social inequality

Illness is a massive problem for poor people and this is where a culture of excellent personal health can work miracles. Such a culture of excellent personal health within the billion wealthiest individuals will make healthy living a whole lot easier by forcing government and private enterprise to adapt to consumer demand and greatly increase the availability and affordability of organic plant-based whole foods instead of processed meat-based junk foods. This will make healthy living much more accessible to the poor, giving them an honest chance at the radiant health required to build a much better life. 

Societal complexity

Poor health significantly increases the interdependence and vulnerability of society. A person on five different kinds of permanent medication is completely dependent on the manufacturers of this medication, the insurance company financing this medication and the science behind it (which is sometimes dangerously sloppy). On the other hand, healthy individuals are fully independent and will be able to adapt to the future environmental, economic and societal shocks that are heading our way. 

In summary

  • Climate change – 6.4% reduction in carbon footprint
  • Resource depletion – 3.4% reduction in ecological footprint
  • Economic crisis – $772 billion (33.5% of total tax base) saved and gained
  • Social inequality – large potential to alleviate inequality
  • Societal complexity – large reduction in interdependence and increase in adaptability

6 thoughts on “Health: Potential for global crisis mitigation”

  1. “Looking after yourself is not expensive…” This is in North American standards, a delusion propagated by the American far right and their free market friends. It is very expensive in both Canada and the USA to practice the kind of ‘looking after yourself’ that you propose in this article.

    NA cities are built for cars — on many roads walking and bicycling is banned. Our shopping centres are miles away from our homes (similarly our places of work and school). Planning/zoning for cars and completely separate zoning for residential, commercial, farming, etc., has left us with this environment. Zoning for multiple activities, living where you work, shop, school, local economies and self-employment are lifestyles we haven’t seen since the 1950s. The segregation of the poor from the middle class from the rich is an important factor in this kind of zoning policy, to maintain high value for rich residential properties, low value for income and commercial/industrial properties.

    Any small organic or health food shops that have survived the ‘big-box’ movement are located in upscale locations and are very expensive. For example a jar of fair-trade organic coconut oil (32oz, 908g) is $76.00 ( the equivalent of 1 day’s wages) at my local Health Food shop while the same size bottle of rancid unhealthy canola or corn oil (at the grocery store) will be a couple of dollars. Processed fortified white bread is about a third to half as expensive at a grocery store than organic whole grain bread. A poor family can feed their children for 8 days on packaged macaroni and cheese, or 1 day with home made whole grain pasta and raw organic cheddar cheese sauce, six servings of processed apple sauce is under $3, a bag of 8-10 bruised imported apples (non-organic) over $3. Food banks rarely provide any food other than canned and packaged goods, margarine, powdered milk, etc. Eating whole healthy food is seldom an option for poor families — they are not accessible either by distance or cost, and big-box grocery stores seldom offer much if any organic or non-chemical food alternatives, even in their deli, produce and dairy sections. The bottom line is profit, not healthy lifestyle.

    It is important to realize too, that eating whole fresh foods that are chemically treated with fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, longer shelf-life, and long shipping and storage times, is no healthier than eating packaged foods. Sometimes they are more dangerous. This is what big-box grocery stores offer, which means truly healthy, fresh, chemically free foods are difficult for all of us to obtain, but even more so for the poor who lack access, transport or money for truly healthy food.

    In a system of ‘for-profit’ medical services, poorer people simply cannot afford medical treatments or medicines, so by the time they are forced to seek help in an emergency department, the costs have multiplied astronomically. Many poor and fixed-income people do not take prescribed medicines for chronic conditions, again because they do not have the money. It costs close to a day’s wages to sit in a dentist chair for a simple exam, treatments cost extra. For example to have a root canal will cost close to a $1,000 — more than several week’s wages, corrective eye glass frames a week of wages, in addition to the day of wages to find out if you or one of your children need corrective lenses. And if you are using the USA as a model, don’t forget that spending to kill people (military or subsidized industry and agribusiness) is in the multi-trillions of dollars per year, exponentially far more expensive than what is currently spent or proposed for health care.

    Less quantifiable, but certainly evident is the stress modern society, especially one that prides itself on class stratification based on income, and commodification, contributes to all kinds of health issues. Similarly the environment, polluted air and water, diminished soil quality, noise, advertising…. It is very stressful if you are not on the upper side of middle class or better. Not only are you living closer to an adverse environment, you have fewer options to escape it even for a few weeks at a time.

    Unfortunately, some of the statistics you refer are pushed by an Americanized ‘republican-everything-for-profit’. It is not easy in that kind of environment to move into a position of an easy healthy lifestyle, either financially or physically.That is part of the problem, likely to worsen as environment, crop failures, scarce expensive oil, globalization and commodification continue, against the will of the vast majority of us.

    None of the above considers the majority of the world’s population who live outside the Western World and its amenities. Conditions and positive opportunities are both worse than in our wealthy Western society. I am not suggesting that we Westerners cannot all make more and better effort to improve our health and lifestyles, but it is not as easy as you suggest, nor feasible in some circumstances, and blaming the poor for their condition doesn’t solve those conditions. It is the system and our infrastructure that needs changing so that all people, not just the privileged have the same options to choose from.

    1. Wow, thanks for this detailed commentary, Wen. It actually first went to spam (probably because of the links), but luckily the length of it caught my eye before I could press the “empty spam” button 😉

      But back to the points you raised: I fully agree with you on most of these points, but would like to re-emphasize that this project is aimed at the top 10% who own 80% of global wealth and are responsible for 60% of global resource consumption. Even though their priorities are badly skewed at the moment, these people definitely have the means to really look after themselves as requested in this long series of posts.

      Also, it is not that I do not care about the poor (I care very deeply) it is just that I see much more responsible living within the richest billion as by far the most effective way in which the poor can be helped. I tweaked the part on inequality in the post to better reflect this point.

      Looking at all the challenges you raised, I would like to think that most of them can be addressed by the fundamental principle of this project: widespread change in consumer demand within the richest billion will enforce all the societal changes that we so deeply desire. The way in which this project differs from so many others is that I would like to see consumer behavior change business and policy instead of business and policy changing consumer behavior.

      This is a kind of chicken and egg debate and I simply think that the chances of individual consumers within the wealthiest 10% realizing that sustainable living is the only path to happy, healthy and wealthy living are far greater than the chances that politicians and big business will make the changes which enforce such shifts in consumer behavior. Quite frankly, even though the chances of the former happening within the required timeframe are quite slim, I think the chances of the latter happening is a big fat 0%. I discuss these issues in some more detail in a newly published set of pages starting here:

      The only point on which I would like to differ with you is that whole fresh commercially produced foods are less healthy than packaged and processed foods. The most important point to be understood here is the power of the human body to maintain equilibrium as long as it is provided with all the nutrients needed for optimum health. If a person gets 50% of his/her calories from nutrient dense vegetables (even if they are commercially grown), his/her body will be able to successfully process and excrete much greater quantities of dangerous chemicals.

      The vast majority of the fresh produce I eat is commercially grown. Even though I know that thorough washing will not remove all the chemicals, I trust my body to handle the foreign molecules as long as I provide it with all the nutrients it can ever need and give it plenty of motion. Who knows, perhaps one day I will keel over from some degenerative disease due to an accumulation of some dangerous chemical, but thus far, I have not had as much as a common cold for almost the past 4 years.

      Just one question: which of the statistics are pushed by ‘republican-everything-for-profit’?

      1. First, sorry for the ‘near miss spam’. I included the links as further reading for some points I made. I’ve included more links here and hope this time I don’t end in the wrong folder. Oh, and here I go again, with a long-winded reply, but your blog is an important series of articles stressing healthy lifestyle, relevant at so many levels in our strange new world.

        As for the 10% you are directing your excellent blog, I don’t share your optimism. I doubt whether this group in general will change their lifestyles unless there are literally no other options. We in the West have been raised on the idea that technology, science, magic bullets, money, superman, etc…… will get us out of the holes we dig.

        As an interesting sidebar to that thought, I watched a documentary last evening on Cuba — they faced just such a dilemma (i.e., no other options) in the early 1990’s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Import/exports ended, available oil dropped to almost zero in a matter of weeks, and food (almost all of it imported) disappeared from the shelves. Their own agribusinesses were directed mostly to cash crops — in short, a national disaster. Now, they are a model of how people possess the creative thinking, knowhow and can–do to turn a catastrophe into an incredible success to emerge with a much healthier environment, better lifestyle and personal health as well as almost complete economic independence. (The Power of Community. How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, and Cuba: The Accidental Revolution)

        You mention eating commercially grown foods. There are disturbing reports now surfacing about GMO’s, which are allowed without labelling in the US (in Canada, we are still leery of GMOs, but labelling on food products is about to disappear here as well). Organ damage, infertility and all kinds of digestive and fatigue symptoms are being documented. ( or for some thoughtful reading )

        Asthma, autism, low birth weights and some kinds of ADD in children, cancers and infertility in adults, have direct links to pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc., used in our fields. DDT ( ) is one of the worst offenders and even though it was banned in Canada 30–40 years ago, it is still showing up in soil and water samples, and in higher mammals, including whales, humans plus bird species.

        Beef and dairy products from cattle treated with hormones and antibiotics are another disturbing trend with hazy long–term effects on humans. or

        Another concern is the growing use of raw sewage to water field crops in commercial food. Years ago, contaminated water was identified as the culprit that altered strawberries fed to Japanese school children at the genetic level. A number of children died. In Canada, we regularly see foods (lettuce, spinach, asparagus, tuna, for example), recalled after e–coli bacteria and other dangerous contaminants are discovered. They are always from commercial food producers, not locally organic growers.

        I agree the importance is to change consumer practices, business was and will always be ‘for–profit’, nothing wrong with that, but it has become insidious as corporations and the top wealthiest buy politicians via PAC and huge donations. I think the only way we will change is bottom up. And I believe that buying locally produced wholesome foods is the way to go. As you can see from above, I have become critical of the produce and fresh foods provided by profit–driven markets and growers. Hopefully, food markets are better in Europe.

        I was thinking your section entitled Economic Crisis and “the US currently pays about 36% of its tax revenues directly back in the form of Medicare and Medicaid.” I couldn’t find those statistics anywhere but I recall hearing those types of numbers during the last US election and the debate for health care. I’m not sure that relating healthcare costs to tax revenues is as relevant as relating them to budget spending, where the percentage is much lower. Living in Canada, we see much of the US campaigning, ads, speeches and debates live on TV. The republicans repeatedly related (and are doing it again now) the new health care as a tax, and present the worst possible interpretation to argue their points. Headlines something like, “the biggest tax hike”, and tea party rallies focused on tax hikes and forced health care policies are filling the air waves right now. When we relate the cost of health care to the taxes we pay, we have to remember that the minute a tax payer walks through hospital doors, for example, he is seeing the return on the money paid into the system, plus more. Republicans represent corporate America, and push for lowered taxes. Obama did little better when he tied public health care to insurance companies who already earn billions quarterly. It makes you wonder who is making policy… Policy Basics: Where Do Our Federal Tax Dollars Go? from or provide simple breakdowns of how the USA budget is broken down.

      2. Hehe… Yeah, the West will probably need a serious crisis or two before they start acting en masse, but that crisis is coming and, by the time it really hits home, this project must be complete, refined and readily available in the most user friendly way in order to do its little bit to shape our future correctly. Points in history where the masses are open to change are few and far between, but another such point is fast approaching and we have to make sure that we use this opportunity as well as possible.

        But even before the real crisis hits, the idea of green living is gaining some momentum. As a slim outside chance, if enough projects like this one jump up, the green revolution could go into exponential liftoff and help soften the severity of the coming crisis. Chances are low, but who knows?

        Thanks for the info on GMO’s. Even though I eat commercial fresh produce, I don’t eat GMO’s. For example I don’t eat any corn and make sure that my soy products are non-GMO. Perhaps there are some GMO traces in some other foods I eat, but that should be negligibly small. My intake of all animal products (except fish) is also very low.

        I don’t know about things such as the sewage irrigation you mentioned, but Europe is usually more conservative on such matters than the US, so I trust that the people growing my food use relatively clean water for irrigation at least.

        Well, the direction in which I was heading with the 36% is the idea that mandatory government spending (primarily medicare, social security and bond interest) will soon exceed tax revenues. When this happens, laws will have to start changing and things will become very messy. But anyway, if there is one thing that America has proven beyond any shadow of a doubt it is that more healthcare spending does not equal more health.

        American healthcare spending dwarfs all other nations, but they are around 40th in life expectancy and are now raising the first generation of children that will live shorter than their parents. US per capita healthcare spending is five times greater than that of Singapore which achieves a 2 years longer lifespan. It is 20 times greater than Cuba which achieves the same lifespan. These really are some mindblowing numbers and prove that Americans are getting an extremely poor return on their massive healthcare investment.

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