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Good Environmental Health and Sustainable Economic Health: Are They Compatible?

28th September 2021 RIAMS

Whilst large parts of the world are still struggling to cope with a surging Covid-19 pandemic, the relatively wealthy nations of the world that have been able to successfully initiate vaccination programmes are starting to turn their attention to the following:

  • The need to live with the virus; and
  • The measures that are going to be necessary to return both domestic and global economies to sustainable growth.

But what does sustainable economic growth mean within the context of environmental health, and are the two even compatible?

In addition to managing the unbelievable economic costs of meeting the challenges of Covid-19, both the domestic and the global economies face significant environmental health challenges, from averting dangerous climate change, managing poor air quality, addressing water quality and diminishing water resources, poor housing provision and homelessness through to the health impacts of both work and worklessness, plus a myriad of other issues. Furthermore, there has long been a debate over whether it is even possible to achieve economic growth whilst also tackling these challenges, with the scale of the climate change problem being particularly daunting.

In this short article, I do not attempt to address the question of what a sustainable level of economic growth might be; but, instead, I consider the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals that the world community signed up to in 2012 in the form of the outcome document, The Future We Want, and I take the view that all those of us that chose environmental health as a career, along with all those businesses that service the worldwide environmental health community, such as RHE Global, contribute significantly to the majority of those 17 goals.

Furthermore, I consider that the delivery of environmental health is central to economic activity and growth, through playing a part in providing the healthy human resources we need to produce goods and services and by ensuring that the unwanted products of our economy – in terms of pollution and waste – are minimised or appropriately managed.

Not only does the practice of environmental health contribute to managing the risks to economic and social activity, but it also supports the management of local flood risks; it helps to regulate the local climate (both air quality and local temperature), and it assists in maintaining the supply of clean water, safe food and other resources. Environmental health practice also delivers safe working environments and safe and sustainable housing, and in so doing, it underpins economic activity and wellbeing, and so is a key factor in sustaining growth for the longer term.

Some may argue that economic growth is ultimately incompatible with the delivery of good environmental health; however, I take the view that unless society can deliver economic growth, it will not be able to deliver the investment and dynamism needed to develop and deploy new technologies that ultimately will be fundamental to both productivity growth and managing the broader environment. Consequently, by playing our part in the delivery of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, environmental health has and will contribute significantly to the economic health and wellbeing of the world.  

The last 18 months of Covid-19 has enabled us to focus on our collective health and wellbeing. However, far from reducing the urgency of the environmental health challenges that we collectively face, Covid-19, its associated economic downturn and the recovery that will surely follow, provides us with an opportunity to focus a modicum of our global resources on environmental health and, in so doing, set us on a sustainable path for the future.

Tony Lewis, Training and Development Manager, RHE Global and Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University