The 'One Medicine' and the Politics of Planetary Health

The science and practice of human and veterinary medicine are being re-defined by such global phenomena as global warming/ climate change; rising world hunger and poverty; the many complexities of zoonotic and other infectious and contagious diseases; species and habitat extinction; and food-safety and security in times of terrorism and war. The linkage of such issues and concerns are bringing human and veterinary medicine together in new ways that are being referred to in the professional literature as ‘the one medicine’.

Part of the now global, systemic pathology of increasingly dysfunctional ecosystems is the parallel condition of local and national resources and economies. The catalysts and vectors of this pathology are multiple and synergistic, consumerism, industrialism, and human and domestic animal population expansion and concentration combining to accelerate climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and undermine water and food quality, safety, and security.

Both conventional and holistic, alternative, and traditional (indigenous/native) agricultural, veterinary and human medical disciplines and traditions are being utilized as valuable resources of knowledge and application to address the aforementioned concerns and issues. Other scientific disciplines and practices are being resourced also, such as environmental toxicology, forensic pathology, immunology, and molecular biology. Nutritional genomics for companion and farmed animals, and applied ethology/animal behavior, essential to insure optimal well-being (health and welfare) for all captive wild, and confined domestic animals, especially those used in biomedical research and for other commercial purposes, are being integrated into veterinary practice and undergraduate veterinary education. But as Albert Einstein cautioned, the problems of the world, from environmental and public health to animal health and welfare, cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that brought them on in the first place.

Humankind is on the threshold of yet another cycle of war, pestilence and famine, arguably of far greater magnitude and duration than World War 1 and 2, the Black Death plague of the middle ages, and the Rinderpest scourge of East Africa in the late 1800s. Many lament, wondering why history always seems to repeat itself. The anthropic or anthropogenic causes of most human sickness, poverty and suffering, are tied to the anthropocentric world view of the dominant cultures that have defiled the life and beauty of planet Earth through ignorance, indifference, greed and fear (1). From age to age, concerned people have spoken of the need for moral values and virtues, social and environmental ethics, human rights and reverence for all life: And of the dire consequences of living in the absence of the sacred, with no empathic self-restraint out of respect for the Golden Rule.

History will some day be re-written by revisionists of the Baconian ideology of progress through science and the ‘vexing of Nature’, that sparked the industrial revolution and the commoditization of the natural world, and will point to the nemesis of materialism and consumerism: Namely Earth’s finite resources and fragile ecosystems. Respect for the former and reverence for the latter would, as hind-sight informs, have been enlightened self-interest.

The contributions of the veterinary profession, along with the livestock industry and commodity crop producers, to global warming/climate change; loss of biodiversity; zoonotic diseases like swine and avian flu, E coli and Salmonella, and role in contaminating our food chain, oceans and rainwater with petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and veterinary pharmaceuticals, are a matter of biological record—a legacy that will endure for generations.

There is neither time nor need for regret or recrimination, and shame and blame will get us nowhere, as will rationalization and denial. In its ultimate greatness the human species has the ability to bring reason, compassion and respect for all living beings together, and then be able to make peace with itself and the living Earth. We can surely be more than dexterous, death-fearing, killer-apes when we have the will and the wisdom to accept full responsibility for the actions of our forefathers, and for the kinds of lives we live through choice and circumstance as consumers, that we can all make less harmful to the environment and to other sentient beings, as well as to ourselves.

Ideas and values can spread like viruses and act like genes on the human psyche. This is why the state of our world and our state of mind are connected, and reflective. Through epigenetics, environmental factors can influence gene activity in the developing human fetus, altering the physiology and psychology of the individual for better or for worse, and from one generation to the next. So from a holistic perspective it would be accurate to say that since we and the world are one, the kind of world that we have made for ourselves, and the global crises that we face today, are evolutionary influences on our biology and psychology, shaping human nature for better or for worse, and for generations to come.

How we chose to respond to these influences is our instrumental role in shaping our own destiny. Some may feel that they are victims of circumstance, victors over adversity; or helpless bystanders. But we are all participants in the processes of human development, adaptation and evolution. We are free agents with the power of self-determination operating within the constraints of a present and future predetermined by our biology, history and circumstance. This is the creative, existential tension between what is, and what is humanly possible. Optimists, pessimists, fatalists and realists all have different perspectives, as every culture and times have had their various icons, totems and heroes.

Human history, and Greek and other mythological and mystery traditions, and philosophies of ethos, telos, and ethics (2), point to these iconic and totemic elements as the determinants of distinctive, and often still conflicting, cultures or world-views, and of every civilization’s rise and fall. Those who do not examine their icons, totems and heroes—all that they cherish, covet, believe, would die for, and would even love to possess or become, —shall perish. That is the way of human nature, amongst whose kind are many; the silent and unsung heroes of every day (3) who make a difference, not to the whole, but in a nanosecond of space/time that is suffused no longer with pain and suffering but with their light of hope, courage, and compassion. This connects us to the boundless universe wherein peace, joy and equanimity are incorporated into our state of being and consciousness. The impermanence of all things is part of the cosmic process and, like death, we fear the inevitable. We mourn and we covet, but beyond the inevitable loss of what and whom we have cherished lie the illimitable gifts of selfless love, the kinship of suffering, and the joy of communion with others, human and non-human.

We are integral living participants in an emergent cosmos of ‘chaos’, ( 4) that is characterized by its dualisms of order and confusion, creation and destruction, rather than being a universe evolving toward some indeterminate point of perfection, or some flawed and ‘fallen’ Creation. Our Earthly realm embodies both the natural chaos of its cosmic origins, and the chaos caused entirely by us humans. There is enough destructive chaos, that some call entropy, (the antithesis of entelechy), of natural, cosmic origin to sufficiently, efficiently and sustainably maintain the creative processes of a viable planet. To add further destruction— as through our increasingly dysfunctional and polluting industrial activities, market-driven consumerism, and loss of both cultural and biological diversity—is to accelerate the collapse of ecosystems, failure of industrial and ecological economies, and disintegration of the atmosphere.

The lack of any unified sensibility in our regard for and treatment of animals and Nature, —the natural creation—means, in terms of child development, a schizophrenogenic situation for character formation and personality development. This results in ethically inconsistent, morally compromised, and emotionally conflicted perception and treatment of other sentient beings in adulthood. Totemic and iconic values and perceptions of animals and Nature range from the instrumental to the sentimental; from being objects of property, exploitation, and commerce, or subjects of affection, concern, and communion; and from treating others as ends in themselves, to using them a means to one’s own exclusive ends. Animals once feared or revered are now regarded variously as commodities, test-subjects, indicator and flagship species of ecological well-being, and as beloved companions and family members. The ‘golden mean’ of mutually enhancing symbiotic and commensal relationships is the iconic template for humane and responsible planetary custodianship, and we have far to go before this state of grace, where love and duty are one, is achieved.

The labyrinth of animal cruelty and suffering, and ways we follow in the destruction of the natural world, differ from culture to culture and age to age, as likewise the recognition of human rights, social justice, and the ethical imperatives of animal and environmental protection. The deeper into this psycho-historical labyrinth of inhumanity toward animals we journey, the more we find it leading to no less indifference and cruelties toward our own kind—not the individual psychopathic aberrations of the animal mutilators, zoophiliacs, pedophiliacs and serial killers,—but in the collective acceptance and institutionalized execution of no less cruel and debasing, if not as immoral abuses like human slavery and political imprisonment and torture; animal experimentation, factory farming for fur and flesh, milk and eggs, and cultural traditions like the bull fight, bear-baiting, whaling, and turning captive elephants, tigers, and other wild and endangered species, in to circus performers.

The totality of contradictions inherent in humanistic ethics, and in human nature, show us to be a chimeric species embodying both ‘good’ and ‘evil’, or in more relevant and practical terms, being creative or destructive; responsible or irresponsible; kind or cruel; compassionate or indifferent; humble or arrogant; human or inhuman. Our chimeric nature, (that is neither intrinsically good or bad but both) makes us moral beings with the freedom to make ethically responsible choices out of enlightened self-interest.

Our humanity and lack thereof are reflected in the icons and totems of every culture, and we will continue to be at war with each other as with ourselves until the pure force of our humanity is manifest as otherly-love, and every child is enabled and ennobled to ‘cultivate life as an act of love’ (5). As I emphasized in my book One Earth, One Mind (6), the state of the world mirrors our collective state of mind, so being mindful of the consequences of ones desires and actions is the first step toward the bioethical transformation of the individual and the foundation of a humane, socially just and sustainable society (7).

The concept of the ‘one medicine’ that is emerging as veterinary and human medical fields converge and collaborate with particular emphasis on environmental, indeed planetary health, gives equal consideration to the treatment and alleviation of the symptoms of dis-ease as it does to the prevention of harm and suffering to all sentient beings that are integral to the functional biospheric ecology, as well as to the life and beauty of the Earth. Such prevention goes way beyond better vaccinations and diagnostics, to examining our values and relationships, as in how the land and farmed animals are treated, along with the crops and foods we and they consume, (8). Preventive medicine must also examine, like the shamans and healers of past civilizations, the icons and totems associated with the more destructive and harmful dimensions of the cultural ethos and human psyche, such as consumerism, materialism, economism, industrialism, and colonialism, and in the process of self-examination, find the way to wholeness and health for all.

  1. Martha Stout, 2007, ‘The Paranoia Switch: How Terror Rewires Our Brains and Reshapes Our Behavior—and How We Can Reclaim Our Courage.’ New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
  2. Joseph Campbell, 1990, ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press. See also M.W.Fox, 1996, ‘The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures and Creation.’ Wheaton, IL, Quest Books.
  3. Studs Terkel, 1980, ‘American Dreams: Lost and Found’. New York, Pantheon.
  4. Richard J. Bird, 2003, ‘Chaos and Life: Complexity and Order in Evolution and Thought’. New York, Columbia University Press.
  5. Thomas Moore, 1998, ‘The Soul of Sex: Cultivating Life as an Act of Love’. NewYork, Harper Collins.
  6. Michael W. Fox, 1980, ‘One Earth, One Mind: Personal Notes Toward a New Natural Consciousness’. New York, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan.
  7. Michael W. Fox, 2001 ‘Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society.’ Albany, NY, State University of New York Press.
  8. Michael W. Fox, 1997, ‘Eating With Conscience: The Bioethics of Food.’ Troutdale OR, New Sage Press.