The view of planetary change and human health from the MIT anthropologist


MIT anthropologist Amy Moran-Thomas focuses on the profound connection between human well-being and planetary well-being.

She intended to record the health issues of people, concentrating on diabetes, when anthropologist Amy Moran-Thomas first traveled to Belize in 2008 to perform ethnographic research.

Then she heard that local diets that lead to such chronic diseases were shifting, partially due to declines in ocean food chains, and she started to hear reports of trouble with local crops.

“As I listened and tried to learn from what people were saying, I realized over the years that human health and the health of the planet are intimately connected,”As I listened and tried to learn from what people were saying, I realized over the years that human health and the health of the planet are intimately related. “When I think of health now, I think of clutter in larger ecosystems and infrastructures that also ends up in the human body.”

In her 2019 novel, “Traveling with Sugar” (now widely available at MIT Libraries), Moran-Thomas detailed the effects of diabetes, but she says this story – of a global epidemic expected to kill between 1.5 and 4.2 million people a year (a telling void in our baseline knowledge) – is just a small part of a wider tale.

Changing weather makes food and vegetables more difficult to produce.

The human diet is also being modified by declining fish stocks.

Moran-Thomas explains that chemicals used to stretch degraded soils or help diseased crops survive can lead to subsequent human chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes. “Clinical medicine addresses cancer risk by studying our genes, but not by also monitoring our water and air, which are increasingly saturated with carcinogens.”

Intricate interdependencies
A new course, 21A.312 (Planetary Change and Human Health), was introduced by Moran-Thomas this spring to offer students the opportunity to discuss such dynamic interdependencies.

Students learn about the viral ecologies that link human lives and animal health as the Covid 19 pandemic intensified.

Students addressed the effect of the California wildfires in the second semester of the course this fall – and Moran-Thomas added a new unit on mental health and climate change anthropology.

“In addition to worrying about the physical safety of going outside, or whether breathing in smoke can exacerbate respiratory illnesses,” she says, “there can be a mental toll of wondering if you’ll have to evacuate, or looking at the strange color of the sky.”

Moran-Thomas says solving all of these intertwined problems requires an approach that does not consider people as an afterthought. Climate change is a technical crisis, not merely, or even fundamentally,”Climate change is not just, or even fundamentally, a technological problem,” This is a social issue, where the role of human decisions over time and their unequal consequences for people have to be reckoned with.

“There can be a tendency to counter climate denialism with more data, and I don’t think that’s the problem,” she says. “Data is not wisdom; its value depends on how it’s collected, interpreted and formulated.”

Thinking together with groups
She returned to Belize again and again over time as Moran-Thomas focused on Traveling with Sugar, gaining insights into slow change processes – both for people, some of whom have lost relatives and limbs to diabetes over the years, and for land that has been impacted by erosion and sea-level rise.

“In one place in southern Belize, where I did my first interview more than a decade ago, the entire front road and more than 20 houses sank into the sea,” she says, adding that the protection of bodies and infrastructure is always associated.

“For example, if a road or bridge is submerged in a flood, it can have a major impact on whether people in a moment of crisis can reach the hospital or whether they can access preventive care. “Nevertheless, over and over again, I’ve seen people restore and rebuild.

I wonder what would be possible if designers based their insights on how they are interconnected with health and climate erosion.
In many cases, Moran-Thomas says, constant wear and tear are accumulating on both sides.


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