Nursing in the Anthropo…what?


Alice Suttie writes about nursing in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

Fires, floods, hurricanes and cyclones, spread of new diseases, drought, water access issues, new diseases, food shortages, heatwaves, rising sea-levels…welcome to nursing in the Anthropocene.

Last year, at the International Geological Congress held in Cape Town, South Africa, the decision was taken to declare a new epoch: the Anthropocene. An epoch is a period of time that corresponds to changes in the Earth’s crust in simple geological terms. This new epoch marks the end of the Holocene – approximately 12,000 years of stable climate since the end of the last ice age that have allowed humanity to flourish.

The name, “Anthropocene”, denotes it is human activity that has changed the planet so much. What we have done will be seen in Earth’s crust layers for millennia to come.

Making a decision to name a new epoch is no small thing. It is recognition of the state of our planet coming from all scientific disciplines, and it most certainly has implications for health care.

There several markers which indicate that we have changed the face of our planet. These include:

  • radioactive isotopes like carbon-14 and plutonium-239 from nuclear testing
  • mass extinctions of animals whose departure will be visible by the sudden lack of fossil record in the future
  • the increase of carbon-13 and carbon-12 isotopes in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, which will be detectable in tree rings and the amount of soot to be found
  • a sharp increase in phosphorus and nitrogen in the soil from use of fertilisers
  • changed geology from deforestation, dam building, mining, coastal reclamation and landfills
  • the presence of new materials like plastics, aluminium and concrete
  • global warming with climate change and sea-level rise

This time a geological epoch carries a multitude of implications for us, as nurses. It is already impacting healthcare in numerous ways. Every environmental disaster drags in its wake a host of problems from loss of homes, and food and water insecurity, to the spread of diseases, especially through water contamination with sewerage. Fires reduce air quality and warming weather brings the spread of disease carrying insects.

The Anthropocene is not only about how the environment is impacting our health. It’s about how we are impacting the environment, and this includes how we do healthcare. Our medical model has been grounded in two ways of thinking. One is Cartesian duality, which separates us from other things, people, creatures and our environment. The other is a mechanistic view that allows us to break something down into individual parts to understand how they work, and then reconstruct the whole again with a better understanding. These ways of viewing ourselves and our environment have been amazing in terms of what we have learnt, but they have also failed us, in that we have turned a blind eye to the impacts of modern healthcare on the planet. Just think of our plastic use, and hormones in ground water.

Times of great turbulence and upheaval are not all about bad news. It’s in these times that new ways of thinking and doing things have the chance to be explored and take a foothold and this is something I’m really excited about. We already have the Global Green and Healthy Hospitals network, Doctors for the Environment, the Climate and Health Alliance and our own NSWNMA working hard to lobby and educate regarding sustainability, but we need something a little more: we need radical transformation, a new way of looking at ourselves, not as separate from “nature out there”, but as part of nature, embedded in this biosphere, recognising we are made of this soil, air, water, utterly dependent on a flourishing , bright and lively biodiversity in us and around us in order for us all to thrive.

“If we approach nature … without an openness to awe … our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, exploiters…By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then … care will well-up spontaneously.”

Pope Francis, “Laudato Si, On Care of Our Common Home”, May 24, 2015

This is not just some “way out there” idealism. It’s a way of thinking that can be found in how many First Nations people see themselves as belonging to the land both here in Australia and elsewhere in the world. It’s also part and parcel of complexity theory. Complexity theory recognises that the numbers of ways in which parts and sub-systems in systems interconnect cannot all be described and explained and are constantly adapting and evolving. The implications of the Anthropocene are driving numerous efforts to explore complexity and how we need to adapt to do better, living and working in a sustaining way in universities and communities around the world. As nurses we need to be part of this.

Nursing exists and evolves through the ongoing work and efforts of nurses. As we face a new epoch and all the tumult it represents, we need nurses who are visionary, ready to challenge the status quo, think not just outside the box, but recognising there is no box – that we are the soil, the water, the air, dynamically connected to everything else and each other.

“If we allow a sense of presence to steal up the bones and swirl through the rooms of a many-chambered heart the planet becomes far too enchanting to ignore … and the imaginary line between us and the rest of nature simply dissolves.”    

Diane Ackerman, North American nature poet



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