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close this bookWIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 08, No. 3 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1996, 16 pages)
View the document(introduction...)
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View the documentPoint of View

Point of View

The Point of View presented here is the speech given by the Health and Environment Caucus to the Plenary at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements known as Habitat II, Istanbul, Turkey, June 11, 1996. World Information Transfer was the convener of this caucus.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. These warning words of the American writer George Santayana remind us that when we understand our culture and history, we enhance our capacity to respond creatively to our present problems. Although we are all formed by our culture, our rapidly urbanizing world demands that we are not enslaved by it. Rather we must use our endowed creativity to reach beyond the cultural and traditional control of practices that doom humankind to repeat its past mistakes, learn from those mistakes and move in new directions.

One critical consequence of maintaining traditional practices and viewpoints is the deterioration of human health around the world. We have clear evidence of rising rates of cancers, tuberculosis, lung diseases, lead poisoning, all of which are associated with various forms of environmental degradation. Although the health impacts of overpopulation and over consumption of resources are not directly correlated as yet, habitat destruction in the name of development and the ensuing ecological imbalances have been acknowledged as a major result of the world's unsustainable economic current practices.

In an ideal world all people would be able to provide shelter for themselves and their families. In a less perfect world, individuals and their dependent children who require housing would find shelter from government, businesses and charities. In our current world, only some people are helped by others to find satisfactory housing while the rest are left to live wherever they might. Housing, like food, is a basic need that must be met before an individual can become a productive citizen. Individuals have always been responsible for their own food and shelter and that of their families, yet there is a worldwide tradition in most cultures of aiding those who cannot meet their basic needs. The modern welfare state has moved that tradition in the direction of human rights. When individuals cannot sufficiently feed or shelter themselves or their families, government takes the responsibility onto itself through laws and programmes that allow needy people to lay claim to the benefits of public assistance. The fundamental idea to provide basic needs to those who cannot do so rests partly on the assumption that a nation's productivity grows when its population is housed and fed. Therefore, it would be in the government's interest to provide basic needs to its people. It certainly is in the interest of the individuals and their families.

Furthermore, it is in the interest of government to provide basic needs to its citizens as a means of protecting the health of all. In urban areas, diseases spread quickly and know neither class nor neighborhood boundaries. No nation can maintain a healthy economy when significant parts of its population are malnourished or traumatized or suffering the effects of chronic exposure to pollutants. There is little disagreement on this. The question is how to accomplish meeting the basic needs of millions especially in nations with weak economies.

One approach is to recognize the primacy of children's needs in so far as healthy children are a nation's future. We can start by implementing laws that would provide a responsible family for every child that is born. A family that is aware of the needs of every' child, not as a slave to its own existence binding that child to traditions that negate health, but as an individual with rights of its own. The cooperation of government officials, business leaders, the medical establishment, educators, religious leaders, NGOs, and families in need is required to maintain a full support network to help secure for each child its right to housing and food. In every country meeting housing and food needs is expensive. The cost would be limited if governments recognized that their primary interest lies in the future, that is, in producing children who are physically and mentally healthy and capable of becoming productive citizens.

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