Monday, August 3, 2009

Bridging the Environmental Gap Between Republicans and Democrats

Article submitted for publication in the Utah Medical Association Bulletin.

Serving as the Chairman of the UMA’s Environmental Committee has been an honor and a valuable learning experience. When I first assumed the position I thought that the data on environmental pollution and its negative effects on human health were evident, clear and irrefutable. I felt the same about the solutions to those problems.

I am certain that my passionate stance on these issues were not well received by some in the UMA membership; which is why I gradually came to understand that the data on environmental health may no be as important as the beliefs and political persuasions of those who read it and interpret it. It also became obvious that I, too, interpret environmental data through the prism of my own beliefs, political leanings and past experiences, just like everyone else.

[No doubt some physicians will disagree with the concept that objectivity may take a back seat to subjectivity in a field like ours. I can only say that being aware of these natural tendencies is the best way to maintain an evidence-based approach in our line of work.]

Gradually, I became more willing and able to re-examine the environmental data while considering my colleagues’ contrasting interpretations in mind. Consequently, I have learned to pick my battles, spend my political capital more cautiously and reach consensus more readily for the greater good. (My, I sound like a politician…) Yet, I still feel the UMA could be more proactive in environmental health issues, but I would rather march slowly with the UMA than faster all by myself.

My willingness to compromise and be open to others’ ideas has helped me conceptualize a problem I find is interfering with our mission to maximize the health of Utah citizens. In my opinion, strongly held ideologies on both sides of the political aisle are slowing down the implementation of environmental policies and regulations that have the potential to mitigate many of the health care problems we see in our state.

As a general rule, Republican doctors may be mistrustful of government regulation and Democrat doctors may demonize polluting industry and businesses while dismissing any economic compromises. While there is a grain of truth in both stances, extremist views don’t allow for a compromise that may better protect our patient’s health when it comes to environmental issues.

These are the reasons why I was delighted to come across T. Boone Picken’s plan for environmental policies in our country. Mr. Picken, a very wealthy industrialist, feels that our NATIONAL SECURITY should be the #1 concern as we contemplate energy policies that impact our environment. He agrees that we need to stop our “addiction” to oil that puts us in harm’s way from hostile oil-producing countries. But, he feels that our energy infrastructure is not ready to make the transition to non-oil sources, except for NATURAL GAS and WIND POWER.[1]

By making national security the sine qua non (or prima non nocere if you wish) of environmental issues we are likely to satisfy a justifiable concern that has arguably become a Republic issue. By focusing on wind power and natural gas we are likely to satisfy Democrats who arguably have been “greener” over the years.[2] A national security approach would also be mindful of sustainable business and economic concerns, arguably Republican platforms. Right now, fully 1/3 of our national income leaves our country to buy foreign oil. Keeping that money home would also make us stronger and less vulnerable. Since the Cold War ended by a “technical economic knock-out” (the US economically defeated the Soviets) we are seeing more “financial wars,” or Trojan horse strategies to weaken the opposition from within. China’s agenda comes to mind…

Since our oil addiction has been one of the most serious factors behind our dollar’s decline, it seems imperative to tie our energy policies to sustainable and locally produced energy sources. If push comes to shove, what would we choose: continue to send our young people to die in hostile lands to secure oil sources; or arguably, “somewhat-theoretical” environmental health data linked to an increase in the risk of chronic illness? Since said data is viewed differently by Republicans and Democrats, it seems prudent to me choosing to avoid the sure, immediate death of our soldiers (acute care) while striving to reduce the more subtle and drawn out (chronic care) effects of environmental toxins by developing natural gas, wind power, and other cleaner energy sources as their technology mature.

I hope that as UMA doctors we are able to find a comparable and mutually satisfying middle ground from which to act on the emerging data on environmental health problems in our state.[3] It is our calling to do so.

[1], or
[2] Mr. Nixon, a Republican, created the EPA. By the way, given the recent EPA’s endorsement of California’s policies on vehicle exhaust emissions (35.5 mpg and 40% better fuel economy by 2016) and several other policies through the years, the UMA’s environmental committee strongly recommends that the UMA support the EPA’s general philosophical approach to reducing air pollution.
[3] Go to “info by location” to find Utah’s page.


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