Occupational Therapy and the Current Ecological Crisis

By Hudson, Mark J.; Aoyama, Mami | British Journal of Occupational Therapy, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Occupational Therapy and the Current Ecological Crisis


Hudson, Mark J., Aoyama, Mami, British Journal of Occupational Therapy


Introduction

Current human impacts on the environment are diverse, wide ranging and proliferating at an unprecedented rate (Goudie 2006). Threats deriving from these impacts include habitat degradation and decreasing biodiversity, increasingly fragile food and water supplies, sea level rises, increasing levels of environmental pollutants and unstable weather patterns (see, for example, Fowler and Kilsby 2003, Walker et al 2005, Church and White 2006, McMichael et al 2006, Schellnhuber et al 2006, Clausen and York 2008). There is growing agreement that the social and ecological problems associated with human environmental impacts have become so severe as to preclude 'business as usual' for the industrialised world (Moran 2006).

In the newspapers and elsewhere, we are increasingly being told that many of our everyday occupations are exacerbating ecological instability. We are being encouraged to alter those occupations to change the way in which we commute, the type of vacations that we take, the type of food that we eat and even the size of our families. From this perspective, changes in occupation are clearly associated with measures designed to stem the current ecological crisis and this opinion piece argues that the body of knowledge developed by occupational therapy could be more effectively utilised in this respect.

The usual starting point for occupational therapists is clients who can no longer conduct 'business as usual', and occupational therapy's practical emphasis on activities related to wellbeing gives the profession a significant voice in debates over the social impacts of environmental change. The aim of this opinion piece is to stimulate further debate on this question by summarising three areas in which occupational therapy could potentially contribute measures designed to confront the ecological crisis that we face.

Agency and tradition

What does it mean for humans to change their occupations? This question is tied to the problem of human agency, which looms large in the recent literature on environmental change. Human agency is particularly a problem in the industrialised world where so many human activities are so clearly harmful to the environment, but there are also numerous historical examples where human choices caused or exacerbated ecological crises (for example, Redman 1999, Diamond 2005). Occupational therapy can complement the work of the social sciences here by providing practical models of occupational behaviour that attempt to explain how and why humans engage in their most basic activities.

The anthropological record shows that humans are a remarkably adaptable species and that an important element of that adaptability is our great diversity and flexibility of occupations (Aoyama and Hudson 2008). At the same time, because of the importance of occupations to wellbeing and identity, humans are often reluctant to change those occupations. This last point may seem unremarkable to readers of this journal, but it is not an argument that has so far received any attention in the environmental literature. Existing environmental and social sciences assume that a range of factors influences human lifestyle changes. These factors include ideology, class, the desire for personal profit and aggrandisement, and sociopolitical exploitation, but occupation does not usually figure in such debates.

A useful example here is one that has been discussed extensively in the literature on human responses to environmental change--medieval Greenland. The failure of Norse settlers to adapt to the Little Ice Age has usually been explained in terms of ideological rigidity or the political economy of trade (for example, Dugmore et al 2007). Diamond (2005) and others have noted that traditional Norse occupations related to dairy farming and Christian worship were of great importance in Greenland, but there has been no analysis of how these occupations may have related to other aspects of social and individual wellbeing and thus of why the Norse were so reluctant to change them. …

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