Did you know that the healthcare industry is the largest producer of waste in the United States? And the United States is the largest polluter in the world, producing a total of 236 million tons of waste annually. Although we make up only 5% of the world’s population, we produce a whopping 30% of the world’s waste. It is sobering to think about how much of that waste is generated by hospitals and the health care system.
We are currently in the most dire period of climate change in human history. NASA states that the carbon dioxide levels are up 409 parts per million, meaning that CO2 levels are at their highest in the last 650,000 years on this planet. The global temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. 13.2% of arctic ice melts every decade. The UN Environment Programme estimates that 200 species go extinct every day.
Climate change doesn’t affect everybody equally, however. Environmental racism plays a central role in the climate change crisis. The people affected most by the natural disasters resulting from the rising temperatures of our planet are people of color in the Global South. While the “first world” produces most of the world’s pollution, the poor people in the “third world” are the hardest hit. Even in the United States, people of color are much more likely than white people to live near polluters, breathe polluted air, and drink poison water.
Similar inequities exist in our healthcare system, particularly when it comes to maternity care. Did you know that black women/birthing people are 3 to 4 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women/birthing people? In cities like New York, black women/birthing people are actually 12 times more likely to die in childbirth. The inequities of our healthcare system mirror the inequities of climate change- the most disenfranchised are the most likely to be injured or die.
While Capitalism has benefits for many, it is also a system causing death and destruction for most- including our planet. Since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, greenhouse gases have risen 260%.
Interestingly, this was about the same time that doctors and the Western
Medical System began gaining a foothold in the United States. (White, male) doctors began replacing community healthcare providers and midwives, completely altering the collective approach to healthcare and gaining control over populations.
In 1844, Samuel Morse invented the telegram, allowing for rapid communication and unprecedented industrial expansion in the United States. The American Medical Association was founded just three years later, an organization which lobbied extensively against midwives and other community healthcare workers. They insisted, through new legislation, powerful connections with the government, and effective slander campaigns, that the population’s healthcare move under their domain.
These newly powerful white male doctors assumed that nature was flawed, and that they could improve human birth by intervening in the process with drugs and technology. This assumption led to the (supposed feminist) invention of twilight sleep in the early 1900s, which was the practice of sedating a woman to unconsciousness during childbirth. This intervention necessitated the routine use of forceps (because birthing people could not push). Thousands of birth injuries resulted from the common misuse of forceps during deliveries. Doctors also began the practice of separating babies and mothers at the time of birth due to a completely imagined risk of infection, and managed to essentially eliminate breastfeeding for a time, thinking that factory-made formula could provide better nutrition to human babies than human milk.
This erroneous assumption that the female body needed technologies and interventions to birth and feed our babies coincided with the societal trend towards industrialization. In the same decades that more medicalized childbirth grew in popularity, Orville Wright made the first powered airplane flight and Henry Ford created the Model T. As humans invented more and more technologies and the world became reliant on fossil fuels, we began to deeply medicalize birth in our society.
Nestlé, the largest producer and distributor of formula in the world, got cozy with the American Medical Association in 1932 when the AMA passed a law stating that the formula industry could only advertise to the medical profession. In the 1930’s, about 77% of infants were breastfed; by 1972 the number dropped drastically to 22%.
In the late 1970s when the general public and many medical professionals realized that breast is best (surprise!), Nestlé and other large formula companies began a powerful campaign in the Global South for women to feed their babies with formula. The same places that are the hardest hit by climate change are the countries that have the highest rates of formula use. And first world companies continue to profit. The global baby formula market is expected to be worth about $62.5 billion dollars by 2020.
We can no longer afford to waste so many resources. The oceans are filling with plastic and our water supply is becoming increasingly contaminated with pharmaceuticals and other chemicals. Not only are we wasting incomprehensible amounts of material resources- we are wasting whopping amounts money. It is estimated that the US healthcare system wastes $765 billion annually- about a quarter of what it actually spends.
It’s time we reinvent the healthcare system so that we can heal ourselves, and mitigate the damages we have caused our planet. We need to cut unnecessary wastefulness in our healthcare system (NPR provides some great ideas here). We need to invest more in preventative forms of healthcare, including non-Western modalities such as acupuncture and other forms of eastern medicine. We need to re-center midwives as the primary providers for low-risk birthing people (the countries that do this have much better outcomes than the countries that don’t).
It’s time to reform our healthcare system. The planet depends on it. Female bodies (and humanity in general, birthed from these bodies) depend on it. Scientists estimate that by 2035 we will hit an unprecedented change in the earth’s atmosphere. Our home is changing rapidly. We have already seen huge climate transitions in our lifetimes, and many of the world’s powers have yet to make committed decisions to get behind renewable energy sources and leave fossil fuels behind.
Let’s ameliorate climate change disasters as much as possible. Let’s re-learn how to respect our earth, the original Mother. And with this, may we remember to respect the female body again.