Perennial Problems: Histories of Health and Environment across Borders
As new cases of Ebola cropped up in West Africa this spring, the international media ran a new series of headlines: “Why Does Ebola Keep Showing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?” “Why Veterinarians are the Key to Defeating Ebola” and “Where does Ebola Hide Between Epidemics?” These recent articles inevitably refer to the 2014-2016 epidemic, triggered , by forest removal for agriculture and resource extraction near human communities. Ebola, which is characterized by fever, sore throat, headache, vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, and haemorrhaging leading to internal and external bleeding, led to 11,310 deaths by 29 March 2016. It was a talking point at the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, and continues to be a major part of West Africa’s humanitarian crisis to the present.
The connection between health and environment is not a new development. Already in 1854, physician John Snow connected a cholera outbreak in Soho, London to an infected water pump. The water company responsible for supplying the pump, Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company, was drawing its water from a section of the Thames River which was polluted with sewage. This finding led to improvements in sewage treatment and a concerted effort to clean up the heavily-polluted Thames River to better protect the health of English citizens.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported on 8 October that the planet is facing unprecedented global warming which will result in extreme heat, environmental degradation, climate-related poverty, and heat-related deaths. At this dramatic moment in human history, it is fundamentally important to look forward to protect our future, and to look backward to understand how we have arrived at this place and what we might do to avoid catastrophe. How have historians contextualized these emerging connections between population health and the environment? Curious about the emerging research in this field, I tweeted earlier in August 2018 asking if there was interest. I wasn’t quite ready for the robust response I received. I was astounded by how much research was being done in this field, and how scholars are asking important questions and finding compelling evidence about the historical connections between health and environment.