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侯深|In the Name of Health
来源:Environmental History, Vol.25, No.4 作者:侯深 点击数:822 更新时间:2020/12/8


侯深,中国人民大学历史学院副教授,著有The City Natural: Garden and Forest Magazine and the Rise of American Environmental History,即将出版《无墙之城:美国历史上的城市与自然》。




    The shutdown of Wuhan caused by the novel coronavirus started on January 23, two days before the Chinese New Year, and quickly a sense of panic became contagious, spreading even faster than the virus thanks to the internet. My hometown—Qingdao, a metropolis of nine million people—was suddenly silent and its streets vacant, although this city (as well as all cities outside Hubei Province) were not officially closed down. 

    For almost five months I stayed on the campus of Qingdao University where my parents’ apartment is located, and there watched the seasons move from winter to spring to early summer: trees budded and flourished, flowers bloomed and withered, fish swam, birds flew, and turtles bathed in the sun. Once, I even spotted a grey heron gliding across the early spring blue skies, flying to the nearby seashore. In contrast to that liveliness in nature, for almost two months, I saw no other Homo sapiens except my mother and two or three delivery guys.


    It seemed that all the hustle and bustle had moved to the virtual world, which became more crowded and noisy than ever, filled with voices of hope, anxiety, sorrow, xenophobia, blind nationalism, cautious optimism, fear of an expanding Leviathan, anger over social injustice, and warning of a potential Cold War between East and West. But within the walls of the campus, nature looked so healthy, robust, and luxuriant, even though it was a very simplified, highly tamed campus ecosystem, that I tended to forget all those outside dangers threatening my own health and that of the Chinese or world’s people. Then one day in late January, I noticed someone heavily spraying chlorine disinfectant right on the campus, part of “a war against the epidemic” (the phrase appearing over and over in headlines of every Chinese national and local newspaper and on the social media). It was a war being waged very close to me in the name of human health. 

    A very fluid concept, health has been defined and redefined throughout history, but mainly has been celebrated as an unquestioned good. While many other concepts, such as beauty, permanence, and stability, have been challenged and critically scrutinized, health has become an “inalienable right” of all humans, and subject to little critical scrutiny. When we historians look back at the history of health, we tend to focus on why some people got better health care and some did not, or on the social, political, or economic progress generated by the human pursuit of good health. Environmental historians have pushed further than most to ask how disease was rooted in disturbances of the natural ecology. Yet, in general, environmental historians have not examined critically enough the impact of human health as a demand, a kind of consumer good, on the environment. We need to ask, more than ever, what consequences our “health-seeking” behavior entail for the whole environment. We need to inspect the medical methods we have developed to enjoy more perfect health (to pay attention, for example, to all the bad stuff that hospitals put into the environment) and to think about the consequences for other forms of life inherent in our remedies. Historians should look back into the past and ask, not merely whether we are more or less healthy than we once were, but also what harm have we done to the planet in the name of human health.

    Back to that empty campus where the human residents numbered only two hundred, isolated in an area of some 200 hectares. Beyond the campus walls, in metropolitan Qingdao, there have been only sixty-five COVID-19 cases detected since January while the closest discovered case was 4.5 kilometers from the campus. Nonetheless, the university started spraying disinfectant everywhere, seemingly without first worrying about whether it was necessary or effective. Similar episodes are unfolding all over China, rural and urban, and Wuhan, the worst affected place, has endured daily showers of disinfectant in every neighborhood. 

    For this modern chemical age, such spraying and disinfecting has become universal. Tons of pesticides are still purging all the “vermin,” and many kinds of detergents flow into our sewer systems every day. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s warnings almost sixty years ago, more people have questioned the necessity. But once such chemicals are used in the name of health, the questioning fades. In late February, for example, among the online hullabaloo over COVID-19, I found a short article titled, “Wuhan Will Face Grave Danger in the Post-COVID-19 Age.” The anonymous author warned that the overuse of chlorine-based disinfectant might lead to serious environmental problems later on. But that warning, which seemed written by an amateur with no data, was soon forgotten in the heated war against the virus.

    In an interview with Chinese Science and Technology Daily on February 17, a researcher, Yingdang Peng, from the National Research Center of Municipal Pollution Control offered an assurance that the chlorine dosing would not cause serious pollution to public water supplies, though he acknowledged that it would create more serious trouble with the flora and soil microbes. Ironically, Peng reported that many fish were killed in Taiwan during the 2003 SARS epidemic when disinfectant was dumped into the Danshui River. Beijing, the global center of that epidemic, must have used much more of the chemical, although the interview was quiet on this subject. Interestingly, it was published under a title that posed the issue as a question: “Overuse of Disinfectant Severely Pollutes Underground Water?” The question mark was meant to soothe anxiety about the degradation of drinking water. But what about the death of fish or microbes? The message seemed to be, let us forget about them in the name of health.

    In 2015, Environmental History published a forum on “Technology, Ecology, and Human Health since 1850” which ranged over “characteristics of pathogen-ecologies in the Anthropocene, technological networks, ecological disruption, new evolutionary niches, novel materials, mismatch diseases, and knowledge production.”The forum offered important insights into the origin of modern diseases and the impacts of technology on various ecosystems. But we need to go back well before the mid-nineteenth century. Technology is not merely a modern phenomenon; it includes all those innovations we humans have used to feed and defend ourselves and to fight against and exploit nature, a pattern going back to the Paleolithic age. Equally important, technology and cultural practices are not only themselves responsible for diseases, but also are powerful instruments for seeking health. As such, people often forgive the shortcomings of technology when it is applied in the name of health and often ignore how that technology can undermine the health of the rest of nature or ignore the vital connections between nature and human bodies. 

    A familiar example of the bad consequences of health practices has been the drainage and filling of marshland to disperse zhang qi (瘴气, literally translated as miasma, but the Chinese term is more specific, referring to sick air caused by humid climate and rotten plant and animal bodies in China’s south). Zhang qi was believed to be the source of many diseases, especially malaria. Its defeat was a story told on two levels: a victory over nature in the name of human health and a victory of agricultural civilization over “savagery.” The latter has been questioned and even subverted, but the former victory remains virtuous and solid, for it was done in the name of human health. 

    The demand for human health, however, has long been rooted in our phobias about the natural world and its dangers, as well as in faulty medical theory. “Health” in fact became a pursuit of power and conquest over nature. We need to understand how the concept of human health has expanded into a total war on nature, becoming the dark side of health history. It includes our fears, our intolerance of any discomfort, our “war” mentality, our technological assault on nature in the name of health. Rachel Carson wrote about what humans everywhere in the postwar period were doing or demanding be done to secure an abundant food supply—soaking the earth in pesticides. How have public health officials and experts, along with the medical profession and drug companies, all resisted seeing that their remedies can make health problems worse not only for people but for all living organisms? 

    It’s time for historians to pay more attention to the unintended environmental consequences of our long pursuit of health. We should ask: what remains unchanged about those unintended consequences when the technology to acquire health has become increasingly sophisticated and chemical, and what is different? What have been people’s reactions to those outcomes based on different environmental and medical knowledge? In the universal drive for better health, how has the experience varying from place to place? We should acknowledge some ancient truths: Hippocrates’ integration of human health with its environment, for example, but also traditional Chinese medicine’s perception of the human body as an internal cosmos influenced by and reflecting the external cosmos.

    Our modern perception of health has gone beyond Hippocrates or traditional Chinese medicine or, indeed, any folk understanding of the environment’s influence over human bodies. When scientists like Aldo Leopold wrote about the restoration of the health of land and Rachel Carson crafted her fable of a silent spring, neither believed physical health should be thought of simply as a human need. They both measured health by wildlife abundance, diversity, and stability as well as human vital statistics. They both recognized the animal side of humans, the co-evolution and vulnerability we share with the rest of nature, and we should, too.

文章来源:Environmental History,Volume25,  Issue 4, October 2020,

Pages 622-625

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