Saturday, July 18, 2009

Determinants of Health

Yesterday I saw a film about social inequality and health. The gist was basically that poorer people live shorter lives than wealthier people, blacks live shorter lives than whites, people in positions of subservience live shorter lives than people at the top, etc. The figures given were stark.

Most relevant to this blog, however, was a thought I had about plants and people. Bare with me, this is kind of obvious, but it's just SO obvious that I need to say it. The reason poorer, black, and disenfranchised folks live shorter lives is that they have poorer access to resources and opportunities. Blaming folks for this is like blaming a rose bush for looking bad when it is being grown in the shade, in poor soil, with sporadic watering. You can pour all the fertilizer on it you want, but it won't thrive unless you move it or do something to improve its conditions.

Of course, if it's already spent most of its life in the shade with its roots scrabbling for nutrients or going leggy in search of light, it may not transplant well. To some extent, the damage may be done. But it would do better. And if it self-seeded in its new location, the little roses would do as well as any rose grown in optimal conditions, or at least have the opportunity to do as well.

What startles me is how obvious this all is and yet we're not taking responsibility for it. Not really. People tend to accept that this is the way it is. We walk past that sorry rose every morning and say, "Ugh, what an eyesore," or, "Someone really needs to water that poor thing." We throw some fertilizer at it and hope for the best.

Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, describes an invisibility device used by aliens when they visit earth. It's called an SEP field, and it cloaks their ship. When people look in the direction of the ship, the field makes them atuomatically dismiss it as Somebody Else's Problem.