Everywhere we hear the call for the greening of American culture, and many are coming to understand that the same is needed for our medical culture. The complex issues surrounding the human experience of illness, disease, death, recovery, health and cure are too diverse and multifactorial to be confined to the limited parameters that orthodox Western medicine uses to redress them.
My own use of "green" is intended to convey more than just a conventional ecological perspective. Ecology is an example of an inclusive science that focuses on the interrelationships among a variety of the physical sciences. The mass production and consumption of synthetic pharmaceuticals leads to significant drug waste and excretion of their metabolites into sewage systems and watertables, effectively turning our ecosystem into a toxic waste dump.
Although this trend deserves our urgent attention, green medicine entails far more than just the sustainability of medical products and minimization of medical waste. Green medicine seeks to stretch the boundary beyond its environmental connotation to include that which is beyond physical medicine. Thus, the physical, mental, emotional, environmental, energetic, psychic and spiritual aspects of human experience become equally important when it comes to health and healing.
Conventional medical science represents only one particular approach to these issues of health and illness. It is a valuable approach, especially when used within the limits of its applicability. However, it must not be permitted to drown out the many other legitimate perspectives that have much to add to the health and healing conversation. Green medicine is about building bridges; it is not a movement designed to disparage conventional medicine. It is not about factionalism. It is about using the best of all medical worlds at our disposal for the benefit of humankind. It is about achieving unity through diversity.
The impetus for change is coming from a general public that is increasingly aware of the dysfunctional nature of modern medical care. The medical system itself, for a number of obvious reasons, cannot be expected to initiate such changes without external pressure from so-called "consumers." But before we can institute meaningful change we must first identify some of the shortcomings that limit Western medicine. In addition, we will describe some complementary green counterpoints that can be used to round out the whole picture. The following broadly constructed categories describe some of the most prominent flaws in Western medical philosophy that, in turn, lead to inappropriate strategies in the actual practice of medicine.
1. Reductionism and Holism
Of necessity, medical science has historically taken a reductionist approach to investigating issues of human health. It breaks the human body down into its component parts, including a vast universe of microscopic parts that can't be seen by the naked eye. Much valuable information is learned in this process. However, when taken as the only approach, the end result is a fragmented array of body parts, bits and pieces of scientific data and specialized fields of medicine, all of which are increasingly dissociated from one another.
The system is in desperate need of a perspective that can put all of the pieces back together again. Fortunately, that is precisely what most green healing practitioners are trained to do. They are busy connecting the dots where conventional medicine has failed to do so. More often than not, most unconventional practitioners are generalists that view human health in its totality. They see the big picture instead of a microscopic view of a part of a part.
2. Rationalism and Empiricism
Modern medicine relies heavily upon the rational faculty of the mind. This is essentially a left-brain trait that places a premium upon a quantitative approach to human health. It uses logic to solve problems. It places excessive value upon lab results and the statistical abstractions of research studies while it downplays the reality of the patient's first-hand experience. It is the left brained legacy of 2000 plus years of patriarchy. While this may be a useful method in some hard physical sciences such as geology or astronomy, it is woefully inadequate when it is the dominant or exclusive approach to healing.
Real and lasting healing must also make use of the right brain. Many green healing methods involve a more direct, empirical, experiential orientation to the patient. It is a qualitative approach that also involves intangibles like intuition, feeling, meaning and extrasensory information. These tools form the missing complement to the analytical mode of scientific medicine. This is not just a call for doctors to be more compassionate. It is a practical matter that often has a very real impact upon patient outcomes.
Such an overly rational worldview is a breeding ground, for example, for a mentality that so casually excuses "X" number of deaths caused by drug "A" as the necessary "risks that come with the benefits." It is the same mindset that dismisses a patient's report of his or her own symptoms and experiences as "merely anecdotal." This is why patients frequently come away from a visit to the doctor feeling not listened to.
3. Mechanism and Energetics
Western medicine's mechanistic bias is another of its notable shortcomings. The human body tends to be seen as an automobile that periodically needs its parts repaired, removed or replaced. Mechanistic thinking is closely allied with the cause-and-effect mode of perception that tends to dominate conventional medical thought. Events, therefore, must have a clear and logically explainable connection in order to be taken seriously. "Coincidences" are easily dismissed as such because they cannot be assigned any logical reason for their existence.
Many green healing practices are grounded in the notion of the universe as a vast interconnected sea of particles, waves and energy fields. Einstein posited that matter is equivalent to energy, and modern physics is the cutting edge science that is beginning to offer explanations for health and healing phenomena as perceived and experienced by many holistic healers.
One model views the human body, brain and nervous system as the most complex receiver, transducer, and transmitter of energies in the known physical universe. Just because the senses can only detect a narrow spectrum of visible light and a small band of sound waves does not mean that the comparatively vast remainder of energies along the electromagnetic spectrum do not have an impact upon human health and behavior. A variety of known and unknown energetic influences are continuously affecting the health of individuals, groups, societies and the ecosystem.
Given so many potential "invisible" energetic interconnections, it is not surprising at all that phenomena that do not have an obvious cause-and-effect relationship can, nevertheless, occur in synchronistic clusters, thus providing valuable meaning and information in any given health-related situation. A green healer, therefore, might investigate my dreams in search of a solution for my headaches. A conventional doctor would likely prescribe a common painkiller, regardless of my dreams.
4. Materialism and Spiritual Reality
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Western medicine is its inability to come to terms with issues of spirituality. It tries to force the multidimensional nature of human health experiences into a strictly materialistic framework. A perfect example is the field of psychiatry, which has become inordinately influenced by the biological school of thought. As a consequence, thoughts, emotions and moral issues can (though not always) become secondary considerations when they are believed to be mere byproducts of brain electro-chemistry.
Those who subscribe to this worldview "believe" that the physical is the only reality of relevance, or that even exists. The related illusion that science is an amoral endeavor is a serious error in judgment that has far-reaching practical consequences for health care. Medicine is so uncomfortable with the nonphysical dimension that it artificially excludes it from the medical equation with the justification that it is unscientific and unworthy of investigation.
One cannot dissociate one's personal spiritual principles from one's quest for health and healing and, at the same time, expect good and lasting results. We are spiritual beings in physical bodies. This is an experientially confirmed reality "known" by millions, and "believed" to be the case by many millions more. Most green therapeutic modalities accept the psychic, energetic and spiritual dimensions of human existence as a fundamental reality. They do not dismiss them because they cannot be proven by rationalist standards of proof.
This constitutes a form of knowing very different from a rationally constructed logic of knowing. My personal spiritual experience is something that I may "know," or it may be something that I "believe," but it can never be proven to the scientific skeptic. This does not render it unimportant to issues of health and healing. In fact, it is a vital component without which genuine healing may fall short.
Corporate medicine would have us believe that the only means to address our ailments are with synthetic chemicals and surgeries, as if no other viable method of healing ever existed over the thousands of years of human history. Just as we have become locked into an oil-based energy economy, so, too, we are held hostage by a narrowly focused pharmaceutical-based therapeutic system.
My criticism is not of the individuals working in the health care system. I genuinely admire and respect the many physicians, nurses and medical personnel that dedicate their lives to their calling. Mine is a criticism of medicine itself, the way it is taught, and the way it is practiced. It is a call for a reassessment of its underlying philosophy, or lack thereof, and it's methods and practices. Common sense tells us that we need to find a better way.
In the next installment, I will begin to spell out some of the practical flaws that exist in actual medical practice and how these mistaken therapeutic strategies can exacerbate chronic illness and add to human suffering.
Kreisberg, DC, MA, Joel, "Pharmaceutical Pollution: Ecology and Toxicology," Symbiosis: The Journal of Ecologically Sustainable Medicine. Spring/Summer 2007, pp. 4-13, www.teleosis.org
Alder, Vera Stanley, The Finding of the Third Eye. Boston: Weiser Books, 1980.
Malerba, DO, Larry, Green Medicine: Challenging the Assumptions of Conventional Health Care. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2010.