“How To Thrive In The Next Economy”, and the [Social Determinants of Health]

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“How To Thrive In The Next Economy”, and the [Social Determinants of Health]

Written by: Ayodhya Ouditt        Jan, 2020       2 min read

In John Thackara’s book, “How To Thrive In The Next Economy”, he takes a simple and clear look at how all over the world, small scale community interventions might offer solutions to some of the world’s major social and environmental problems. Thackara, a writer and advisor on matters of sustainability and ecological design, has a simple thesis: our planet’s biggest problems are the result of a flawed model — the ideal of the economy of infinite growth. And to be more blunt, it’s flawed because infinite resource consumption is impossible on a planet of finite resources.

But the book doesn’t focus on the disconnect between the human economy and the rest of nature — what Karl Marx called the “metabolic rift”. Rather, Thackara identifies solutions from all over the world, with the overarching narrative that these are largely local, community oriented, and technologically ‘light’ or ‘noninvasive’. These are presented as clear and concise case studies, drawn from his lifetime of travel and environmental observation.

Each chapter is based on another touchpoint of human civilisation, or to put it more honestly, a ‘need’, (water, shelter, transportation, energy, etc.) for which, examples are given.

For instance in Chapter 3, “Waterkeeping”, Thackara describes water safeguarding techniques such as “Participatory Groundwater Management”, a community driven model in which drought-affected smallholders like the farmers in Andra Pradesh, India, each monitor various watersheds on a daily basis, sharing the information and of course the water as well. Thackara adds — “Before the new system was introduced, farmers had to rely on data provided by so-called ’input dealers’ — fertilizer, seed, and pesticide companies; these sources tended to downplay the huge wealth of grounded knowledge”

Image 6 - How to Thrive Blog

The simple and clear structure of these stories is something I have always enjoyed. But in reading them over more recently, in the context of Vessel’s work, I’ve discovered a brilliant layer of subtext which I can only now appreciate. You see, in many ways, the issues Thackara identifies can be seen as the social determinants of health, or rather, as their precursors.

While there is no single definition of the social determinants of health, they can be generally understood as the economic and social factors that influence individual and group health in different populations. The list of determinants is similarly fluid, with different organisations and policy documents paying attention to different features of their respective societies. For the sake of a simple example, in 2003 the World Health Organisation, Europe included the following as determinants —

  • The social gradient
  • Stress
  • Early life
  • Social exclusion
  • Work
  • Unemployment
  • Social support
  • Addiction
  • Food
  • Transport

That the ten chapters of Thackara’s book and the social determinants of health seem so compatible, is in my estimation no accident. It’s easy to see for instance how issues like pollination, deforestation, and climate change do in fact bear heavily on food security, work, and migration, which in turn lead us to consider more obvious issues like unemployment, social support, exclusion, and addiction.

I like to think about Thackara’s globally ‘crowdsourced’ solutions to environmental problems like deforestation and water potability as addressing the environmental determinants of the social determinants of health. The solutions he describes are therefore not isolated environmental interventions, but measures that we could take to insure our societies themselves, against the burden of disease brought on by our global economy’s metabolic rift with nature.