The Uncomfortable Doctor

This post is by CHASE Ambassador, Steve Bown.

I have been a professor of medicine at a London teaching hospital for more than 25 years. Over these years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the way the global environment is being destroyed and degraded by human activity. The climate is changing, forests are disappearing, desertification is overtaking previously fertile land and natural resources (particularly fresh water) are being consumed faster than they can replenish themselves.

By far the most important factors contributing to this unhealthy state of affairs are over consumption of natural resources and a rapidly growing population. Those who have least, mainly in developing countries, suffer the most. In the last 40 years, the human population has doubled while populations of wild animals have halved. Unwittingly, the medical profession has contributed to this as over the last 200 years, the main focus has been on saving and prolonging human life without any consideration of how this has altered the balance between the human population and all other life on Earth.

The global population is still increasing at the rate of about 83 million per year, exactly the same rate as 35 years ago. Most of the growth is in developing countries and they are paying the price in environmental degradation and loss of sufficient sustainable resources essential to life such as food and fresh water. Many people realise that over consumption must be addressed. Only slowly is the world waking up to the seriousness of the problems associated with over population. For a sustainable future for everyone, both over consumption and over population must be addressed in all countries.

I first heard of CHASE Africa through the charity “Population Matters”, whose key aims are to educate and raise awareness of the seriousness of the problems arising from over population and over consumption in both developed and developing countries. Global consumption is already 50% greater than is sustainable in the long term.

I soon arranged a visit to Dandelion Africa, one of several health related charities in Kenya supported by CHASE Africa. It was an eye-opening experience! Dandelion was founded by Wendo Aszed, who gave up a position in banking to found Dandelion in 2009 with the core aim of raising the quality of as many aspects of life as possible for those in the local communities around her home district, especially the women. Her outreach clinics go to isolated rural communities who have previously had few or no health services. The clinics provide basic general medical services including vaccination and HIV screening, but the key focus is on family planning. So many women are anxious to limit their family size so they can afford to feed and educate their children. Many less educated men still want many children so during these clinics there is a constant focus on education through discussion groups and short dramas – not to tell individuals what to do, but to explain the consequences of large and small families and let individuals decide for themselves what is best. Clinic days are fun days out for the children, but for the older ones, it is also educational with talks on hygiene, coping with menstruation (so girls don’t miss school) and avoiding pregnancy.

Wendo also runs other support classes in schools and microfinance groups for adults (men and women). Throughout, the emphasis is always helping everyone to help themselves, not just handing out charity. Her empathy with all age groups from young children to elderly widows is quite remarkable. It is rare to encounter such an individual and I have enormous admiration for her. As an ambassador for CHASE, I am doing all I can to support their activities with Dandelion and the other related charities in Kenya they support, particularly CHAT (Community Health Africa Trust) and the Mount Kenya Trust. I do this largely by giving personal talks to a wide range of groups in schools, universities, many adult organisations and to University of the Third Age meetings. My aim is always to present the facts on population growth, both in Kenya and around the globe and how the problems are, or are not, being addressed. The commonest reaction is to say “I never thought of things that way”. One recent comment was “very interesting, lots of questions, but all a bit scary!” How true that is!

There are many organisations in Africa trying to provide services like CHASE, but the scale of the problem for the whole of Africa is mind boggling. There are many barriers to overcome – cultural, religious and logistical – but the green shoots are appearing. The latest report from Dandelion said that for the first time, the number of new children registering at a local nursery school had fallen, more women are in work and the general standard of living is slowly improving. We all need to do what we can to accelerate this process.

One of the biggest problems is to persuade people to talk about over population rather than ignoring it. Once people understand the facts, they start to realise that action is required. My aim is to make everyone talk.