10 February 2007

Ties that Bind

By Christopher Juniper

In a capitalist society, it is a worthwhile exercise to identify all the forms of capital that we need for our prosperity. The authors of the LASER system for sustainable economic development planning by a community (LASER stands for Local Action for Sustainable Economic Renewal), of which I am one, identified ten forms of capital that a community must plan to build and preserve to support its long-term prosperity. One of them is “human capital.”

Some object to the phrase “human capital” since it implies that all we are good for is usefulness in wealth production. But the people in the public policy arena who have been using this term don’t have that nefarious purpose in mind. It is instead a recognition that each of us wants to be useful to each other, and sometimes we are useful in a way that we are paid for in the marketplace…but if our human capital (i.e. the ability to do work) declines, we are simply less useful to those we care about, both in personal matters and in the marketplace.

Human health is a core component of our human capital. Along with education, family stability and self-esteem it’s key to making us useful in the world.

To succeed in a capitalist system, we each must be good capitalists. To do that, we make investments that build capital – for today and the future. Thus, we must devise a human healthcare system that maximizes the health component of our human capital. Exactly who pays how much for building this essential part of human capital isn’t as important as that we are building it rather than allowing it to decline.

This week in the Colorado Springs Independent, there’s the sad tale of a young anorexic woman who is too weak to work. Without health insurance or savings, she’s become functionally homeless. A Colorado judge has tried to help her — without success. The woman is presently staying with his mother.

Whether you are suspicious of anorexia as a condition that deserves thousands of dollars to treat paid by the rest of us (i.e. why can’t she just start using some discipline and eat?!) as I am, or whether you believe that people are often victims of their own bad judgment in a way that still deserves our compassion for helping them recover (which a significant minority if not majority of us have done to ourselves)

– But the point is that her human capital – the ability to be productive – is zero, and will only recover if somebody invests in her future through a program that helps such folks. Aren’t we all better off if she returns to being a productive member of society?

We have to stay strategic rather than petty in our approach to building the capital we need. Strategic in this case means not only investing in people; it also means understanding the whole-system that is at work either building or destroying our capital….the ties that bind. And there is no doubt that natural capital (otherwise known as environmental health) is closely bound to human capital (or human health).

In short, it is foolish to focus on health care without also focusing on care for the natural capital that also underpins our prosperity. How silly to deplete natural capital – which includes the clean air, clean water, natural beauty, and the pollination services of bees and other pollinators that allow our food to grow (a vast majority of our food is pollinated by wild pollinators – without them we are in big trouble and they are in worldwide decline).

My message is simply this: don’t consider human capital/human health as separate from natural capital/ecological health. They are inextricably bound together. An investment in one enhances the rate of return on investments in the other. And where they come together most dramatically is in the health care system itself – i.e. whether the health care system we choose to fund – however we fund it – is building rather than depleting natural capital. A sustainable health care system includes minimizing drugs that leave our system and toxic wastes that end up polluting waterways; sustainable cleaning systems for health facilities; minimizing energy use in facilities; and maximizing use of the one clear rule for cost-effective human and natural health: prevention is many times cheaper than the cure.

Author Christopher Juniper is vice-president of Natural Capitalism Solutions Inc., a Colorado non-profit that helps nations, communities and organizations throughout the world enhance their prosperity through sustainability practices. He is also co-founding director of the Sustainability Leadership Institute and serves on the board of directors of CORE – Connected Organizations for a Responsible Economy, a partner non-profit of Colorado’s Advance Center for economic development. Full disclosure – he is also happily married to the usual author of Ave Cassandra, Kristen Hannum, who has become a single-payer activist. Both of us believe that a single-payer system is the most efficient way to build human capital in the healthcare arena, and we believe that building natural capital for the future is equally important.

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