Tag Archives: war

The Social Determinants of Health

(Note: This post contains a portion of the talk that I gave last month at the 16th International Conference of the Association of Psychology and Psychiatry for Adults and Children in Athens).

Research has now clearly established that economic, and social variables – more than individual or family behavior – are the most salient factors overall in determining a child’s well-being.

Epigenetics, for instance, explores how the social and economic experiences of one’s parents and even grandparents are transmitted to a fetus by influencing whether genes are turned on or off.

And Dr. Monique Robinson points out that:

Regardless of exposure to stress in the womb, a nurturing environment after birth can provide the child with enormous potential to change their course of development. This is known as “developmental plasticity,” which means that the brain can adapt and change as the child grows with a positive environment.

The important message here is in how we as a community support pregnant women.  Stressful lives are most often linked with socioeconomic disadvantage. This research shows we should be targeting these women with support programs to ensure the stress does not negatively affect the unborn child.

(Repeated Stress in Pregnancy Linked to Children’s Behavior)

Not surprisingly, poverty can do significant harm to children, including brain damage.  Researchers at UBC and UC Berkeley found that U.S. children from “low socioeconomic environments” displayed a response in the pre-frontal cortex that was similar “to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke” (“Poor Children’s Brain Activity Resembles That Of Stroke Victims, EEG Shows”, ScienceDaily, 6 December 2008).

Providing optimal conditions for pregnant women, such as nutrition and pre-natal care, would prevent children from suffering from a host of cognitive, emotional, and physical illnesses.

Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman argues that every dollar invested “in the very young” not only saves lives and prevents illness, but it will also save from $4-17 dollars in future social costs.  For instance, toxic chemicals and air pollutants, which result in such outcomes as lead poisoning, ADHD, and autism, cost the United States $77 billion annually.

Almost 350,000 women die each year in childbirth – most of whom could be saved for the cost of – six fighter jets.

The most horrific figure is this: over 22,000 children under the age of 5 die every day from hunger and preventable diseases – almost 9 million every year.

The crime is that the world has more than enough wealth and knowledge to eliminate most of this suffering.

Consider that governments give approximately $400-500 billion dollars every year to wealthy corporations whose activities are destroying the environment.

This year’s U.S. military budget is around $800 billion, and the world spends twice that: $1.6 trillion.  Perhaps the simplest (and most rational) change would be to redirect wasteful military spending – one-fifth of which, according to the United Nations, would end the worst elements of global poverty by providing basic levels of health care, sanitation, food, housing and education.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone will cost over $3 trillion.

Literally trillions of dollars were spent bailing out Wall Street when their dubious investments collapsed, and yet the 25 top hedge fund managers in 2009 “earned” an average of more than a billion dollars each – “more than 24,000 times that of the average American”.  Millions lost their jobs and houses, but it’s OK because, in the view of the CEO of Goldman Sachs, they were “doing God’s work” (McQuaig and Brooks, The Trouble with Billionaires, Penguin, Toronto, 2010).

And in 2009, the combined net worth of the world’s 1,011 billionaires increased to $3.6 trillion, up $1.2 trillion in just one year.   Just one-quarter of this NEW wealth could end global poverty.

The single greatest negative influence on the health of children is extreme social and economic inequality (both relative and absolute).  This is just as true for wealthy countries as it is for poor ones, since “high levels of inequality have a negative impact on population health in both rich and poor nations alike” (“Wide Income Gap Linked to Deaths In Both Rich And Poor Nations”, ScienceDaily, 24 Oct. 2007).

It is obvious that trying to “live” on $2/day or less is hardly optimal for one’s physical or emotional health, but almost half the world’s population is trapped in this predicament.  Even a rich country like Canada is nowhere near as healthy as it could be:

The primary factors that shape the health of Canadians are not medical treatments or lifestyle choices, but rather the living conditions they experience…how income and wealth is distributed, whether or not we are employed, and if so, by the working conditions we experience (“Canadians’ health is mostly shaped by social determinants”, CCPA Monitor, June 2010).

Almost everything that is vital to a healthy community, from life expectancy to levels of depression to educational performance to crime rates, is affected by how unequal a society is.  This is true in both rich and poor countries.  Infants and children are the ones most vulnerable to negative social and economic inequalities (The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Wilkinson and Pickett).

Perhaps the most important point to remember is that none of the social, economic, and environmental problems are necessary.  All scarcities are, as Murray Bookchin pointed out over 40 years ago, artificial.  We possess both the knowledge and the wealth to eliminate the worst of these afflictions.  Why aren’t we doing so?


[Note: I will be giving a presentation on this subject this Sunday, December 12th, from 12:30 to 1:30 at the Unitarian Church (Hewett Hall), 49th and Oak, Vancouver]


Johann Goethe wrote:  “Viewed from the height of reason, all life looks like some malignant disease and the world like a madhouse.”

His view may seem extreme, but most of us have lived our lives in a bubble, protected from the horrors of our world.  We have been spared the traumas of warfare and catastrophe on the one hand, or the day-to-day misery of parents who can’t afford food for their children.

In addition, we have ignored these realities because witnessing such suffering would be overwhelming.  Schopenhauer said that anyone who viewed even a small fraction of the amount of pain in the world would go mad.

We also turn away because we can.

Of course, every once in a while we are reminded of how bad things can be:  the earthquake in Haiti, innocents killed in Afghanistan, child abuse, and so on.

Also, the corporate media give us a very biased, antiseptic view of reality, along with an infinity of distractions.

While there are a host of complex factors that are responsible for the horrors in the world, the global systems of wealth and power are the main sources of these problems.  At the risk of oversimplifying, it is the Capitalist economic system, along with the global state structure, which is primarily responsible for condemning tens of millions of people to die every year from preventable causes, and for most of the violence in the world – for guaranteeing that most people’s lives are “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Now, however, the miseries inflicted on others is coming “home”, especially since the recession that began in 2008.  “Austerity” is now the order of the day in Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Greece, while the richest nation on earth, the United States, is struggling with the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

Capitalism is also destroying the natural world.

I could continue, but it is vital to stress that NONE of these problems are necessary, for the simple reason that we already have more than enough knowledge, technology, and wealth to address all of these issues.

For instance: only a fraction of the $16 billion that the Conservatives want to waste buying U.S. warplanes could end poverty in Canada.

And in 2009. the combined net worth of the world’s 1,011 billionaires increased to $3.6 trillion, up $1.2 trillion.   Just one-quarter of the NEW wealth in just one year could end global poverty.

Any system that wastes trillions of dollars on war while killing the natural world and perpetuating poverty is pathological.

However, we have the power to change it, beginning with the fact that most people would love to see an end to war, poverty, environmental destruction, and so on.

We can do it.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”  – John Lennon

Expect Canadian Troops to Stay in Afghanistan After 2011

The National Post appears to have begun supporting Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan beyond the end 2011. Don’t expect us to leave. At all.

Do you remember when we were absolutely, positively going to leave by 2009? So naive. And do you remember that we went there to catch that Osama bin Laden fellow?

This week we see the jingoistic tone emerging in the National Post which can create cover for a decision by an imperialist Harper and a likely nod of support from his Con-Lib coalition co-leader, imperialist Ignatieff:

  • On Tuesday we read on the front page, above the fold, that a mother of a dead Canadian soldier wants us to keep fighting. [see below]
  • In the same article we read the word “adamant” to describe Harper’s commitment for our troops to withdraw before the end of 2011. Adamant makes Harper look like he doth protest too much.

And today we have a war correspondent style review of our engagement there.

Also, a couple months ago in McLean’s we read about some key cracks in our commitment to leave next year, and their resulting developments:

  • The March 2008 motion is for Canadian troops to leave Kandahar, not Afghanistan.
  • Ignatieff is suggesting we leave some troops behind to train Afghans, and I suppose quietly “advise” them as well.
  • Peter McKay called that idea interesting, but in an attempt to appear to disagree with those Liberals, he says the government will respect the “letter of the motion” which, again, only requires us to leave our mission in Kandahar.

Ultimately, expect NATO or Karzai to request that when we leave Kandahar we step up to some new mission elsewhere in the country. And please be disabused of the notion that we’re actually committed to leaving. It just means you’ll be dizzy from the spin.

Consider the excerpts from those two stories below [emphasis is mine, unless noted]

The mother of a soldier who died in Afghanistan made a poignant appeal yesterday to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to keep Canadian troops here beyond next summer.

“I think the military is doing a fine job and he should reconsider pulling out next year.”…

The mission in Kandahar is scheduled to end in 2011. The deadline was set in a March 2008 vote in the House of Commons. Nothing in the House motion would prevent Canada from assuming a different military mission elsewhere in Afghanistan, but until now the Prime Minister has been adamant that all Canadian troops will be out of the country by the end of next year.


And some more insightful and subtle analysis of the vibrant loopholes in this whole issue from John Geddes at Maclean’s:

The Liberals propose ending the Kandahar combat mission as scheduled, but leaving some of our troops to train Afghan forces elsewhere in the country.

MacKay allows that the Liberal idea is “all very interesting.” However, he stresses that the government remains bound by the March 13, 2008, House of Commons motion that set that 2011 exit date in the first place. “We’ll respect the letter of the motion,” MacKay says.

But the letter of the motion, it seems to me, is often lost in this discussion. Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggests the House demanded a complete end to the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan. Harper reiterated that by now familiar interpretation as recently as June 4.

That’s not what the motion says. Its key clause dictates that the government must “notify NATO that Canada will end its presence in Kandahar as of July 2011, and, as of that date, the redeployment of Canadian Forces troops out of Kandahar and their replacement by Afghan forces start as soon as possible, so that it will have been completed by December 2011.” (My emphasis.)

As far as I can see, there’s nothing in the motion that says Canadian troops must clear out of Afghanistan altogether, just Kandahar. If the government plans to “respect the letter of the motion,” then, that would seem to me to allow a fair bit of flexibility.