In the era of COVID-19 and global warming, nothing is more pressing than untangling the connections between our health and the environments that destroy or nurture it. ENVIRONMENTAL CAUSES: Essays on Illness and Healing in a Dying World probes the tender contract that exists among our physical and mental illnesses, our hopes for healing, and the world surrounding us.
Even as my own lupus diagnosis brought me face-to-face with the ambiguous term, “environmental causes,” authorities like the Centers for Disease Control and the Government of Canada began conceiving of health problems not only as the product of genetics and lifestyle choices, but also as the aggregate experience of many social and environmental determinants, including economic stability, racial disparities, and education access. Consonant with these ideas, the twenty essays in ENVIRONMENTAL CAUSES suggest that we cannot safeguard our own health without curing the Earth and our communities.
Drawing on the fields of literature, medicine, ecology, and environmental humanities, ENVIRONMENTAL CAUSES examines my own decades of illness and serendipitous episodes of healing amidst lupus, borderline personality disorder, anorexia, major depression, suicide attempts, drug addiction, and trauma from various kinds of abuse. Combining memoir, scholarship, reportage, and art, film, television, and literary criticism, the essays explore topics as diverse as Japanese bondage, the gradual opening of Arctic shipping lanes, the relationship between pandemics and deforestation, Twin Peaks, runway fashion, queer ecology, and the life and death of Anthony Bourdain.
The book is divided into five sections on the intersection of health with place, culture, power, nature, and middle age. Essays swing from Florida’s sultry seaside towns to the frigid Canadian territory of Nunavut, from the personal to the political, from the individual to the global. Throughout, they consider the enthralling mystery that is healing: a mercurial process undergone again and again by the body and mind within a dazzling constellation of variables and other living creatures.
ENVIRONMENTAL CAUSES pivots between shame and self-acceptance, agony and joy, despair and determination, just as many of us do on a daily basis in the Anthropocene. It celebrates the roles played by art, nature, education, sexuality, and time in recovering from acute and chronic health problems—and their treatments— while offering suggestions for our future. As vaccines allow us to circulate in public again and we move from worldwide quarantine to collective remission, it is the perfect time to take stock of this sickening but luminous world and how we might better place ourselves within it.