"I'm interested in trying to be an example."
-Dr. Eric Chivian
Cambridge, MA-- Forming a physician's organization that could work to protect the environment has been an idea that Dr. Eric Chivian has nurtured since the early 1970s, while he was a young resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Like luminaries such as Helen Caldicott and Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, who impacted and diverted the course of public policy and billions of dollars of government spending on supersonic jets and other potentially hazardous acts, Chivian has since risen to the helm of numerous organizations that harness the enormous power of a simple truth: that physicians and public health experts are ultimately among the strongest advocates for a clean, healthy and safe environment. And, that in the end all environmental issues--particularly global ones--become matters of human health.
Named in 2008 by Time Magazine as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World," Chivian is perhaps best known today as the founder and director of Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment, the first center at a medical school in the United States focusing on the human health dimensions of global environmental change. The Center (designated an official "Collaborating Center" of the United Nations Environment Programme) developed and directed the Harvard Medical School course "Human Health and Global Environmental Change" (which has been disseminated to 65 other medical schools, colleges, and universities in the U.S. and abroad), and has held 20 briefings and taught an intensive annual course on the environment and health for the U.S. Congress.
His most recent book, co-authored and edited with Dr. Aaron Bernstein, is Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends On Biodiversity. Published by Oxford University Press in 2008 and co-sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme, the U.N.'s Convention on Biological Diversity, and the World Conservation Union, Sustaining Life was launched at U.N. headquarters and at the Smithsonian Institution as the most comprehensive report available on the relationship of human health to the natural world. It is written in plain language for the everyday reader, and includes contributions from over 100 leading biodiversity and human health scientists.
In 1980 Chivian co-founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which went on to capture the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. IPPNW has since grown to become a non-partisan federation of sixty-two national medical organizations and 200,000 members from over sixty countries. Chivian also spent two decades at MIT (from 1980 to 2000) as a psychiatrist in the medical department, and maintained a private practice in Cape Cod.
Now in his late 60's, Chivian in person radiates personable calm, humility and strength that belies the staggering list of awards, publications and endeavors amassed from a lifetime spent championing biodiversity, human health, education and policy. In addition to directing The Center for Health and the Global Environment, he is currently an Assistant Clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, an active public speaker and writer, and a passionate farmer. In the following interview, Chivian sat down with Notes On The Road and reflects on his past, present and future endeavors--and his passion for New England soil and Pairidaeza Farm, his heirloom fruit orchard in Central Massachusetts which produces apples, peaches, pears, plums, apricots and cherries.
Sustaining Life is a deeply informative and keystone work because it brings together so many areas - biodiversity, ecology, medicine, conservation, nutrition, agriculture - and shows the relevance of these varying sciences to human life, health, and well being. Do you feel like you've accomplished what you set out to do in bringing forth this book?
We knew we were on the right track when, for example, I brought a copy of the book to dinner with an old friend and his wife and his two teenage kids. His 14-year-old son grabbed the book and then we didn't see him again for the rest of the evening. That a teenager could follow the book and be absorbed in it was a great affirmation that we had done something we had set out to do.
Your sense of rhetoric in both public speaking and writing is well-known to be commanding yet engaging, bringing sophisticated concepts to the mainstream in an accessible fashion. What influences have shaped your philosophy of communication?
Well, I think some of it has to do with being a physician and maybe even specifically a psychiatrist. Although medical training teaches you to speak in very technical language, you spend most of your time dealing with patients. You have to speak to people in language they can understand. That background has been very useful in this work and in many ways central to what I started here at Harvard Medical School. The Center for Health and Global Environment's main function is to help translate the science of these global environmental changes into everyday, non-technical language. Because if scientists can't explain or express the degree of concern they have about what is happening to the environment, to people in Congress or the general public, then we are really in trouble.
Scientists in general are not taught to speak in everyday language; they are really taught to speak to each other. So, that is fine if you are talking about some very technical problem in physics or if you need to communicate with your postdoctoral researchers. It's not fine if we are facing crisis as a planet and you can't communicate that. Effective communication is a very high priority for me. So, I guess what I try to do is always try and put myself in the shoes of the listener, to consciously monitor what I am saying. Sustaining Life is very specifically written in non technical language so that even a high school student without advanced classes in biology or chemistry can understand it.
The ending chapter is wonderful because it cites so many ways in which individuals can become involved on the granular level. For those who want to know about some simple ways they can sift through the massive amounts of information and find healthy ways to make changes in their lives, large and small--is there anything you would like to add?
Well, I think it is important to be well informed. In some ways that is the most important thing: to be educated about the implications of the way you live, how you transport yourself, what food you buy, how you insulate your house. I think the big problem in all industrialized countries-- particularly the United States --is the amount of waste. You know people believe that if we were to live much more environmentally sustainably we would have to sacrifice our way of life. People believe that we would have to give up all kinds of things and live in a very primitive way-- and that is not true at all. All we would have to do is waste less. Scandinavia, Switzerland, Japan, many of the countries use half the energy per person than we do. And in some ways, they are better off than we are in terms of standard of living.
People really need to ask themselves questions like, do I really need a huge house with all kinds of rooms that I'm not using? Do I really need to leave the lights on in all these rooms that nobody is in? Do I need to buy an enormous car? Do I really need that? And shouldn't I be thinking about the food waste in this country? It just makes me ill sometimes. You could feed half the planet with the food that is thrown out from homes and restaurants. Do restaurants need to serve these huge orders? That is also leading to obesity and all kinds of other health problems...
Is your concern for good use and reuse of resources been something that you grew up with? Or has it changed a lot over the course of your life?
I was raised by parents who grew up during the Depression. There was a very strong belief system in my house growing up that you didn't waste. You didn't take more than what was needed and you tried to reuse things. I mean it wasn't obsessive, over the top, but it was part of our cultural background and I feel that very strongly.
Is there any one species or any one particular ecology that you find inspiring or offers a richness of information or important keys to the field of medicine?
Well, I have gotten very interested in our own New England forests. So, I don't know if you know that I am a farmer. I run an orchard and my wife's and my farm is in the middle of tens of thousands of forested acres. New England is interesting because the primary forests were cut by colonists starting in the 1600's and going to the mid 1800's so if you look at photographs of New England of 1850/1860 there are almost no trees anywhere. They cut down essentially everything because they were farming, they burned wood for fuel, cooking and to heat themselves and they had to graze animals - some cows, but mostly sheep.
The only trees that were standing were the ones bordering properties or that were very hard to cut. When they abandoned their farms, starting in the mid 19th century and going into the early 20th century the trees re-grew and so New England has some 52 million acres of forest that have re-grown, but they are very threatened right now because of the false belief that they are renewable energy.
There is a lot of investment to cut down these forests and burn them right now to make wood chips and to generate electricity. So, I have gotten very interested in preserving them. Mostly in challenging the science that is used to justify cutting them down.
I am very interested in the biodiversity of these forests because that is one of the arguments, that in order to make the forest healthier you have to cut trees down. I reject those arguments, and so I have gotten involved in reviewing all the scientific literature. That is sort of where my heart is right now is trying to save that biodiversity in my own backyard.
Our little area in Central Massachusetts is a garden of Eden. It is incredibly rich, biologically. I think partly because it is surrounded by all these forests, there have not been chemicals used in this area, ever. It is very far away from cities, so there is no air pollution. One way you can tell is by lichens growing everywhere. Lichens are very sensitive to air pollution. Mosses and ferns are also growing everywhere surrounding our small farm. The soils in the New England forests are extremely rich and in general we know very little about them.
That is one of the fascinating stories that I hope you get from Sustaining Life. We have incredible knowledge about life on Earth, but it is such a small portion of what is there. We know so little. The belief is that we have cataloged about l.9 million species, but there may be 10 times that number, there may be 100 times that number, nobody knows. Microbially, there are only a few thousand bacterial species that have been categorized and named. There may be a billion bacterial species--nobody has any idea.
Of all the ecosystems you have studied and seen throughout your life, what regions would you like to still explore in forthcoming years?
I have never been to the Amazon. Part of the reason is I love traveling with my wife and she got dengue fever in Fiji. The fevers fluctuate and you ache all over. It's old name was ''Break Bone Fever'' because you feel like you have breaking bones. If she got another infection of dengue with another sub-type, she could get seriously ill, so that is why I haven't gone to the Amazon. I hope to do that at some point. I love forests and was in Bogota in Colombia, but I didn't go to the rainforest. Some day. [smiles] That is an area I would like to go to. And I would love to explore the Great Barrier Reef, which I have never seen.
A typical day in your life? We are very curious how you juggle all of your endeavors.
Well, during the week I see from two to five psychiatric patients, usually in the early morning. I am here at the Center for Health and the Global Environment most of the rest of the day. During the week and weekends my wife and I go out to Pairidaeza, our farm. My wife is an artist and has a studio. There is a fireplace, woodstoves and stuff. So, when we are there she is a major flower gardener; she has big stone-wall garden. We are outside working pretty much all weekend. I love being outside, the physical labor. We are on a bit of a hill, so I am walking a lot. It beats the treadmill, although I do that too. I guess that's a typical week. It is a long week.
I don't have much spare time right now, but it is important to have time for reflection and I would like more of that.
What some of your goals are for the next decade?
I would like to grow some of the best fruit that anyone can grow: apples, peaches pears, Asian pears, plums, apricots, cherries and grapes. I love farming.
I'm also thinking about starting to invite students and teachers up to the house on our farm to see how one can live very sustainably and how easy it really is to grow one's own food-and on not a lot of land. I am interested in trying to be an example, maybe have classes there.
There may be another couple of books in the works. I have one very good idea for a book, although I am not ready to start that yet. I'm gathering materials. I think I would also like to write a book one day about growing fruit in New England, and I very much want to be successful in doing something to preserve the forest.
It is an unusual life path to begin in psychiatry and accomplish so many great things: founding International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, running the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University, authoring and editing Sustaining Life amongst other books. Notes is very curious to find out how you managed to navigate such a vast landscape throughout your career?
I never discard stuff, that is probably my problem [laughs]. If you look at my office you can see that. It is an interesting thing for young people because you don't really know where you are going to end up. People have this tendency to think that when they graduate from college, they majored in something and so they are interested in that thing-that they have to stay with that their entire life. And some people do, no question.
But I think that - if you have the luxury - it is important to follow where your path leads and take advantage of that. I have been very lucky that way. I have not been in debt, I have not had to do a job out of a certain obligation. I have had a lot of choice in my life. I actually didn't start in psychiatry - for six years I was a general physician and ran a medical clinic on Cape Cod.
What drew you to psychiatry, initially, as a professional field?
I was always interested in science from a very young age. Early on, I thought of becoming a research scientist. My major in college was biochemistry, and I wanted to be a neurologist or even a neurosurgeon. I was very interested in the brain and how it worked, but it felt a little depressing to me because there are many things neurologists and neuro-surgeons can treat, but generally most things are un-treatable and incurable. I do love the intellectual exercise of neurology, though.
Also, I found I was not crazy about being in the lab all by myself -- it was very lonely. I wanted to do science, but I wanted to do it around people. Being a physician is very much doing that. I was attracted to psychiatry because I felt I was good at it, and I found it interesting.
As a psychiatrist, I am interested in helping people in a different way. I'm interested in their life problems; the focus is more on the human relationship. I was never a Freudian nor a psychoanalyst. The longer I have been doing psychiatry the more active I am- in sharing my own life experiences, not just listening. I was a psychiatrist at MIT for 20 years, and that was fascinating because MIT is such an international school. Seeing how having psychological or mental problems is viewed in different cultures was very interesting.
When did your interests begin broadening to encompass your endeavors in building environmental awareness?
I've been interested in the environment since I became a father. For a number of years I had this idea about organizing physicians to protect the environment, mostly because environmental issues have become public health issues. Physicians have such enormous credibility and power with the public when they talk about health. If we could help people understand that if you damage the environment you are simultaneously threatening your health, we could really become a major influence on public policy and public opinion.
Tell us about the beginnings of your Nobel Prize-winning nonprofit, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
During my last year of psychiatric residency I heard an Australian pediatrician, Helen Caldicott, talking on the radio about nuclear power. She was such a powerful speaker and person that I went to see her and told her my ideas. She was focused on the nuclear issues and convinced me that we should just start there.
Instead of starting a new group, we decided to revive an old organization from the early 60's, Physicians for Social Responsibility, that addressed concerns about atmospheric nuclear testing and the whole craziness of civil defense. You are too young to remember, but back then there were nuclear fallout shelters being built, still signs of them until about ten years ago. It was nuts-you can't survive a nuclear war!
In the beginning, we were a very small group, of about twenty to twenty-five physicians. We took out an ad in the The New England Journal of Medicine saying we had revived this group of physicians for social responsibility. We were holding a public meeting in Faneuil Hall, which is the historic hall in downtown Boston, with physicians talking about the medical dangers of nuclear fuel, from mining all the way up to nuclear war.
On the day that the ad was scheduled, March 29, 1979, there was a partial core meltdown of a nuclear reactor. Two hundred and fifty thousand subscribers of The New England Journal of Medicine saw our ad, and subsequently thousands joined our group. That is how we became a national organization within two weeks.
That same year, in 1979, I volunteered to put together a conference called The Medical Consequences of Nuclear War. The United States and the Soviet Union had entered talks to reduce their missiles before Reagan got into office, and but then later that year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. By the time the 1980 election was in full swing, there was a lot of talk about nuclear war.
When the conference happened, there were 700 physicians who attended and we got international press coverage at the end of it. We published a full page letter in The New York Times, an open letter to the head of the Soviet Union and the head of the United States, telling them as physicians about the concerns of nuclear war and asking them to help organize an international physicians group. And they did.
So that is when we began International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in June of 1980. By 1985, we had a national physicians group in 80 countries and we had a quarter of a million members. It was amazing.
What was it like when International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo?
We accepted the award on behalf of the organization. What is interesting is that the Peace Prize is given in Oslo not in Stockholm. All the other Nobel Prizes are given in Stockholm, except the Peace Prize. It is given in this wonderful hall in Oslo, the King of Norway was there, and the cabinet people, the Nobel Prize committee. It is an unreal moment.
Afterwards, there was a very formal reception and dinner, with people wearing tails. I brought my daughter; she was 15 at the time. She was my date. [laughs] It was wonderful.