A New Year Message to DEA students and doctors- believe in the future and plant a tree

I have a New Year message for the medical students who have joined our mission and indeed a message for all members of the medical profession.

Our responsibility today is not only to support our patients with skill and dedication, but to extend our care with equal diligence to the natural and living systems that support all our lives.

This was the aim in establishing the Constitution of DEA in 2002 “To conserve and restore the natural environment because of its relationship to and impact on human health”.

This natural environment sustains our lives through air, water and an ecological web of living things, termed biodiversity, which includes the living soil that gives us food.

So when we ask banks to divest from fossil fuels, or point out the dangers of fracking, or the harms from clearing land, we are doing so because they threaten the maintenance of our basic life support systems.

Our role is one of education about these life support systems, to fail can be seen as an abrogation of health care, for the consequences are illness and indeed the threat of human extinction. These are huge responsibilities for us as doctors which many of our profession do not yet acknowledge. We must educate them.

The New Year is the time to resolve to do better!

I have one heartfelt request for DEA students, please give me an hour to clothe you in this mission; please put away the distractions that eat your time and life, the emails, Facebook, Twitter instagram, snapchat, YouTube, Linkedin etc. Please turn off your phone and hide it under a cushion and give me an hour. Please, the addiction is ruining your productive life.

Photo here from one of my favourite artists Banksy Title “Mobile”lovers


I start my New Year message with David Suzuki who talks about “Changing climate the ultimate crisis for our species”. Here I am cheating for the talk lasts an hour, it will be compulsive listening for you, it may change your life, and so I will need another 30 minutes of your time afterwards.

To me his experiences are fascinating for as students of the same age in different Continents we both read “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Springwhich was published in 1962-3 and it determined our actions for life, Suzuki serving humanity through pure environmentalism, me hanging onto his coat tails whist coping with patient care (and teaching medical students).

Suzuki details the plight of humanity due to escalating damage to the environment a concern now shared by countless scientists who feel compelled to temper their public statements for fear of seeming sensationalist.

I met Suzuki at a farmer’s market in Willunga a decade ago and our conversation was one of students ‘catching up’.

Please read “Hard work and love trump fear and hate”.

DEA‘s fundamental policy is therefore on Biodiversity and Health, it is our basic, like our appreciation and understanding of the function of the cardiovascular system. In Australia we are eating the environment with land clearing, logging of old growth forests and accepting the demise of the Great Barrier Reef in favour of monetary gain. We must resolve to do better.

This month two of our members Dimity Williams and Katherine Barraclough have written that “Preserving our forests should be a top priority.”

Logging of mature forest is about to recommence in Tasmania, land clearing is increasing in Queensland and NSW. Are we mad or just ignorant? We have to assume ignorant, hence one of our educational roles with government is to explain the science and intergenerational injustice caused by their policies. And most importantly to explain the health harms as a professional organisation with public standing.

Indeed Australia is a participant in the world wide destruction of native vegetation. In the Asian Pacific region we fail to act on the massive clearance of forest for palm oil production and continue to utilise its products in our processed foods. The flow on is to climate change and more extreme weather events for Australia.

James Lovelock in his Gaia model, (recommended reading) explains that the earth is a living organism and every injury to it affects its other physiological systems. The vast clearances of forest for plantations in West Papua not only enhance global warming but they also reduce transpiration so changing atmospheric air flows. This is increasing the risk of extreme weather events for Australia.

These are intricate scientific systems, yet we need our governments and communities to understand their impacts and act on them. This requires our educational and communication skills.

It is easy to be frustrated by the indolence of government but DEA believes that direct action involving unprofessional behaviour of breaking the law as counter productive. This does not mean that we should not work to repeal laws which damage human health and survival. In our actions we must remain non party political and even handed. Progress is by the truth-science and logic.

I will make a New Year confession. As a junior medical student, I protested the British armed invasion of Egypt in 1956. I was in a group of students which burned the national flag, the Union Jack, on the steps of my hallowed University of Edinburgh. I was hauled before University Council in danger of being sent down (expelled). However Scotsmen were more intolerant of the Union Jack than I had realised. I was given a wigging. A wink from the Dean of Medicine as I left the Council Chamber indicated that my career had survived. I was advised by my elders to make future contributions using my intellect. I took that advice and became an editor of the Edinburgh Medical Student Journal “Synapse” and the Scottish representative on the newly formed United Nations association (UK).

We enter 2017 with an indolent government, and a lack of international leadership at a time of increasing violence and disorder. But our words and deeds can speak for human health and progress and as Martin Luther King put it “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Each year DEA medical students and doctors plant trees around Australia. Symbolic yes, but example is so important.

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