Blog Action Day 2007 : Is Chinese Medicine Environmentally Friendly?

Today is Blog Action Day – one day where many writers come together to blog about a single topic to increase our total impact. This year, the topic is the environment – something near and dear to my heart. In this article, I’d like to suggest that Chinese medicine can easily be a strong part of the solution to our growing environmental problems while also mentioning one area in which Chinese medicine practitioners need to advocate for more ecologically friendly practices.

Balance is as balance does (or vice versa)

One of the most powerful features of Chinese medicine is its ability to bring us into closer harmony with the natural world. In fact, all of the Classics talk about the importance of people’s closeness to and concordance with the processes of Earth. QiBo and Huangdi, some of Chinese medicine’s founding fathers, repeatedly lament the lack of people’s ability to live within nature’s boundaries and point to it as a major cause of disease as well as treatment resistance. Now it could easily become (and in some ways has become) a watered down forceless statement to say that Chinese medicine can bring you into harmony with nature – what does that really mean and why does it matter from an ecological perspective?

Being in balance means simply this – your body is in a physiological state whereby there are no extreme states. No intense cravings, no wildly oscillating emotions, nothing like that. You can sleep. You can smile. When you eat normal food, your guts don’t hurt. You don’t go into sneezing fits at the merest whiff of cat dander. There may be pain, sure, there may be problems of varying kinds – but the body is generally in balance around these points and things are moving in a more or less effortless fashion. When some adverse condition arises, your body is able to respond appropriately.

It is my assertion here that this state of balance, whatever it looks like for a particular individual, produces generally balanced behavior. Balanced behavior is less likely to be destructive in a number of ways. So much of what goes on from an environmental damage perspective comes from people’s unordered responses to life. Think about vices, for instance. So many of these (tobacco, alcohol, coffee) are intensively farmed with the accompanying herbicides and pesticides. Also, a body in balance may be more likely to ask for things that are generally good for it – such as fresh air, long walks and clean water. I know that when I’m the least in balance, I’m least likely to care whether I am drinking filtered water or eating organic food. It just doesn’t matter to me. Maybe I’m the only one.

Ecological medicine

Chinese medicine is generally ecologically friendly. Our equipment needs are minor, we don’t require huge research facilities that use a variety of toxic chemicals to operate. Because many Chinese medicine practitioners are likely to be following the principles set out in the classics, they may be more likely to pay attention to the way their products are produced and the way the electricity for their offices is generated. This is, of course, not always the case and probably less so outside of the Western world. Chinese medicine also doesn’t ask people to consume synthetic drugs, the production of which puts a heavy environmental load on the planet.

But what about herbs? If you’ve thought about it even for a little while, you’ve likely been concerned about the ecological impact of Chinese herbs. I know I have and I’d like to address a couple of the most obvious problems here.

Herbs frequently travel long distances, increasing our dependence on fossil fuels : what to do?

The vast majority of Chinese herbs are produced in Asian countries. If you do not live in an Asian country, it follows that these substance are going to have to be transported to your place of practice. The travel may be considerable and of course this means reliance on significant amounts of fossil fuels. There are a number of things Chinese herbalists can do to reduce their impact. Probably the easiest and most effective behavior is to research the herbs you are procuring from grower to distributor. Where do they come from? How are they transported? Can you find a distributor close by so you can use alternative transportation to get them? Can you find a supply line with a minimal number of links? Can you find a supply line that includes companies that have an ecological frame of mind? This will, of course, require some research – but it will be well spent.

Another possibility is to grow some of your own herbs or form growers coops in your local area. This is energy intensive and there is some question as to the energetic quality of the resulting materials, but I think it is at least something to consider. Going a step further, some people have suggested that instead of using the Chinese species of herbs we should do the research required to find local correlates to all of the herbs. These folks argue that the herbs will be more likely to resonate with our own physiology and the disease patterns we present if they are local. I am not convinced that this is the case and I am by no means sure that we are energetically sensitive enough to discover the Wei and Qi of herbs in an accurate manner today.

Chinese herbs are commonly produced using lots of chemicals in China : what to do?

Simply demand organic, or at least pesticide and herbicide free herbs. This is a very similar tactic as has worked with the organic foods movement. Simply know where your consumables are coming from and how they are grown and when the practices are ecologically damaging, demand better. Only buy from companies/distributors that support best practices – and when that is not possible, communicate your desires to the people you are working with. Finding chemical free herbs is not only good for the environment, but it’s great for your patients and will do a lot to alleviate their fears about taking products produced in China.

There may be other positive and negative environmental impacts of Chinese medicine, but these are the ones I think of most frequently.

I’d like to hear what others think on these and related topics – please add your voice in the comments.

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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