Navigating the Anthropocene: On Health, Capitalism, and Sustainable Living

Interview with Dr. Ana-Belén Soage

In this interview, we spoke with Dr. Ana-Belén Soage to unravel the intricate dynamics of health, capitalism, and sustainable living within the Anthropocene. Dr. Soage offers invaluable insights into the lessons drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic and the essential steps needed to forge a more sustainable and healthier world.

The concept of the Anthropocene is back today. Why is that so, and could you explain what it is about?

The concept of the Anthropocene has resurfaced in recent years as scientists recognize the immense impact humans have had on the planet. The term was first suggested in 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who believed human activity has pushed the planet into a new geological epoch. The Anthropocene Working Group of geologists was formed in 2009 to analyze evidence of human impact. While the concept does not yet have official status, it is gaining traction due to the mounting scientific data showing humanity’s planetary influence. We have altered over 75% of the Earth’s surface, changed the composition of the atmosphere, and driven a huge loss in biodiversity. Climate change through greenhouse gas emissions is the most obvious effect, but also pollution, deforestation, agricultural practices, urbanization, and more. The COVID-19 pandemic has further revealed humanity’s role in disrupting natural systems and enabling zoonotic diseases to spread. The Anthropocene signifies how human systems have become intertwined with those of the Earth, and that we must take responsibility for managing our impact. 

Who learned from COVID, and who did not? 

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a stark global lesson about the consequences of disrupting natural systems. At an individual level, many people learned about the importance of public health measures like masking, distancing, and hygiene in controlling infectious diseases. But as a society, we have been much slower to implement the long-term changes needed to avoid future pandemics. The root causes that enabled this coronavirus to spread from animals to humans – things like habitat destruction and wildlife trade – remain largely unaddressed. Vested corporate and political interests have impeded reforms to industrial meat production, urban sprawl, and other activities linked to zoonotic diseases. Humans also tend to resist changing habits and economic systems, even when aware of the need. So, while we technically “learned” about the drivers of pandemics, we have not yet summoned the will to make transformative changes to our relationships with nature and animals. Many more sweeping changes are still needed to build resilience against the next pandemic threat.   

Some attribute the many health risks that prevail in the world to “capitalism” and the living habits that it carries with it. What do you think? 

There is a strong case to be made that some inherent features of capitalism promote unhealthy lifestyles and drive health risks. The profit motive encourages overproduction and overconsumption of goods while externalizing environmental costs. The prioritization of economic growth over sustainability depletes natural resources. Capitalism also tends to concentrate wealth, which leads to unequal access to healthcare. The competitive free market model has been linked to higher rates of chronic stress. Health-damaging activities like fossil fuel extraction, deforestation, and industrial meat production are often the most profitable enterprises. At an individual level, work pressures in capitalist systems contribute to a lack of exercise, poor diets, and mental health problems. The relentless advertising and consumer culture spawned by capitalism promotes unhealthy choices. Reforming capitalism to prioritize well-being, overgrowth, and sustainability over consumption will be key to creating healthier societies. But the inertia of profit-driven systems is hard to overcome. 

Do we die for the same reasons in Western and non-Western countries? 

There are significant differences in mortality patterns between Western and non-Western countries. In developed Western nations, people mostly die from chronic diseases associated with aging, obesity, inactivity, and lifestyle factors – heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. However, infections, maternal mortality, malnutrition, and communicable diseases remain the dominant causes of death in low-income countries, reflecting a lack of access to healthcare, clean water, nutrition, and sanitation. At the same time, as developing countries adopt more Westernized living patterns, they are seeing surges in obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases. An epidemiological transition is underway in many regions from communicable to non-communicable diseases as living standards improve, but preventable infections and certain endemic diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis still claim millions of lives each year in poorer nations due to poverty and weak and under-resourced health systems. So, while mortality is shifting towards similar patterns globally, huge inequities persist. 

Do we know what the “next” health crisis may end up being about?  

Scientists warn that the rise of antimicrobial resistance could be the next major global health emergency. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics in healthcare and especially in animal husbandry have led to drug-resistant superbugs that could render medications ineffective. Already, resistant infections kill over 1.2 million people each year. The overcrowded conditions that prevail in industrial farms also raise concerns over contagious pathogens like avian or swine flu mutating into more lethal strains capable of sparking a deadly pandemic. Biodiversity loss and climate change may also unleash new vector-borne diseases. However, the next major crisis may not be any single disease, but rather the cumulative impacts of environmental change and species extinction on human health and food systems. Therefore, while we cannot predict any specific threat, our disruption of natural systems is increasing the risk of existential crises arising at the intersection of climate, diet, disease, ecology, and health. Solving these complex challenges requires a holistic One Health approach, an approach that recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. 

How can we make the world more sustainable and healthier? 

Many individual and systemic changes are needed to build a truly sustainable and healthy world. On a personal level, we can strive to be responsible consumers – reducing waste, flying less, adopting a plant-based diet, buying local goods, etc. But given the scale of the problems, collective action through politics, technology, and changing social norms will be most impactful. We need a major shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, coupled with large-scale ecosystem restoration and reforestation to draw down carbon. Sustainable urban planning and public transport can reduce pollution. Taxes and regulations discouraging unsustainable practices may help. Transitioning to regenerative organic agriculture can enhance food security. Global cooperation and adequate funding are crucial to strengthen public health systems, improve sanitation infrastructure, and achieve universal healthcare. Ultimately, nothing short of a full rethink of the human-nature relationship and a new economic system focused on well-being rather than profit will enable genuine sustainability. It is a monumental challenge, but possible if we muster the societal and political will. 

Ana-Belén Soage holds a European PhD in Middle East Studies from the University of Granada and the University of Northampton. She has been teaching International Relations at different universities for nearly a decade. Apart from her academic work, she is a regular collaborator on several media, including El País, Radio France Internationale and Sky News Arabia. 

This interview with the OCC followed a talk that she gave at SLU-Madrid on the topic of “Infectious Insecurity: The Anthropocene and the Coming Pandemics”, a book chapter published recently in Diplomacy, Society and the Covid-19 Challenge (Routledge, 2023).

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