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Healthy Communities for a Healthy Planet: An Interview with Alan Balch

In September 2011, New Dream spoke with Alan Balch, Vice President of the Preventative Health Partnership and a member of our Board of Directors, about the shared challenges facing the preventive health movement and the environmental sustainability movement in the U.S. 

Can you briefly describe your work with the Preventative Health Partnership?

The Preventive Health Partnership is a joint program of the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Diabetes Association that works to develop and pursue strategies for the prevention and early detection of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. My role with the Partnership is to pursue strategic opportunities for our three organizations to collaborate and cooperate in the interest of promoting healthy behaviors. We focus on issues related to timely screening, early detection, physical activity, nutrition, and smoking cessation.

You’re currently working in the healthcare field, but you have a strong background in environmental research. What made you make the switch, and was it a big transition for you?

While my background is in environmental policy and sustainability, my professional career has been focused on advocating for cancer research, and, more recently, promoting wellness and prevention from a healthcare perspective.  My primary interest environmentally was in the promotion of more socially and environmentally responsible production and consumer patterns. As you might expect, there are many parallels between trying to get individuals and institutions to change their habits—whether the objective is to protect public health or protect environmental health.

What do you see as the greatest commonalities between the preventative health movement and the environmental sustainability movement?

There has long been a clear intersection between public health and environmental health, especially when you consider issues like air pollution, water pollution, and land pollution. Most of the federal and state laws in those areas are first and foremost designed to protect people's health. In terms of the sustainability movement, I think those issues have become increasingly more congruent with the preventive health agenda in recent years.

The big push now in preventive and public health is "healthy communities." Numerous organizations from the government, academic, nonprofit, and private sectors are rallying around this theme. Although the specific tactics being pursued at the local level vary from place to place, some activities that the preventative health movement has in common with the sustainability movement include:

  • Local fruit and vegetable production and consumption through home gardens, farmers markets,  and farm-to-school programs;

  • creation and expansion of bike lanes, sidewalks, and walking paths to create "walkable cities, schools, and shopping";

  • reducing or eliminating the use of toxic chemicals in cleaning products in public institutions; and

  • preservation or creation of parks and open space for multiple use.

In your view, what are the most effective practical ways to empower people to make the “right” choices, whether for their personal health and well-being, or for the environment? Does conventional advertising work, or do we need to adopt new tactics?

The answer is as simple conceptually as it is elusive from a practical perspective: make the right choice the easy choice. We've created an economic culture that is based on immediate gratification, convenience, and irrationality. Many people want to be more conscious consumers both for their personal health and environmental health, but those issues are not necessarily top of mind at the point of consumption and, if they are, it might not be readily apparent how to exercise those preferences quickly and in the context of other factors that drive consumer behavior. 

Messaging or advertising is not effective unless it is used to drive people to resources, tools, and products that make it easier for them to express their long-term preferences for deferred benefits like better health.

To me, there are four interrelated strategies for creating real change, and I think the geo-political focus for these should be at the local and community level and not the federal level:

  1. Built environment: look for opportunities to change or create permanent infrastructure in a way that supports the behaviors you want changed or reinforced.

  2. Policy: look for opportunities to create policies at the government and corporate level that either make it easier to make the right choice or harder to make the less preferable choice.

  3. Programs: institute programs that provide people with the capacity or pathway to making the right choice.

  4. Partner: find other active groups to work with who have a similar or same agenda even if their concerns are different.

Which do you see as more effective in bringing about actual social change—changes in policies and legislation, or changes in individual behavior?

Both. Although not always politically feasible, the best policies or legislation are those that compel or incentivize people to change behavior.

You’ve been a member of the board of the Center for a New American Dream for several years. What drew you to New Dream, and what role do you see the organization playing in encouraging the kinds of social or behavioral changes discussed above?

The Center for a New American Dream has long mirrored my personal and academic passions, so becoming involved with the organization was a dream come true for me, if you'll pardon the pun. I'd like to see the organization play an increasingly important role in helping people organize and advocate for change at the community level. This effort could include technical assistance, program tool kits, developing pilots, sharing of best practices, and connecting people across communities for sharing successes and failures.

Alan Balch is Vice President of the Preventive Health Partnership between the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Diabetes Association. He is former Executive Director of Friends of Cancer Research and a Course Instructor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Alan received his Ph.D in Environmental Studies from the University of California/Santa Cruz and his M.S. in Environmental Sciences from the University of Texas.

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