Given the times we live in, it is probably not surprising that I, too, find myself increasingly trouble with the immense issues of global climate change, the human destruction of entire ecosystems, the simultaneous genocide of non-human life on earth, etc., that we are facing today. I don’t think it is particularly necessary to provide much in the way of literature evidence on this here, as it all just seems so strikingly obvious and beyond doubt. But if we needed at least something in this way here, the recent WWF Living Planet Report 2018: Aiming Higher seems like a particularly saddening example of what is happening to the global environment, and its flora and fauna today (full PDF version of the report here).
I have to say, I find all these issues genuinely unnerving. And in saying this, I also have to admit, from the get-go’, that this being troubled clearly begins with a simple and selfish worry for my family and myself, and only then expands out from there to include others and the rest of the world and so forth. The two are ultimately inseparable of course, given that it is completely nonsensical to try and make this situation better for some without addressing all the others in this deeply interconnected existence. So on this basis, I often find myself wondering what I could contribute to slow down, remedy, or otherwise help the situation as well. I am completely aware that this is by no means a special thought in today’s world and the fact that there seems to be an ever growing number of people out there interested in the preservation and recovery of this beautiful planet and all that lives on it gives me considerable hope. But I do keep wondering about what it is that I might contribute, and so this is where I am coming from here.
One of the difficulties I frequently perceive when thinking about this though is that there is virtually nothing in my personal or professional history that seems to provide me with any particular knowledge, or skills that appear relevant or beneficial to these issues. What I do bring to them, however, is a long harboured a longing for more time in and with the ‘nature’. Born in a landlocked, concrete jungle in the middle of Germany it is, in no small part, this longing that eventually got me to move to New Zealand just about 10 years ago. And throughout this time, I have seen it gradually being fulfilled more and more as I slowly but steadily live closer to and develop a deeper sense of connection with nature and I am deeply grateful for having been granted this opportunity.
Before my time in NZ, however, I believe that my relationship to nature was as minimal and removed as is typical of that of any city dweller. You could possibly say that this disconnect encompasses the exception of every holiday in more natural environments, as these ultimately merely underscored the intense, day-to-day removal from natural environments that marked my daily life (and I suppose that the naturalness of holiday environments can definitely be questioned in some cases, where they have been adapted to meeting urban-human holiday needs). Long story short, I have come into early adulthood having learnt little to nothing about the natural world other than maybe that I quite like sunshine, but also snow, that I like animals, but get allergic reactions to most and so am cautious and limited in my interactions with them, and that lying in grass makes me feel itchy and short of breath, and then of course, that there are insects…
Somewhat paradoxically, my engagement in a range of eastern martial arts and spiritual practices did next to nothing to remedy this situation either. I say paradoxically, because this was the case despite the fact that they always seemed to espouse some kind of reverence and even care for the natural world, but than mainly (!) followed this up by spending more time indoors: in a training hall with mats made of largely artificial materials, and at best, some windows with a view to the outside, or an enshrined piece of dry wood, or fresh-cut flower arrangement intended to resemble the beauty of nature.
At least at first glance it is probably less surprising that my training in physiotherapy (under- or postgraduate) also did nothing whatsoever to remedy my lack of knowledge or relation to the outdoors (the environment, the natural world, the symbiotic real, … I’m not entirely what to call it, but I am using these terms quite loosely and interchangeably here). In physiotherapy, there was or is at least not even any indication made that some kind of connection to nature will be made, or is aspired, nor that it is relevant in any way at all. Admittedly, this is quite the biased comment, so I would definitely love to hear if others have experienced this differently, but at least on the basis of my experience over the last 20 years, the environment, or nature, is not even mentioned in physiotherapy at all.
The reason why I say ‘at first glance’ is that I have come to believe that this omission is at least as paradoxical in the context of physiotherapy for a whole range of reasons. So today, I am genuinely excited about the fact that there is actually a deep underlying link between physiotherapy and the environment, and that we are able to explore it because this opens up so many pathways for thinking and practice in physiotherapy that have not even remotely been considered so far. And so it also enables me to imagine that there might be ways for me to positively contribute something to the larger environmental issues we are facing today, as a physiotherapist, and despite the fact that I come without much prior knowledge and experience.
Naturally, there is a range of problems in thinking about something like, let’s say ‘environmental activism’, in the context of professional physiotherapy. Most recently, I have found myself not quite being able to shake the feeling that occupying oneself with (thoughts about) environmental issues might just be proof of some kind of Western, or first-world privilege, insofar as there are countless humanitarian crises happening across the world just now. It could probably be argued that the current victims of these humanitarian crises (Yemen, Australia, Syria, Somalia, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and so many more; see also the UNOCHA Global Humanitarian Overview 2018) could care less about the environment as they are struggling to see their basic needs for water, food, shelter, clothing, and basic general health met. But of course this is a little too simplistic as the majority of today’s humanitarian and ecological crisis are deeply intertwined and so there might still remain some leeway to think about the one as much as the other.
Another problem that frequently comes to mind is that physiotherapists already have so much that we seem to need to know, specialize in, work on, work with, etc. that there is often little room to take in anything else, let alone take on more responsibilities. I mean, it is hard enough, or rather, definitely impossible to keep up with everything that is happening within the world of physiotherapy research and practice and as a result, some sort of specialization is absolutely inevitable and ubiquitous. And on the other side, there are so many people that already know and can do so much more with regard to environmental issues that it just seems to make sense to ‘leave it to the professionals’. But apart from the fact that I am not sure if this is an ethical possibility in today’s world (or even, at all, fundamentally speaking), maybe it is nonetheless possible to think about these issues, to imagine what physiotherapists might be able to contribute, and maybe some kind of concrete action can even grow out of this thinking.
To finish off this list of problems I will mention just one more that is directly related to both of the above and that is already a kind of thinking about possibilities for physiotherapists to engage in environmental issues in itself. This is the idea, or rather, fact, that doing something for the environment can take many forms, including some that might initially seem quite far removed or unrelated. So for example, I might be quite possible to see how making somebody smile or have a little less pain, might have the potential to have positive effects for the environment somewhere downstream (seems a handy metaphor here…).
But thinking this far ahead is not what I am going for here. Rather, I just wanted to point out the simple fact that there is a relationship between physiotherapy and all things environment, and that it has actually been staring us in the face from the very inception of our profession, though we fail to give it much recognition. So to fully commit to my coming out as a bit of an etymology fan-boy, I find the relationship between physiotherapy and nature beautifully imprinted in the etymology of the term physiotherapy. Here is my very amateur etymologist break-down of it drawing on my favourite free online etymology resource, the Online Etymology Dictionary – etymonline.com. Following what you can find there:
The second half of the term – therapy – originates in the Greek word therapeuein, which encompasses the meanings ‘to cure, treat medically’ and more literally ‘to attend, do service, take care of’.
Reflecting on it with this in mind, the link between physiotherapy and all things environment surely makes perfect sense very quickly. I would even argue that we are aware of it somewhere deep down, at least in the sense that we are well aware of the idea that we are a healthcare profession that generally seeks to provide service, or therapy to ailing humans using natural means. It is also of interest to note that the term physiotherapy has been used as early as 1851 in the context of the German Naturheilkunde (lit: natural healing knowledge/science) movement, the further development of which would now most likely be thought of as naturopathy (Brauchle, 1971; Terlouw, 2006).
Putting aside the fact that it is immensely interesting to reconsider the historical relationship between these two professions in light of its current state, the fact that this relationship has existed further underscores how close the relationship between physiotherapy and nature really is. Going back to the minimal idea that it is based around the natural means with which we provide physiotherapy services, examples of them might encompass the obvious exercise, movement, manual mobilisations and massages, but reaching a little further back, maybe even water, electricity, herbal medicines, and even air and light.
But looking into the etymological root of the term physiotherapy allows for many different ways to reexamine the relationship between physiotherapy and all things environment, including one, quite radical possibility. This is the idea that, in following its etymological heritage, it could be possible to imagine that physiotherapy might also mean (or dare I say, ‘be’?)…
(physiotherapy) …a service for everything that grows.
I realize that this might sound more than just a bit wacky, to begin with, but I just find it so exciting to even consider this. I mean, there are just so many possible lines of thought and inquiry here that I don’t even know where to start. I have no intention of going into them in this anyhow already oversized blogpost, but just imagine how crazy it is that if you follow even just this sliver of an etymological trace, there is some kind of weirdly wonderful possibility to argue that planting trees might be just as much physiotherapy as taking somebody through a course of exercise rehab following a knee surgery. How strange, and cool, and crazy is that?
I really love thinking in this playful way, and I really like like the idea of ‘what if’ questions as an approach to change, and even as a potential alternative approach to critical theory/practice, and I just love allowing myself the freedom to conceive of the future of physiotherapy from a ‘what if’ starting point. Rob Hopkins, founder of Transition Towns and the Transition Network just posted an interview with Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson in which the latter talks about this really beautifully. So I’ll share a few snippets from there with you here, alongside an invitation to think about what could be possible if everything was possible, to be playful and ask yourself what if…
“Why I like asking ‘what if’ questions is that if you don’t ask yourself those questions, it keeps you in a static view of the world, “I’m going to play by the rules as they exist and I’m going to just try to deal with the terms and the alliances that presently are”, which is very limiting from a political space. We need to think, “what is it that we might actually be able to do to move a particular force?”, to see things differently” … By opening up that what if question, and inviting people in, all sorts of possibilities start to open up” (Rob Hopkins, 2018, Kali Akuno on imagination and the ways we can and must resist).
As somewhat of a Levinassian, there is another exciting avenue of thinking that this etymological tracing opens to and that I can also at least point to here. Simply put, following Levinas and some of the criticisms that have been made against his focus on the human other, I can see a line of thought that makes it possible to argue that our etymological heritage not only speaks to a possibility, but much more so, to an inalienable responsibility to provide service to all and every other, including everything that grows in the present sense. If this is the case, then what is at stake here is not just how we would maybe like to engage with the major environmental issues that we are facing today, but how we intend to live up to the etymological responsibility inscribed in our profession; how we intend to respond to our broader, but no less literal, etymological professional calling. It definitely seems to be screaming us in the face. So what if it is possible, or even time to at least listen to and consider it for a moment? It’s definitely good enough a reason for me.
Filip Marić (PhD)
Brauchle, A. (1971). Zur Geschichte der Physiotherapie. Naturheilkunde in ärztlichen Lebensbildern (4th ed.). Heidelberg, D: Haug.
Hopkins, R. (2018) Kali Akuno on imagination and the ways we can and must resist [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.robhopkins.net/2018/11/13/kali-akuno-on-imagination-and-the-ways-we-can-and-must-resist/?fbclid=IwAR27McJzBvJ69BUrnQAl7_AFL4Yw0hWz1RQ0S6m_eLMn5kyim3cGKYN7Rb8
Jiménes de Cisneros, R. (2016) Timothy Morton: Ecology without nature (Interview) [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://lab.cccb.org/en/tim-morton-ecology-without-nature/
Terlouw, T. (2006). The origin of the term ‘physiotherapy’. Physiotherapy Research International, 11(1), 56-57. doi:10.1002/pri.33
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA (2018) Global Humanitarian Overview 2018. Retrieved from http://interactive.unocha.org/publication/globalhumanitarianoverview/
WWF (2018) Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.