When my daughter was three, she didn't watch much media. She had two videos she enjoyed—Singing in the Rain, and Riverdance. One day she asked if there were more. We went to the local video store (a tiny little place on Main Street in the central Vermont village where we lived at the time), and looked at the National Geographic shelf. She chose a documentary with a whale on the cover by Dr. Roger Payne, who is famous for discovering whale song. It was called In the Company of Whales, and I highly recommend it, though it's hard to find these days.
I didn't know much about whales at the time, but Amber and I must have watched that video a hundred times over. In one section, Dr. Payne talks about "AIDS of the sea". Herbicides and insecticides, pollutants, and pharmaceutical drugs find their way to the ocean in overwhelming proportion, he explains—through runoff from fields, industrial waste, and the overflow of sewage systems. Like our own, the sea animals' immune systems are being affected. At the time, I made something of a joke to a client—save the whales, see an herbalist!
The more I thought about it, the more I realized: it's not a joke.
Pharmaceuticals are not fully metabolized by the body: in some cases up to 80% of the drug will be excreted as waste, but sewage facilities do not treat for pharmaceuticals. They are chemicals, and when they are released into the environment, they behave as chemicals do. They do not break down into things that can be used to build new life. They are like microscopic plastic bags and styrofoam cups.
Herbs are plants. No matter how many cups of medicinal tea you drink, the herbs that have been used to make the tea will not harm the environment: in fact, the spent herbs make great compost! The process by which herbal medicine is created does not require scientific laboratories or hazardous waste: you can make herbal medicine in your own kitchen, or buy it from reputable sources. You can grow medicinal herbs in your own garden, or purchase them from someone who has grown them organically. As our demand for herbal medicine increases, we will be promoting more small farms, and the responsible stewardship of wild lands—not the production of more chemicals.
In the ecosystem of the body, pharmaceutical drugs are like sledgehammers. They force a specific reaction from the body regardless of whether or not the body is prepared to make that reaction. Often the aim of pharmaceutical drugs is to make a particular symptom disappear—and it will, but the root cause of the symptom is never addressed. This is why many drugs, such as drugs for high cholesterol or high blood pressure, are considered lifetime drugs. That works out poorly for the patient, because it can lead to other illnesses stemming from the unaddressed root cause—not to mention side effects—but quite well for the drug companies, who profit from people who are life-long patients.
Herbal medicine supports the body. In its most gentle application, it provides nourishment so that the body can take steps to healing on its own. In stronger applications, such nourishing herbs are combined with herbs to directly stimulate actions in the body, such as the production of immune cells, serotonin, or increasing the concentration of cortisol. Herbal medicine is not employed to dampen reactions in the body, nor to cover over symptoms. In all cases, the ultimate goal is to enable the body to act, and to address the root cause of the symptoms.
Moving away from pharmaceutical drugs helps the environment in every aspect. Sometimes pharmaceuticals are necessary, and in those cases, we can be grateful that they are available to us. Sometimes surgery is necessary—if I'm in a car accident, please take me as fast as possible to the nearest emergency room! Modern scientific medicine has a lot to offer the world, and when we use it in conjunction with traditional methods of healing, it's even better. But the extent to which we currently rely on scientific medicine borders on abuse—of our bodies, and of the earth.