ealth care in America has dominated the news every since the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (aka: Obamacare) on October 1st. The bungled launch of healthcare.gov is, in a way, a fitting metaphor for the state of health care in general. At the root of any consideration of health reform has to be this question: how can the United States spend so much on health care and achieve such mediocre outcomes (when measured against other rich countries)?
To answer that question, it’s necessary to acknowledge a fundamental contradiction. In the U.S., two major industries – food and health care – almost seem to talk past each other, as if one does not have an impact on the other. Taxpayers subsidize crops like corn and sugar while treatment for epidemics such as cancer, obesity, and heart disease (so-called “diseases of affluence”) continue to burden the health system. Watch any prime time television show and you’re likely to see commercials for fat-laden hamburgers followed by advertisements for the latest pharmaceuticals.
Living a healthy life – free of disease, full of energy, and able to seize opportunities – begins with recognizing a basic reality: you are what you eat. In this interview, we hear an integrated perspective from a personal sustainability expert. Antoine Chevalier is a former international development professional, having worked in sub-Saharan Africa on sustainability modeling for developing countries. During his time with CIRAD (Centre International pour la Recherche et l’Agronomie et le Dévelopement), he decided to make a career shift to focus on sustainability from a personal viewpoint.
We spoke to him about his personal experience – from development professional to sustainability coach, about health care, and how the symbiosis of body and mind plays a foundational role in maintaining health and achieving true personal sustainability.
GreenLeaders DC: Antoine, when you started out professionally, your career followed a more traditional path, one that many professionals might say you were crazy to give up. Tell us about your background.
Antoine Chevalier: I was doing my PhD thesis on geography and economy in developing countries. I was in southern Africa at the time. I was creating a model that would couple geographical information systems with multi agent systems that would predict how a landscape would look in the future. I had everything a person could want in order to succeed in that space – working as part of a PhD program at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris and published scientific articles. My work had been presented and profiled overseas; I had a guaranteed 125,000 euros annual salary right after the PhD program; and the chance to travel worldwide to help people achieve a more sustainable way of life. Yet I wasn’t happy. I was having issues sleeping at night. Something was telling me that to achieve true sustainability for the human race, the answers were within myself, at the personal level.
GreenLeaders DC: How did you come to the realization that the answers were within and what does that mean?
Antoine Chevalier: It was during a meditation group that I discovered my inner wisdom and guidance. That led me to the realization that I am a healer, not an economist, and to achieve true sustainability is to heal humans – not working with computers. It is through spiritual realization and self-empowerment that we can reach true personal sustainability, and as an extension of that create real and lasting change.
GreenLeaders DC: How did you start practicing personal sustainability?
Antoine Chevalier: I started practicing meditation twice a day – first thing every morning for 10-15 minutes, and then at the end of the day right before sleeping for another 10-15 minutes. I gradually stopped consuming alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, sugar, and changed to an organic vegetarian diet. I then took that further and became vegan, then raw vegan, and I’m now 90% raw liquid vegan. Following that, my health skyrocketed. Given how environmentally unsustainable the meat and dairy industries are, and how meat and dairy consumption is personally unhealthy, I felt a genuine sense of true sustainability. I became and remain physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually centered and grounded. The last time I was sick was in 2002. At the age of 35, I started triathlons. I am now 40 and I’m in the best shape of my life, by far.
GreenLeaders DC: Your professional life now is dedicated to helping others achieve personal sustainability as a physical therapist, holistic nutritional counselor, and spiritual healer. What is one of the biggest challenges you see with your clients?
Antoine Chevalier: In my practice, I see many people with chronic ailments. It’s very obvious they’re suffering. Often these people go to see doctors where the doctors run tests and diagnose the ailments. And often times those tests come back “normal”. But the body has an innate intelligence – it sends subtle signals and messages to us. So despite all the tests and diagnoses, these people still feel that’s something’s wrong. The typical response is, well, please give me a pill, doc. But the pills don’t solve the deeper problem. No pill, no lab test, no diagnosis, no vaccine can solve the problem. I had this experience myself, and my work focuses on connecting people to the integrated physical and spiritual reality of personal health.
GreenLeaders DC: You say the body has an intelligence of its own. What do you mean by that?
Antoine Chevalier: The human body is incredible at self-healing. In fact, it’s brilliant, fascinating in this way. Here’s what it does: it speaks to us in very subtle ways, almost like a whisper, if you like. If we ignore those whispers, the body will eventually start to yell to get our attention. Millions of people in this country ignore their bodies’ whispers. There are chronic health epidemics of all sorts, like obesity, cancer, heart disease, and the list goes on. Despite the vast sums spent on research and healthcare, modern medicine has no idea what to do with all these ailments. It’s very frustrating for a lot of these people because they continue to feel fatigued; they’re anxious and depressed. They toss and turn at night. To use an analogy, if you plant a garden in soil that’s polluted, what kind of harvest will you get? Every successful organic gardener knows that you start by preparing the soil with nutrients and you maintain it with care in order to get the desired results. It’s an integrated system that responds positively if you follow nature’s rules. The same logic applies to the human body. The body is like a garden. You reap what you sow.
GreenLeaders DC: Healthcare is a huge issue in this country in many ways – economically and socially. How would you characterize the health profession’s response to these epidemics?
Antoine Chevalier: In a big way, the health care profession’s current approach, which relies on medicine and “fixing” problems, has it all backwards. The reality is that the body does not shape how we live our lives. The body is actually a mirror of how we live our lives. Everyone can relate to that statement if they reflect and think about it. Think about a time in your life when things were out of balance. When you knew deep down that the situation was wrong for you. For example, that could be a time when you were in the wrong relationship, or you were in some hostile work environment. Or any other situation where you felt spiritually disconnected. At these times, the body often sends you certain messages – whispers – such as little physical symptoms. The body is trying to tell you something. Many people simply ignore these messages because they’re doing what they’re “supposed” to be doing. The medical profession has a singular approach that focuses on the physical. But the body and mind are one. They interact and impact each other. A truly sustainable path, personally, is to put both in harmony with each other.
GreenLeaders DC: This seems to be the interdisciplinary approach to personal health. But can personal sustainability go beyond that and have, for example, social or even financial impacts?
Antoine Chevalier: Absolutely. I can definitely say that’s true from my own experience. I bought a small electric car. With tax rebates, the price was about $14,500. That’s fairly typical for a car, but there’s no emission inspection, no oil change, no gas expenses. Compared to a Honda Civic, if I drive 7,000 miles a year, I save roughly $5,000 annually. After three years, the car becomes an investment. Many people may not want to embrace personal sustainability for health reasons. But one of the best ways to think about it is in financial terms. It’s incredibly expensive to be chronically ill in the United States. Personal sustainability is about reducing risk – to your health and your personal finances. So if someone doesn’t want to be sustainable for health or environmental reasons, maybe they should do it for the money. Also, it’s no accident that personal sustainability shares many attributes with sustainability at a community and even global level. Just as eating red meat every day increases your risk of heart disease, burning fossil fuels increases the risk of climate change. To use an analogy, Typhoon Haiyan that recently ripped through the Philippines is the global equivalent of someone having a stroke. Both are cases where the body, or the planet in the case of Haiyan, is yelling at us to put things in balance.