World Health Day - How would Hippocrates invest?

April 2019

“First, do no harm” is widely recognised as a key tenet of the Hippocratic Oath* taken by doctors. Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’, was way ahead of his time with his articulation of the need for ethical guidelines in medicine. It is less well known that “first, do no harm” is also a fundamental of ethical investing.

It has been a guiding principle for our funds since 1985 when we ruled out companies involved in (non-medical) uranium. We’ve since extended our Ethical Investment Policy to nine other areas, most of which intersect with public health. The health implications of some of our negative screens, like armaments and tobacco manufacturing, need no explaining but others are less immediately obvious.

Fossil fuels and health

Take thermal coal and unconventional oil and gas for example. The World Health Organisation recently listed air pollution as the greatest threat to global health and warned that we can expect 250,000 additional deaths per year after 2030 due to air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels. And that’s before we get to the impacts of infectious diseases.

Higher temperatures and new rainfall patterns are creating ideal conditions for the spread of diseases like malaria, dysentery, cholera and dengue. Indeed, we are already seeing the expansion of some diseases into new regions for the first time in human history. As with many of the direct impacts of a warming climate, these will impact impoverished regions like sub-Saharan Africa the most but nowhere will be spared—least of all Australia.

Last year, the Australian Journal of General Practice reported on the likely health impacts of climate change. It predicted that effects like increased temperatures and tidal variations would lead to more cases of Ross River virus, dengue and salmonella. Similarly, the expanded habitat for ticks and sandflies will mean hospitals should expect increases in the incidence of encephalitis, typhus and Lyme disease.

And then there is the burden that climate change will impose on our public health and emergency services. We can expect the devastation wreaked by natural disasters and extreme weather events in recent years to multiply over the coming decades.

Negative and positive charges for an earth

The red flags climate change is raising for public health are also warning signs for the stability of the Australian economy. Decades of behind-the-scenes corporate lobbying has ensured that recent state and federal policies have downplayed the severity of health and economic issues and their implications for society and the planet.

That’s why Doctors for the Environment Australia recently declared a climate emergency imploring our politicians to “respond adequately to the climate chaos we are experiencing … anything less amounts to negligence”.

For our part, we see U Ethical’s role as not only to “do no harm” but to actively direct your money towards companies that minimise emissions and improve how we adapt for the impending crisis. Our negative screens make sure we minimise our investments’ contribution to irreversible climate change. At the same time, we invest in clean energy companies like Vestas through our positive screens to accelerate the uptake of renewable energy.

So how would Hippocrates invest the income from his philosophical musings if he was an Aussie in 2019? Not that we are biased of course, but we like to think the pioneer of ethics in medicine would place his trust—and money—in the not-for-profit that set up Australia’s first ethical funds.

* The financial services industry has its own voluntary code of ethics called the Banking and Finance Oath which all U Ethical employees have signed up to.