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Going Blue, Feeling Green: Blue Zones and their Interconnectedness to the Environment - The YEARS Project

Going Blue, Feeling Green: Blue Zones and their Interconnectedness to the Environment

As environmentalists, we often strive to be as green as possible. But what if we went blue? The five original Blue Zones are in Italy, Costa Rica, Greece, Japan, and California. Each of these geographic regions are associated with inhabiting people that live the longest. However, there are places where people live longer but are not considered Blue Zones. So what’s the missing piece?


Happiness. You heard me correctly; happiness is the key to living longer according to the Blue Zones. 


Take Sardinia, Italy. In 2017, poverty and unemployment skyrocketed in the island of Sardinia, where the latter increased 6% from Italy’s overall unemployment rate that same year. Despite living in poverty, the lifespan was — and is — three times greater than other parts of the country. Sardinians proclaim longevity is due to the “social fabric of the region” and the degree of social interaction they enjoy. Due to the happy lives of the elderly, Sardinia aims to capitalize on the history and culture of their special town through their booming ecotourism business. More and more tourists each year are visiting to see untouched reefs and beaches as well as underwater archeological sites. In 2013, Sardinia was named the first sustainable destination in the Mediterranean. Between ecotourism and booming industries in solar and wind, the town is decarbonizing and there are a plethora of sustainable jobs available.Sardinians are combating unemployment through resilient practices and promoting culture and well-being.


An emphasis on protecting nature has contributed to Sardinia’s success with ecotourism and has pushed their agri-food sector, accommodation facilities, and recreational service companies on a clean trajectory. In a survey sent to citizens, 83% indicated an unpolluted environment as extremely important to their business success. Sardinia incentivizes environmental aptitude through awards and recognitions. The implementation of MEDSEA, a blue community, allows members of Sardinia to voice their environmental concerns with like-minded individuals and urge companies and other impactors to prioritize the safety and health of the Mediterranean Sea. 


Similarly,  Costa Rica’s plan de vida, or reason to live, is an ideology — specifically for the elders — to experience life with a positive outlook while staying active. Many of the Blue Zones demonstrate an emphasis on supporting elders and the community holistically. While I was staying in Costa Rica’s Blue Zone, Nicoya, earlier this year, a woman had unpromptedly told me, “creating community is fundamental for resilience.” It was evident that the community is the driver of change in their land. In the Gulf of Nicoya, there is a fishing town called Chira Island where members of the community saw the risks of overexploitation of fish and had called for the creation of a Marine Protected Area. The local residents patrol the oceans 24/7 due to the lack of governance from local and federal authorities. The business and town depend completely on the compliance of its residents to remain sustainable and eco-conscious. In places like Nicoya and Sardinia, it’s clear the wellbeing of the community shapes the environmentalism that follows. The collectivist lifestyle in both regions centralizes familial importance and purpose, complemented by an innate understanding that the surrounding lands must be happy and healthy in order for the people to be as well.


Costa Rica is monikered the happiest Latin country in the world, and although the country as a whole is not classified as a Blue Zone, external influences help the region of Nicoya reach this status. Deforestation was a huge concern for the country up until national parks were established in the 1950s,. Now, there are 28 national parks all over Costa Rica, which is impressive for a country the size of West Virginia. Four pillars make up a Gross National Happiness Index that can be scrutinized through a blue lens: sustainable socio-economic development, good governance, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. The latter two have been explored in Sardinia and Nicoya’s efforts. Ikaria, Greece and Okinawa, Japan further explain the first pillar: sustainable socio-economic development.


Despite an unstable national economy and feeling heavy effects due to climate change, Ikaria remains on the front line of sustainable infrastructure and ecotourism. The Greek government wanted to create an “energy sustainable island for real life community,” and they accomplished that in Ikaria by switching primarily to renewables. Through volunteer-based ecotourism projects and green energy parks, Ikaria has made great strides in sustainability — benefiting their environment, community, and economy — modeling that a place can remain eco-conscious while open to tourists year-round.

Okinawa is taking similar strides in promoting climate adaptation, biodiversity, and ecotourism. UNESCO recommends making the northern part of Okinawa a natural World Heritage site, which would be the fifth in Japan. Locals and travelers alike are invited and encouraged to help with Okinawa’s initiatives for reviving their coral reef in the Onna Village. Interestingly, the majority of environmental conservation projects in Okinawa are often listed under ecotourism, signifying the global intention and group effort behind conserving the well-visited region.


We all want to know what the secret to a happy life is, and the Blue Zones have the answer. “Japan’s greatest secret is a strong dedication to friends and family. Okinawans maintain a powerful social network called a ‘moai’—a lifelong circle of friends that supports people well into old age.” 


And what of good governance? Loma Linda, California’s local legislation is working to better the community and the environment in our very own national Blue Zone. Through residential recycling, waste and landfill reduction, water conservation, and prioritizing a circular economy, Loma Linda is considered the national epicenter of health and wellness research


Of course, food and diet play a huge role in the establishment of a Blue Zone. So what do you eat in order to live long and stay happy? Some things are out of your control. For example, Nicoya has the highest calcium content in their water compared to the rest of the country. But for the most part, it’s the attitude towards food that makes Blue Zones different from the rest of the world. Between farm-to-table businesses and growing one’s own food, like the village grandmothers do in Okinawa, there is more of a connection to what we are eating. If our bodies are temples, theirs remain holy. Loma Linda’s vegetarian-based lifestyle matches their local university’s mission statement to “make man whole in mind, body and spirit.” Think Greece’s Mediterranean diet or Italy’s non-American-sized portions of homemade pasta. Sweet potatoes, bitter melon, and soy are staples of an Okinawan diet, and squash is a superfood in Nicoya and Ikaria. 


Nordic countries are amongst regions rated as the happiest in the world. Through stable democracies, free education, and free healthcare, it is no wonder they top the list. However, they did not make the cut as Blue Zones, perhaps due to national efforts, or lack thereof, in conservation and sustainability. Something the Blue Zones have in common is the eco-centralized mindset that filtrates education, businesses, and lifestyles. Tourists visiting these zones are likely to encounter more opportunities for ecotourism and a quick history lesson in their sustainable development, tying into the community-based mindset. 


So, it’s a little bit more than just happiness then. Blue Zones flourish in community, education, and health, all while keeping a foundation of sustainability. Despite taking different actions and starting various initiatives to promote welfare for people and land, all of the Blue Zones are working towards the same goal: upholding a lifestyle conducive and responsive to nature. Extending the dedication each Blue Zone has for community, friends, family, and the environment is imperative in working towards a green — or blue — future.


The United States has harnessed these secrets and started the “Blue Zone Project,” inspired by the five original regions, applying blue thinking to businesses, cities, and states. That is to say, you can create a Blue Zone in your own home and within your community, and you will hold the secrets to health and happiness.


If we now know how to be sustainable, how do we mitigate climate change impacts? Taking key points and commonalities from the Blue Zones, it appears the foundation of change lies within building up community and prioritizing ecosystem welfare, rather than solely human development. Shifting education regimes for children into one that incorporates environmental education, mental health and mindfulness, and supporting local communities and economies with similar missions may navigate us to a blue path. Engaging with familial bonds and extending that internal care outwards will create a network of support. And if your home is not at that stage yet, simple exposure and interaction with the Blue Zones and like-minded communities is a stepping stone in discovering what the world has to offer if we offer a little more to each other.