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New Field at Intersection of Planet, Humanity & Health Kicks Off Premier Conference

By Miranda Spencer
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During the last weekend in April, while millions took peacefully to the streets for climate marches, nearly 400 people--hailing from 28 countries and 30 states and representing a diversity of disciplines -- headed instead for Harvard Medical School’s conference center in Boston. The occasion: the Inaugural Planetary Health/Geohealth Annual Meeting.

Co-sponsored by the Planetary Health Alliance, the American Geophysical Union, the Wellcome Trust, the Ecological Society of America, and The Lancet, the event was made possible through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Planetary health is an umbrella term for a new, multidisciplinary approach to addressing “the health of human civilizations and the state of the natural systems on which they depend.” In this context, climate change is just one focus among many interrelated topics.  

As Harvard's Dr. Sam Myers, director of the Planetary Health Alliance, told radio station WBUR ahead of the meeting,

The whole concept of planetary health is that human activity is increasingly disrupting all of our planet's natural systems…So even if our climate were entirely stable, we would be convening our community to address this growing concern that accelerating environmental change is driving a larger and larger burden of disease around the world.

Indeed, the field is emerging into the mainstream. New academic journals, like The Lancet Planetary Health, are being published, and universities are establishing academic centers to study it, such as the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin and the Global Health Academy at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Global Commons, Holistic View

During two days of panel discussions, Q&As, poster sessions, and networking opportunities, participants first looked at “who’s doing what, where” and explored cutting-edge research agendas and their findings.  Two members of the Climate for Health Leadership Circle were featured.

Our newest Leadership Circle member, Dr. Jonathan Patz, delivered the opening remarks at the dinner reception April 28 at the New England Aquarium. Dr. Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin, spotlighted the social, political and economic drivers of environmental change that, in turn, affect public health. “We need to view the earth’s natural resources as a global commons,” he emphasized.

The next morning, Dr. Howard Frumkin, a professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington, introduced the concept of planetary health and explained why its moment is now.   He traced the new epoch we live in, called the Antrhopocene, which began with the widespread use of fossil fuels in the 19th century. Coal and oil power revolutionized society – but also disrupted natural systems on many levels. Its unintended impacts, Frumkin explained, have taught us that “we need to live within limits.”

(Comments run from 20:40 to 39:48.)

The second day’s sessions focused on how to apply planetary health science to public policy and suggested steps for positive change.  (See the full agenda here.)

Nursing students at the conference (Elizabeth at far left)
Jennifer Tabola, Climate for Health’s senior program director, attended with her niece, Elizabeth (at right), a Boston-based first-year nursing student. She recalls, “In my higher education experience, I was frustrated to find that the lessons of the Industrial Revolution were explored one way in my economics class and a completely different way in my humanities class. Today, both perspectives and more are addressed by ecological economics, an emerging, more holistic version of the field that accounts for ‘natural capital’ and places a monetary value on ecosystem services. For Elizabeth, the call for drawing upon fields as diverse as wildlife biology and hydrology when fashioning health solutions will become second nature.”

Talking Points

At the closing session, former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy provided some forthright advice on meeting the daunting challenge that is planetary health. It’s not easy to get people to reconsider the notion that humans are masters of the universe, she noted. Put another way: Our planet can bounce back from harm eventually, but “will people be in it?”

(Comments begin at 3:00.)

McCarthy, who now teaches a course in environmental leadership at Harvard, thenoffered strategic communication tips gleaned from her many years working in government.

When we talk about climate change and planetary health we need to:

  • Make it personal. Tell personal stories, and make a personal connection with your listeners.
  • Make it compelling. But “not so compelling that people don’t think they can fix it.”
  • Provide facts, not answers. People “want to be part of the solution.”
  • Think globally, act locally.  “Bottom up” –taking action at the community, regional, or state level -- is the most effective path to wider change.
  • Hook it to health. Emphasize that there is no conflict between job creation and a life-sustaining environment. (Sick people “don’t work well!”)
  • Information is power.  People will act if they are fully informed.

Looking Forward

The meeting’s formal goal was to catalyze the field and raise awareness among practitioners, funding agencies, publishers, and the broader academic and research community. Informally, according to participants, it served to forge professional and personal bonds upon which to build a community of practice. Climate for Health is now a part of that community, having joined as a member of the Planetary Health Alliance.

Jennifer Tabola, for one, walked away excited. “More than anything,” she said, “this conference underscored the increasingly urgent need for inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches and collective expertise to solve growing climate and health issues. The need for all minds and hands on deck reminded me of the Einstein quote I had up in my graduate school dorm at Harvard years ago: ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’”  

Or as Gina McCarthy so eloquently put it, let’s “put on our big boy pants and keep moving forward!”

 

 

 

Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environmental issues. If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact her at miranda@ecoamerica.org.