Announcing Our New Pathways to Planetary Health Director, Stephen M. Posner

The Garrison Institute is pleased to announce the appointment of Stephen Posner as the new Director of our Pathways to Planetary Health initiative.

“We are thrilled to have Stephen on board and look forward to working together towards our shared goal of promoting the health and well-being of our planet and all its inhabitants,” says Karen Doyle Grossman, the new executive director of the Institute. “His expertise and experience in the field of planetary health will be invaluable in advancing our mission, and we are excited to see the positive impact that we’ll all make together.”

To learn more about Stephen Posner and the future of this program, please continue reading:

Stephen, tell us about your journey to the Garrison Institute.

Thanks to Jonathan Rose, Tony Cisneros, and others who led the planetary health work of the Garrison Institute for many years before I arrived.  

I grew up in Baltimore County near the intersection of asphalt and forest. My privilege growing up afforded me many opportunities, but it didn’t shield me from urban and suburban perils. I lost close friends and family to drugs and violence while growing up. 

Tangling with tough stuff deeply affected me and helped me learn about courage and humility. It taught me the importance of compassion and the power of building mutual understanding. However, I also believe that understanding is not enough. Knowledge must be integrated into our life experiences in a way that aligns what we know with what we do and who we are

This is a central challenge in planetary health and a reason why I’ve arrived here at the Garrison Institute in the Hudson Valley. We know a great deal about nature loss, environmental harm, and social injustice. We also know many of the factors that contribute, along with well-documented and time-tested ways to more kindly treat ourselves, each other, and the rest of nature.

In many ways, planetary health is about reconnecting with sources of healing and realigning when the living planet tips out of balance. Creating balance, healing, and integrating ways of knowing with ways of being – steady themes through my own continuous learning journey – can help us better tend to the impacts of disruption when they arise within ourselves and the rest of nature.

What has been your career path and background? 

One of my first jobs was caring for trees. I worked on the ground with guys fresh out of prison- we kept American Elm trees healthy and fell in love with being outside, climbing, and seeing with a bird’s eye view. 

I went to college northwest of Philadelphia and took courses in science and Native American music and belief. One day during a research fellowship to study how galaxies evolve, I decided to flip my observational lens 180 degrees. I decided to focus instead on dynamic interactions on this planet. 

After graduating from college and spending the summer doing more tree work, I headed west to California with a backpack, a degree in astrophysics, and a young practice in meditation. I worked in restaurants, studied science education at Stanford, and taught math part-time at City College of San Francisco. An organization called Redefining Progress hired me to support the 2005 launch of a powerful environmental justice report called The Soul of Environmentalism. Low income communities in the East Bay taught me about the impacts of toxic chemicals like chromium 6. 

I moved back east and worked my way to Vermont to complete a PhD. I was fascinated with how people acquired new insight, so I studied the use of knowledge and evidence in decisions, while also independently consulting for counties in California and multinational companies. My work was to evaluate how organizations that impacted – and depended on – nature used different kinds of knowledge. I used tools like applied math, science, intuition, and economics. 

Over the past decade, my path took me to work with COMPASS, where I connected top scientists from around the world with environmental policy opportunities in Washington, DC. I organized roundtables with White House officials and served as a guide for scientists as they engaged with federal policymakers. Most recently, I served as Director of Policy and Partnerships with the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont, a university-wide institute with a mission to catalyze research that inspires action. I built partnerships to connect what we know from research with what we do in policy, the private sector, and NGOs. I also built a program to facilitate exchange between science and policy, or knowledge systems and governance networks, depending on how you’d like to look at it. 

What is your experience with planetary health?

I have experience working across sectors, disciplines, and topics, which helps with navigating the many dimensions of planetary health. I’ve assessed biodiversity in the field, conducted spatial analysis of solar and wind energy potential, measured connections between ecosystems and the activities that take place within them, and supported environmental justice leaders to shape public dialogues. 

At the state level, my work co-leading the Vermont Climate Assessment contributed to a several-million-dollar federal center to better understand state-level risks and impacts of climate change. At the national level, I’ve worked on water governance in the west, partnered with federal agencies to evaluate how natural resource management affects biodiversity in a variety of lands and waters, and collaborated on a national strategy to develop statistics for environmental-economic decisions. Internationally, I’ve led work on the effects of climate change on the ocean, and studied the use of ecological knowledge in places like the West Coast of Vancouver Island, Tanzania, and coastal Belize. 

What are you most excited about with this Pathways to Planetary Health program?

First of all, I’m excited about the physical place. The Garrison Institute includes a beautiful building that sits in a mixed hardwood forest where epic-yet-friendly mountains merge with a productive and powerful river. I look forward to spending time there and being in the Hudson Valley region, while I’ll continue to work and live with my family in Vermont most of the time. 

I’m also excited to engage with deep questions. How can we create the conditions that are conducive to planetary health? Why is social justice so central to planetary health? What is the role of contemplative practice and ceremony in building a more resilient world?  

During this time of transition, when many things feel urgent, I’m excited to provide opportunities for people to go slow while carrying a heavy load, and also to move with deliberate speed when that’s what’s needed. I’m inspired by concrete and practical partnerships that have material impact in the world. 

I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to lead with an organization that values inner and outer work. I’m excited to focus on the heart and soul of matters along with the head and hands, and to deepen the inner dimensions of my work. The Pathways program is an opportunity to weave wisdom from many different traditions while strengthening relationships with Earth.

Where do you see the program heading in the future and how can people learn more?

I would like to invite people to reach out to explore opportunities to learn more and potentially partner.

The Pathways program aims to partner with others to create new projects with meaningful impact in areas like biodiversity, place-based education, the commons and the common good, and regenerative food systems and food sovereignty. We endeavor to hold space for people to come and reflect deeply on shifts in worldviews and narratives that are needed. The Garrison Institute is well-situated to host gatherings and well-equipped to initiate actionable projects and engage in new collaborations. 

And, the Pathways program will continue to provide public forums and co-rewritten pieces with thought leaders; develop and facilitate a series of focused roundtables; design leadership programs; and organize an annual symposium that connects, builds culture and language, and creates the conditions for planetary health. 

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