Creating A Vision of Planetary and Human Health

By John McIlwain

In order to carry a positive action we must develop a positive vision. —The Dalai Lama

Last month the Carter Center held a conference on Climate and Health. This follows the remarkable report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health, released in 2015, which concluded that while there have been overall improvements in human health, they have come at the expense of the health of the planetary systems on which ongoing human health depends.

Focusing on the link between planetary and human health acknowledges their profound interconnection. It is the hubris of modern society to believe that humans are somehow independent of nature; the report of the Rockefeller Lancet Commission argues that human health depends on a healthy planet.

The interconnection of humanity and nature might seem obvious, but is only now being rediscovered. It was accepted for millennia before the so-called Age of Enlightenment some five hundred years ago (though the roots of the belief that we are somehow separate from and superior to nature date back to the early origins of Western thought). Yes, the scientific and industrial revolutions spawned by the Enlightenment have brought many benefits, but they have also caused us to use nature as a supermarket, taking whatever we wish with scant regard for consequences.

Recognizing the connection between the health of humans and the planet’s health is an important and necessary step. This also shifts the focus of the climate debate from avoiding a bad thing—for example, climate change and environmental degradation—to a positive, namely improving the long-term health of both humans and the planet. This leads to an important question: what, in fact, is our vision of a healthy planet and a healthy humanity?

We have learned in the work of our Climate, Mind and Behavior program that there is more long-term power in working towards a goal than in trying to avoid harm. Avoiding harm is a powerful motivator when the harm is seen as immediate. We have a hard time, however, staying focused on avoiding harms we perceive to be down the road, potentially decades or generations away, which is when most people today think the harm of the changing climate will occur. So, instead of focusing on this long-term, existential threat, we focus instead on more immediate problems—for example, keeping our jobs and homes. There’s no blame here; it’s just a natural human frailty.

On the other hand, we are able to focus on long-term, positive goals—the obvious example being President Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s. This being the case, it suggests that what is needed next, building on the work of the Rockefeller Lancet Commission, is to create a positive vision of a healthy humanity living within and supporting a healthy planet.

What is our vision of human health in mind, body, and spirit? And what is our vision of a planet in balance and thriving, supporting the health of all life upon it, including that of our children for generations to come? These are visions that can energize everyone across all viewpoints, creating possibilities that can pull our hearts towards a future we can all work towards together. Never underestimate the driving power of vision and human imagination; it is time to begin creating this vision of a healthy future for our planet and for us.

John McIlwain directed the Garrison Institute’s Climate, Mind, and Behavior Program for many years. Before retiring, he was the J. Ron Terwilliger Chair for Housing at the Urban Land Institute where he specialized in sustainable housing and urban resilience in the era of climate change. 

Image courtesy of unsplash.com

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