The Garrison Institute Forum Series on Pathways to Planetary Health continued with a conversation between Garrison Institute Co-founder, Jonathan F. P. Rose, and Sam Myers, MD, MPH, Founding Director of Planetary Health Alliance. They discussed the rise of the field of planetary health as well as Myers’ new book Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves. These interactive Forum sessions aim to expand our understanding around how each of us can play a role in supporting a regenerative, just, and prosperous world, nurturing the health and well-being of all of life.
Myers explained that the premise of planetary health is that our impacts on natural systems exceed our planet’s capacity, which is leading to a transformation of natural systems that is imperiling human health and wellbeing.
“We need to do everything differently as a global society. That means changing food systems, our built environment, our energy systems, how we manufacture goods… even the stories that we tell ourselves about our relationship to the natural world. We need artists and storytellers; we need faith leaders and indigenous voices just as much as we need experts in energy systems and food systems and architects and urban planners. Every community has something to bring to the great transition.”
Myers shared how the field of planetary health has rapidly emerged in the past five years due to growing urgency to address the scale of human impacts on the planet, which have been ballooning at an extraordinary pace. A foundational report published by The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health in 2015 has helped grow the field, in addition to the Planetary Health Alliance, which was founded in 2016 and now has over 200 institutional partners in over 40 countries.
The past five years have also seen the development of journals of planetary health, degree programs, professorships, and an abundance of research. In Germany, for example, the government now requires medical schools to teach core competencies in planetary health. From Singapore to the Caribbean, active regional hubs are addressing issues of planetary health in their local contexts while still collaborating with global partners.
Myers and Rose explored the role of economics in planetary health and how we can begin shifting towards alternative economic models. “Economics are simply a reflection of the value systems in our society,” Rose noted. “So, if we’re really going to change the economic system, we have to re-shift the balance between the primacy of the individual and the primacy of the commons.” Myers reflected:
“There is something broken in the way we think about economics if we are gauging our success on GDP instead of activities like sharing and collective action… things that we know make us happy. If we’re trying to maximize happiness and well-being, as opposed to maximize producing lots of goods and selling them, then we’re measuring some of the wrong things.”
As inspiration for alternative economic models, Myers referenced The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which both explore gift-giving and gift economies. The Gross National Happiness Index, which originated in Bhutan, and the idea of wellbeing economies were also mentioned as evidence of a growing movement to measure what matters. Rose reflected on his experience witnessing alternative economics in action in Bhutan:
“By the financialization of the world, we have substituted the bounty that comes from community. The de-financialization of our lives can lead to much more freedom and happiness if we do it in the right way.”
Myers and Rose also discussed planetary health in light of COVID-19 and the social uprisings taking place. Myers understands the pandemic as “a manifestation of our broken relationship with nature. We’ve seen alarm bells ringing for the past few years,” he continued. “It’s not just the pandemic; it was the Hurricane season in the Caribbean with Irma and Maria, it was the fire season in California and the Amazon and Siberia and Australia, and the locust outbreak in East Africa. Covid-19 is the latest in the progression of closely spaced warning bells that we’re hearing about our broken relationship with the natural world. The pandemic is clearly a planetary health problem.”
He sees parallels between how we’ve approached COVID-19 to how we’ve been approaching climate change, noting the skepticism of science that has hampered our ability to quickly and effectively deal with these problems.
But despite the challenges, Myers and Rose celebrated the opportunity this moment presents. When the pandemic first hit, we saw almost everyone change their behavior in just a few weeks. This widespread behavior change is precisely what is needed with planetary health, too. “We have tolerated an extraordinary shift regarding human behavior,” Rose remarked. “And what that tells us is that the range of behaviors we can tolerate is much greater than we had previously said.”
The pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd, are bringing us towards a tipping point and opportunity for transformation. Racism and planetary health come together around the issue of regeneration, Myers asserted, drawing a connection between regenerating the land and regenerating human communities.
“I don’t want to sustain the status quo; the status quo is very problematic. We need to regenerate our biosphere… and we very urgently and dramatically need to regenerate our relationships with each other. Those things are actually connected.”
“There is a way in which how we have been living on earth is fundamentally oppressive. One of the core messages of planetary health is a message of justice and equity,” he continued. Those who benefit most from transforming our natural systems are the wealthiest people in the wealthiest parts of the world. In contrast, it’s the poorest people in the poorest parts of the world, indigenous people, people of color, and future generations who bear the burden of these changes. “There is something deeply unfair about the distribution of benefits and costs. Planetary health and the great transition cannot be successful without also addressing those systematic inequities.”
In closing, Myers and Rose answered a few questions about how health professionals and students can join the planetary health movement, the role of urban design and real estate in planetary health, and more. Myers mentioned the Clinicians for Planetary Health program, the Next Generation Network, and the Campus Ambassador Program as a few ways to get involved, and suggested visiting the Planetary Health Alliance website to browse other opportunities and to find resources and educational materials. Regarding urban design and real estate, Rose recommended his book The Well-Tempered City, which champions the role of cities in addressing the environmental, economic, and social challenges of the 21st century.
To close, Rose read the following quote from Myers’ book Planetary Health:
“We know much of what we need to do. We need to get on with it to drive the great transition towards planetary health.”
To attend upcoming Forum Conversations, visit the Garrison Institute website.
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Samuel Myers, MD, MPH is a pioneer in the emerging field of Planetary Health, a Principal Research Scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Founding Director of the Planetary Health Alliance. He also serves as a Commissioner on the Lancet-Rockefeller Foundation Commission on Planetary Health and the Lancet Commission on Arctic Health, and is a member of the Lead Expert Group of the Global Panel on Agriculture, Food Systems, and Nutrition. He is the co-editor with Howard Frumkin of Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves. Use the discount code PLANET for 20% off the book price on the Island Press website.
Jonathan F.P. Rose’s business, public policy, and not-for-profit work focus on creating a more environmentally, socially, and economically responsible world. Jonathan and his wife Diana Calthorpe Rose are the co-founders of the Garrison Institute. He serves on its Board and leads its Pathways to Planetary Health program.
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