Medicine in the Anthropocene at the Planetary Health Alliance Annual Meeting

This past weekend, I presented a poster of my doctoral research at the Planetary Health Alliance’s Inaugural Annual Meeting in Boston. Planetary health is a growing field[1] focused on “the health of the human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends.”[2] The new paradigm draws on research from conservation medicine, ecological health, the one health movement, geo health, and studies of the Anthropocene to develop strategies for living healthily within the earth’s biophysical limits. As Samuel Myers, Senior Research Scientist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Director of the Planetary Health Alliance noted in his opening remarks, achieving planetary health will require a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between the human species and the earth’s environmental systems. This kind of change not only demands action at the level of public health policy, but must also use the power of social movements to change our culture from one that perpetuates ecological destruction to one that improves human health and ecosystem integrity in tandem. Natalie Linou, Policy Specialist at the United Nations Development Programme, captured the new field well when she described planetary health as an opportunity to connect the narratives surrounding social justice, environmental justice, and health equity.

My poster, titled “Human Health and Long-Term Social-Ecological Systems Change: Emerging Alternatives for Health in the Anthropocene”, introduced the theoretical framework that guides my doctoral research. Central to my approach is the notion that the age of economic growth is coming to an end, and that climate change, environmental destruction, and declining energy and material resources will transform the structure of health systems in the future. To deal with the mounting constraints that will limit the size and scope of formalized healthcare models, health and care activities will need to be increasingly grounded in systems of family and community reciprocity. In other words, we need to find ways to make it easier for people to look after one another, often on a voluntary, reciprocal basis. In an individualized capitalist society, the barriers to this kind of approach are high, but in a context of declining resources and energy use, the tables could turn quickly. To explore some of the alternatives that already exist in this space, my fieldwork will investigate social innovations including the Family Care System in Geel, Belgium, Care Farms in the Netherlands, and Community-Based Care in the Transition Movement.

The poster itself was a bit unusual. I recently defended my PhD dissertation proposal and finished up a pile of grading for my teaching assistantship. When it came time to prepare my poster, I felt like I needed a break from sitting in front of screens all day. I decided to make my poster out of fabric so that I could spend a few days making something with my hands. I figured out how to print onto canvas and embroidered details on all the diagrams. The crafted approach to an academic poster also reflects the kinds of social innovations that my research highlights as emerging alternatives for health in the Anthropocene. These are strategies that can operate in a context of significantly reduced materials and energy use. They are place-based and community-centric, and offer strong meaning frameworks for those who participate. Throughout the weekend, I had many conversations with researchers and practitioners affiliated with the Planetary Health Alliance who see the value in asking big anthropological questions about the future of health on our changing planet.

[1] The Planetary Health movement is supported by research institutions around the world including the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa, the University of Edinburg, the London School of Hygiene and Medicine, the Oxford Martin School, the Cornell Atkinson Centre for a Sustainable Future, and the Health Network of the Future Earth initiative.

[2] The Lancet Planetary Health, 2017. “Welcome to The Lancet Planetary Health.” The Lancet Planetary Health 1 (1): p. e1.