Why We Need Collaboration and a New Mindset to Prevent the Next Big Disaster

By Gabrielle Fitzgerald, Founder and CEO Panorama

Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in what is being called the worst storm in US history, and Hurricane Irma battered the Caribbean and Florida immediately after. More than 1,200 people died in India and Bangladesh during the heaviest monsoon rainfall in more than 15 years. Hundreds more were killed when a mudslide caused by heavy rains wiped out a new settlement in Sierra Leone. While these crises are undoubtedly acts of nature, their effects have been intensified by poor urban planning, deforestation, and global warming.

Addressing these disasters has brought together a multitude of people, organizations, and government agencies out of sheer necessity. They are collaborating and thinking holistically about how to deal with the crises and solve problems. But what happens when the storms die down?

It’s not enough to come together in reaction to a crisis. We need systems-level change where science, business, government, and philanthropic leaders think and act more holistically as the norm. Only then can we find a better balance between human advancement and sustaining the health of our planet.

We saw the folly of short attention spans after the devastating West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014-15. There was great energy toward fixing emergency response systems in the immediate aftermath, with many high-level commissions providing thoughtful recommendations for how to prevent the next outbreak, but most of those have been forgotten or ignored.

Sierra Leonese burial team working in the Kenema district. Photo: Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

We must not let this scenario happen again. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma remind us that health, urban planning, and the weather are interlinked. We need leaders who recognize this, adopt a new mindset, and take tangible action to drive long-term change.

The nascent concept of planetary health offers a pathway to do this. Planetary health acknowledges the inextricable links between human health and the environment. A growing planetary health community is gaining traction as it works to halt our unsustainable consumption patterns that jeopardize the immense gains we’ve seen in human health and wellbeing over the last century.

What might this mean in real terms?

Scientists studying health or the environment must step out of their silos to find the common scientific principles that align their disciplines. For example, the Bridge Collaborative, a partnership of The Nature Conservancy, PATH, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and Duke University, has brought together more than 150 scientists to find ways to speak the same language and collaborate on their targeted outcomes.

Businesses rely both directly and indirectly on the health of our planet. Leaders should consider this when making strategic decisions to ensure the lasting growth of their companies. There is a measure of irony that the chemical plants and oil refineries in Houston are now suffering from the same natural systems that they exploit, and seem unable to evolve with the changing times.

Philanthropists need to recognize that we are reaching the limits of change we can make through siloed funding. They should apply their resources to find the underlying and interrelated causes of problems, rather than focusing on isolated symptoms. Wellcome Trust, for example, has set up integrated research partnerships to examine the impact that global food systems, urbanization, and climate change have on health, then use this knowledge to improve how we address global health challenges.

Translating ideas like planetary health into concrete actions means we have the potential to better prepare for the next big natural disaster, and to hopefully prevent them in the future.

That is why Panorama, with funding from The Rockefeller Foundation, is working to strengthen and expand the planetary health community. To that end, we have just released the first two reports, in a new series on planetary health, to inspire new thinking, conversations, and engagement on this topic. We believe that collaboration and open knowledge-sharing are necessary to solve the root causes of complex global problems, starting with natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Shifting mindsets and behavior is incredibly difficult, but if we aren’t willing to take on this challenge, we will continue to be at the mercy of an ever more damaged planet.