Turning Hardship to Strength – the Promise of Planetary Health

By Abigail Faylor Panorama Vice President

I have to be honest, working in global health and development can be depressing. Thinking of the magnitude of the global problems we face, combined with Western world shifts towards nationalism and populism, I can barely see a light at the end of the tunnel.

When these moments of doubt hit, I remind myself that hard times often inspire people to think differently, to reach out and make new connections, to find new ways to tackle problems.

Wasn’t it Kanye West who rapped Nietzsche’s wisdom: “That that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger”?

Well, I think we are getting stronger.

I recently witnessed an inspiring surge of energy and excitement around the nascent concepts of planetary health. It reminded me that there is enormous potential for good when people join together to face a challenge.

As a part of our Planetary Health work with The Rockefeller Foundation, Panorama facilitated a meeting of leading minds advancing cross-sectoral efforts on planetary health, which is defined as the interconnections between human, animal and environmental health.

These are people brave enough to see beyond the deeply rooted parameters of their individual areas of expertise, like global health, climate change, and veterinary medicine, and explore a multi-disciplinary approach that could shed light on some of the world’s biggest problems.

For example, a planetary health approach could help prevent another Ebola outbreak like we saw in 2014, which resulted from interconnected issues like human and animal population changes; environmental disturbance, such as deforestation; and weak health systems. By collaborating across the related disciplines, we can better understand and mitigate the root causes of another outbreak. I’m encouraged that work is already underway, as The Guardian reported last year: West Africa to target human and animal health together to fight Ebola and Zika.

Taking a planetary health approach is much harder, initially, but the benefits are much greater. The challenges of working across disciplines – such as unifying scientific methodologies, and finding cross-sector funding – must be solved for planetary health to succeed.

At the same time, planetary health presents great hope for the future. Bringing together diverse ideas and perspectives, and taking a proactive approach to assess root causes, instead of responding to symptoms as so often happens, presents bigger possibilities to improve human health and wellbeing while also preserving our planet.

While more work is needed to define and build up planetary health, many areas exist where this approach will prove valuable. For example, achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals requires multi-disciplinary collaboration, as many of the targets and indicators are interlinked. Also, economic progress – from the global economy to national GDP and business profits – depends on a multitude of connected issues. So, a planetary approach could have economic value, as the recently announced Economic Council on Planetary Health has set out to discover. Additionally, discrete issues areas like infectious disease, food security or urbanization will benefit from a cross-sector approach to solve for their numerous causes.

So, while the global challenges can seem overwhelming, I know it is possible to make progress.

What you and I do today does make a difference, even if we can’t see it. Our success depends on accepting our responsibility to improve the future for our loved ones, embracing hope, and turning hardship into strength.

Read the latest from The Lancet Planetary Health journal:
Planetary Health: a new discipline