I started this blog a couple of years ago because I was feeling overwhelmed about the declining health of the planet. Hardly a day went by without devastating news about large and small environmental catastrophes.
At the same time, I saw in-action and climate denial in politics and much of mainstream business. I had reached a point when I could not sit back and watch anymore. I needed to do more than avoiding plastic and eating a more climate-conscious diet. And I wanted to understand what ideas and solutions could help us turn things around for the better.
That’s why I decided to interview people who were making a positive difference in big and small ways. It’s been a huge learning curve so far. I wrapped my head around how waves could be leveraged for energy generation. And I brushed up on my high school knowledge of photosynthesis as a key concept in regenerative farming.
The experience exceeded my expectations. Not just intellectually, but because of the people I had the pleasure to get to know. There were heartfelt and generous conversations about the trials, setbacks, and triumphs of working in this space. It gave me a sense of connection that I had long been missing.
From bushfires and a pandemic to planetary health
Then unprecedented bushfires raged through Australia. The event struck yet another blow to biodiversity and critically endangered species. The fires were still burning when life as we know it came to a standstill due to COVID-19.
It was hard to avoid the doom scrolling. Many articles ascertained that this was only a foretaste of what is still ahead of us: More fires. More floods. More diseases.
If anything, though, the pandemic only reinforced that I wanted to do more. And for that, I felt like I still needed to learn more.
Coincidentally, it was in one of the doom scrolling articles that I first read about the emerging academic field of planetary health. It is a transdisciplinary approach that focuses on the interrelationship between the health of the planet, ecosystems, humans, and other living beings.
As I continued my research, I came across a new Graduate Certificate in Planetary Health at Victoria University and decided to enroll. This post is a summary of my key learnings and a follow-up conversation with the course convener, Associate Professor Jeannie Rea.
Connecting planetary health to human health and wellbeing
I have always felt a strong connection to nature. Yet, my awareness of climate change, sustainability, and planetary health has grown gradually over time. As I learned about one issue, I discovered other related ones. And there were many other students in the course on a similar path. I also met people like Jeannie whose innate awareness and activism run through her life as a continuous thread.
“Ever since I was a kid, I have been conscious of the natural environment and concerned about endangered species,” says Jeannie. “In high school, I got active around air and water pollution and rehabilitating the foreshore.”
And that was only the beginning of many issues that caught Jeannie’s attention. Her activism covers everything from guerilla planting and protesting against the construction of an aluminum smelter to joining the anti-uranium mining movement in Australia.
“One of the central questions of my work has always been: do social reforms work for the people who need them the most?”
“As part of our anti-nuclear activism, we worked closely with the unions and local Indigenous communities. Putting together how environmental issues impact people has always been important to me,” says the former President of the National Tertiary Education Union. “I want to achieve decent outcomes for people and the environment. One of the central questions of my work has always been: do social reforms work for the people who need them the most? How do they affect First Nation people, single mothers, or people of different genders and races?”
This inclusive lens was very different compared to what I have seen throughout much of my career. In business – and especially the start-up world – the main priority is usually to get to the solution quickly. There is often neither time, money nor patience for a more holistic and long-term view. But it’s critical if business founders are serious about developing solutions to improve planetary health while avoiding unintended consequences. It is an area I’m keen to explore in my conversations with entrepreneurs going forward.
Social justice and planetary health in Australia
VU takes a place-based approach to planetary health. This means finding fair solutions for local communities, as well as working alongside Indigenous Australians and learning from their Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).
As we were working through the course content, we saw major setbacks concerning Australia’s First Nation people and planetary health. Mining giant Rio Tinto destroyed an invaluable Indigenous heritage site in the Kimberley to expand their iron ore exploration. Shortly after that, the Victorian government cut down sacred Direction Trees to make way for a highway. Meanwhile, Dan Murphy’s announced a new liquor store near dry Indigenous communities in Darwin.
Yet, there was also a noticeable groundswell toward positive change as thousands of people marched together in the Black Lives Matter protests. But growing support in a few protests marks a small milestone on a slow evolution rather than a revolutionary transformation in Australia’s national conscience.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re at a turning point yet. One of the big issues is that the injustices Australian Indigenous people are facing don’t get attention unless something happens in the US. That’s why it was so important for the protests to go ahead during the lockdown,” says Jeannie. “What gives me hope though, is that we are seeing a new generation of young activists who are very clear in their communication. They remain respectful to their elders, but they are speaking up [about the change they want to see].”
Working alongside Indigenous Australians
One of the factors that will contribute to lasting change is working alongside Indigenous Australians on planetary health initiatives. It’s a convergence that will need a careful and considered approach.
“The most important thing is to listen and learn. There’s a lot of material out there to guide you,” says Jeannie. “Take some initiative and engage with your local Indigenous community. Reach out to them and start to open conversations. And if they decide to come to your meeting, acknowledge their presence.”
“One of the big issues is that the injustices Australian Indigenous people are facing don’t get attention unless something happens in the US.”
What’s more, to be able to work alongside each other on equal terms, we need to be aware and prepared to let go of some of our default positions. “ If you’re engaging with Indigenous Australians, don’t just force your ideas on them. Listen to their responses as to why they do or don’t want to get involved,” advises Jeannie. “Also don’t expect one Indigenous person to speak for all First Nation people in Australia. It’s a huge burden that is often placed on them. And it doesn’t lead to a situation where we can work truly alongside each other.”
The strong focus on Indigenous knowledge guided much of the course, not only through the reading materials but through the active involvement of Jillian Marsh, Kim Kruger, and Associate Provost Karen Jackson in the units. The insights they shared added a new dimension to the work I am seeking to do with this blog.
Developing a planetary health curriculum
Another aspect that makes the subject of planetary health so interesting, but also very complex, is that it touches on all aspects of life. This created challenges for the teaching team who had to act fast as they put together the curriculum in response to the pandemic.
“Just because we had to do it all very quickly, it didn’t mean taking any shortcuts,” says Jeannie. “We had some very intensive philosophical discussion over Zoom. We wanted to make sure we picked up the science while also putting it into the appropriate historic and political context,” says Jeannie about the process.
“Our role has been to curate an enormous amount of information. It was a fine balance between providing the intellectual foundations and giving students the skills they need to get involved.”
In addition to the community focus, this meant sessions on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, climate science, and disaster response and risk management. The learnings provided me with a much more solid foundation in the indisputable science of climate change. It left me feeling more prepared to take on difficult personal and professional conversations with climate change deniers.
Hope and a new vision for living well
One of the reasons why I started this blog was because I wanted to share some good news in an area that is so complex and far-reaching that it leaves many people feeling powerless. By telling stories about people who are making a difference, I wanted to encourage others to do the same. Instinctively, I knew that we needed to believe that change was possible to take action.
Nonetheless, I was surprised when I saw the need for hope in planetary health taking up a spot on the course curriculum. “People don’t act when they feel depressed,” explains Jeannie. “Focusing on hope, however, opens up a very fundamental question: how do we want to live? This is how our world could look differently.”
And seeing the first class complete the Graduate Certificate, in turn, provided Jeannie with new motivation to keep going on her journey: “My biggest personal learning was to see how people were making connections between their personal and professional lives. It makes me hopeful because separating our personal and professional selves is what caused many of the problems planetary health seeks to address. Life is a continuum, not siloed segments.”
Interested in planetary health?
Victoria University’s Graduate Certificate in Planetary Health is delivered in a blended online format. It consists of four units that are completed fast-tracked over four months. For more information, visit the VU website.
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