Caring For The Planet At A Public Health School: Four Women Converge in London

Nina Finley, Kelly Aranchia Prado, Rosa von Borries, Kathy Wabnitz

We met in September, under the cloudy skies of London where we had all recently arrived to pursue master’s degrees.

Kathy, a medical doctor, and Rosa, a medical student, had come from Germany to study public health. Kelly, an environmental economist, arrived from the Peruvian Andes to also pursue public health. Nina brought a background in disease ecology from the United States, and she was here to study One Health.

A COVID kind of portrait. Clockwise from top left: Kathy, Nina, Rosa, Kelly

We each came to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) because we realized how the health of human bodies, social structures and ecosystems are deeply entangled. Once here, we each applied to be LSHTM Planetary Health Network student ambassadors. Our goal was to make the concept of Planetary Health accessible to every member of the community. What a year we had ahead!

To plan the year’s activities, we explored the perceptions and needs of LSHTM students and staff through a survey. Although most respondents weren’t active in environmental work, the level of awareness was high: 88% considered climate change the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, and 80% understood the concept of planetary health.

An Eventful Year

In December, we worked with the Planetary Health Network to put on a Planetary Health Pub Quiz for 50 people. It wasn’t just about showcasing factual knowledge: people also had to get creative and build an object using recyclable LSHTM waste, with astonishing results ranging from a rocket to a Christmas tree.

An LSHTM crowd laughs and learns at the annual Planetary Health Pub Quiz on December 5, 2019

We supported the Bloomsbury Colleges Sustainable Christmas Fair in our neighborhood, baking vegan cookies and selling goodie bags including some waste-reduction tips for the Christmas period. Nina sold her wildlife photography cards to spread wonder about biodiversity.

Kathy spoons jam into a vegan cookie well past midnight on the night before the Christmas Fair.
Kathy and Rosa entice customers to try vegan cookies at the Bloomsbury Colleges Sustainable Christmas Fair on December 11th, 2019.
Nina offers a selection of wildlife photography cards at the Bloomsbury Colleges Sustainable Christmas Fair on December 11, 2019.

In March, Nina and another LSHTM student, Viola Gräf, put on the school’s first eco-anxiety workshop, “From Worry to Action.” This workshop was a sort of an experiment. Kathy’s survey had shown that while the majority of students and staff were deeply aware of climate change and environmental degradation, few were actively working on combating these issues. Why might that be?

Part of the answer was evoked by another question from the survey. We had asked, “Do you experience eco-anxiety (a feeling of inertia, despair, hopelessness, or overwhelm due to the climate and ecological crises)?” and 53% of respondents had said yes.

We took inspiration from Dr. Courtney Howard, emergency-room doctor and climate activist. In her on Planetary Health, Dr. Howard said, “By developing insight into our emotional reaction to climate change, we can become centered and productive in our response.”

We set out to provide a framework to help people identify their emotions — grief, sadness, love, solastalgia, worry, hope, betrayal, or any number of others — and move toward collective, joyful action for a liveable planet.

Nina made this sketch to advertise our eco-anxiety workshop.

We built an “emotional toolkit” that included doodling, free-writing, talking it out, and grounding our emotions in landscapes; reflected on our roles in a “social change ecosystem” (check out this by Deepa Iyer); and discussed the importance of going from individual to collective action to bring about systemic change.

With Kathy’s help, we retrofitted the workshop for Zoom (a far bigger task than we’d anticipated!) and presented an online version in June. We had 32 participants, and Nina is hoping to host another eco-anxiety workshop with the soon.

The workshops required a lot of preparation work and screen time, but it was all worth it to hear one participant tell us she was already seeing her activism role in a new light. “I’ve been doing as much as I can individually, and I was still frustrated and sad,” she commented. “This is what was missing. I’m in for collective action!”

Planetary Health Week

Our grand finale was Planetary Health Week, five days of interactive events in June delivered by the Planetary Health Network. We hadn’t expected to be hosting online events (thanks, COVID!) but we weren’t going to let a pandemic stop us.

Kallista Chan, a malaria research assistant involved with the Planetary Health Network, lent her graphic design skills to advertise each day’s event.

Rosa moderated a food waste discussion on Tuesday. Her takeaways: college facilities should transparently explain where food comes from and where waste goes. Reducing waste is an opportunity to address both social and environmental needs — but we will need to broaden our scope to include all aspects of food production, processing and distribution. Reducing waste alone will not make food access equitable.

Rosa also attended the Wednesday event, a book club kickstarted by professor and author Dr. Adam Kucharski. His latest work, The Rules of Contagion, came out right when COVID-19 was starting to make headlines. Rosa’s takeaway from the event: science communication matters! As specialized scientists, we need to carefully think about how to explain our work to a general audience. The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the importance of effective science communication and offers an opportunity to engage more people in Planetary Health, by explaining the interdependencies between human health and the state of natural systems.

Kathy took the prize for best Planetary Health Week title with her Friday webinar, “Aviation, Carbon Offsetting and Corporate Hot Air,” which drew an audience of 36.

Up Next

And we’re not done yet!

On July 22 at 4 pm BST, Rosa, together with Rachel Lowe, will be hosting a presentation by Esteban Ortiz Prado, an Ecuadorian doctor working with Indigenous communities in the Amazon. The webinar is free and open to all, so join us .

Later in the summer, Rosa will facilitate a webinar on the related concepts of One Health, EcoHealth and Planetary Health, and Kelly plans to host a career panel with workers at the intersections of green infrastructure, climate, energy, health and the beauty industry.

Lessons Learned

In hindsight, this post might make it seem like we had a smooth, productive year. That’s not the case! Most students — ourselves included — were just trying to keep up. Leadership means also taking care of yourself. Each of us found ourselves overwhelmed at some point in the year and had to step back from the Planetary Health Network to focus on school or mental health. At times we felt guilty, behind, anxious, you name it, but it was a relief to be honest with one another because we had each other’s backs.

Reflecting on our experiences and inspiring inputs throughout this year, we leave you with these lessons:

  • As you go about your work for a healthy planet, whatever your work might be, seek out a community. We are stronger when we work together, and we all need support at times.
  • Listen and read deeply. We each have much to learn and a limited perspective. Listen to others who have different experiences from you and read the writings of previous generations who built this movement. It’s neither a sprint nor a marathon — it’s a relay race.
  • Work to decolonise your school, workplace or other communities. LSHTM is having hard conversations about the links between the environment, health and equity, but we have yet to accomplish meaningful change. If the Planetary Health movement does not seriously decolonize public health and centers equity, it alienates those of us who are immigrants, people of color, and White allies. We find hope in the widespread protests to end racism, and we encourage everyone to see the connections among racism, environmental degradation, climate change and ill health. LSHTM’s director, Dr. Peter Piot, recently called racism “a public health crisis” and pledged to collaborate with LSHTM’s Decolonizing Global Health group “to ensure the lived experiences of staff and students are embedded throughout.” The time is right to listen to historically-marginalised voices understand what kind of Planetary Health movement makes sense to them. Only then will we achieve our goal to unite instead of alienate.
  • Be courageous. Try practicing a cycle of educate-act-reflect: read deeply to understand what you are advocating, take action, reflect on your emotions and impact, and repeat. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes — we all make ‘em! Get out there and try. Be ready to take criticism and learn from your mistakes. You have nothing to lose.
  • Use your voice. “Planetary Health” is a new term, and many people may not understand the connections between health and the environment. You may not feel like an expert, but whoever you are, you know a lot. If you’re a scientist, translate technical jargon into accessible concepts. If you’re a nurse, talk to your patients about climate change and health. Give examples of what Planetary Health means on the ground — the is a great place to start.
  • Tell your story. Each of our passions for a healthy planet is underpinned by our own experiences and the places we grew up in. Kelly found her passion growing up in the Peruvian Andes, working with farmers and piloting community-designed greenhouses to adapt to climate change and secure nutrition. Nina grew up observing organisms in the rainy evergreen forests of Washington State and the rocky tidepools of Puget Sound, and turned her love of microbes into research on restoring ecosystems for human health. Rosa grew up near forest, and from a young age connected with nature to play, reflect, and calm down. Later, she found her passion and responsibility in environmental activism while studying medicine in Berlin. Kathy studied medicine in the German city of Tuebingen with a vision of making positive changes in peoples’ lives which, paired with reverence for the ecosystem called Earth, fuels her passion to ignite transformative actions for planetary health. These are stories worth telling. What’s yours?

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Viola Gräf (MSc Public Health) for co-designing and co-teaching the eco-anxiety workshops, Sophie Maule (MSc Public Health) for running the fast fashion event, and Marianna Muszynska of Bloomsbury Colleges Greenthing for organizing the food waste event. Huge thanks to the LSHTM Planetary Health Network steering committee: Gio Dalla Libera Marchiori, Tate Oulton, Cami Moss, Francesca Harris, Stephanie Jarmul, Charlotte Kerr, and Kallista Chan.We couldn’t have done it without you!

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