Finding Hope in Planetary Health:
A Reflection on Julie Beck’s Atlantic article “Constant Anxiety Won’t Save the World”
By: Amalia Almada, PhD
At a time of extraordinary challenges to our health, environment, and political systems, the field of planetary health is my beacon of hope.
Lately I have found it too easy to succumb to a cycle of reactive anxiety about the latest crisis inflicted by Nature or fellow humans. I myself often bought into the narrative that carrying around the weight of worry for issues I was passionate about was a good thing, a heroic thing. In fact, I felt that worry was an important motivator to renew passion for my work and that amplifying this worry was essential to instill a sense of ownership of these urgent issues in others. I found Julie Beck’s article “Constant Anxiety Won’t Save the World” to be a powerful reminder of the detriment of internalizing anxiety for the issues we care about not only to ourselves, but also to the audiences we seek to motivate. Beck describes the fog of “compassion fatigue” that can descend as our exposure to global sufferings becomes constant to the point that we experience reduced interest, empathy, and ability to act to rectify this suffering.
Planetary Health is a field that is rapidly growing, is heavily comprised of energetic and passionate next generation scholars, and is designed to tackle some of the biggest issues facing our planet and our health. I see our emerging leaders and advocates as particularly vulnerable to the challenge of balancing passion, worry, and burnout as they seek to live out and motivate true change in their audiences. I hope that some of my reflections and those from Beck’s article will be helpful reminders for our incredible community as we seek to grow this rapidly emerging field together in a way that is meaningful and long-lasting.
Spread awareness, not anxiety, for lasting change. This is an easy trap particularly when communicating the core message of planetary health, which calls for urgent action in the face of global environmental change at a scale that is virtually impossible to comprehend. Beck highlights research that shows that fear can be a powerful motivator to change people’s attitudes, intentions, and even one-time behaviors, like going to get a disease screening. But Beck argues that without tying fear to recommended actionable steps we leave our audiences riled up and anxious without a proper outlet to channel that energy and ‘wokedness’ towards longer-term action. The successful penetration of planetary health into the greater social conscience requires more of a relationship-oriented approach that is honest about the challenges we face and even our personal feelings of grief about the environmental challenges ahead, yet invites every level of society to engage in both individual and community efforts to effect real change. So help yourself and help your audience — don’t conflate spreading awareness with spreading anxiety, and share with them authentic, actionable, steps and ways that they can engage in working towards progress in planetary health.
And what are some concrete ways to engage in furthering planetary health? The PHA would love your help in:
· Building out case studies for planetary health to illustrate real-world examples of how a better understanding of the connections between global environmental change and human health can lead to interventions or policies with positive health outcomes. With more on-the-ground examples of planetary health in action to share with students, policy makers, funders, government agencies, and researchers, we aim to highlight projects that are making a real difference and that could even be replicated in other settings. We’re so excited to be bringing the UNFCCC Momentum for Change Lighthouse Award Planetary Health winners to Harvard this spring to share their award-winning projects with the Harvard and global planetary health community as part of a live-streamed seminar series and develop their amazing projects into planetary health case studies.
· Crafting more effective messaging around planetary health — join our Storytellers initiative to help us build compelling narratives around planetary health to share with those outside our academic networks.
· Sharing your own opportunities for collective action or practical field experiences to engage the next generation of planetary health scholars through the online planetary health community or the Emerging Scholars Network.
Remember that you belong to an inspiring, passionate, broader community of planetary health crusaders. The most rewarding professional moment of the past year for me was absorbing the palpable sense of commitment, excitement, and collaborative spirit among the diverse attendees at the inaugural Planetary Health Annual Meeting. Core to the longevity and meaningful contribution of the planetary health field is collaboration across a broad swath of scientific disciplines, as well as with policy makers, natural resource managers, and movement builders in a way and at a scale that has never been achieved before. So get involved! Our hope is that through PHA’s opportunities for engagement, you will be left feeling inspired, connected with new collaborators, and ready to get to work on these urgently important issues of environmental change and human health. Join us at the PHA to do your part to deepen the cohesion of a community dedicated to furthering these issues in collaboration with one other. I can’t wait for this year’s Planetary Health Annual Meeting to again be surrounded by inspirational, like-hearted researchers, educators, and policy makers pushing forward concrete, on-the-ground projects to improve human health in the face of environmental change!
Own your voice. We all come with different life stories that have led us to engage with planetary health and unique communication styles that shape our delivery of the planetary health narrative. Some of us easily captivate an audience and shine under the spotlight, while some of us are more of the quiet and calm type — all of us play an important role in reaching audiences that are as diverse as we are. My hope is to hear from more and more of you about how you approach discussing planetary health and what has worked well for your unique voice. Ultimately, all of us are engaged in planetary health because we think it can make a difference in the world and to me, that is an essential and authentic message that we each need to convey whenever we talk about planetary health. Whenever I’m asked how I keep moving forward with the intimate knowledge of the health and environmental challenges ahead, I personally acknowledge that planetary health as a field arose from the dire realization that our health was not adequately being recognized as a victim of the rapid changes facing our planet, but that to me it intrinsically conveys the hopeful message that through disentangling the linkages between environmental change and human health we can tackle these pressing issues together. So let’s get to it!
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments below. I’d also like to thank Perri Sheinbaum, Erika Veidis, and Sam Myers for helpful edits and input on this blog post.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Planetary Health Alliance or its members.