Planetary Health Alliance

Jan 8, 2018

4 min read

The Ripples

By: Sara Stone, MSc

I grew up on the ocean; swimming, sailing, snorkeling (in murky green New England waters but snorkeling nonetheless) and I learned as long ago as I can remember that the sea provides us with food, oxygen, and entertainment, and is more powerful than I will ever be able to really understand. As a child, I became an expert at spotting seals amongst the exposed grey rock, could recognize the great blue heron and the sandpiper by silhouette, and understood that the rip of the tide could suck you out to sea. I have scars on my shoulders from being scraped by barnacles and can tie a dinghy line off while I’m under water, upside down with my eyes closed. I learned about the magnificence of water and the creatures that it sustains through firsthand experience. I am lucky.

As I got older, my appreciation for the ocean evolved into an understanding of aquatic ecosystems and marine science, with a real interest in how we, as humans, experience and interact with the sea. I began to recognize the damaging impact of humans lurking just below the surface, disguised by the beauty and rhythm of the waves. Agricultural runoff and other pollutants were causing algal blooms and closing down beaches for our health and safety each summer; warnings about mercury levels in fish were showing up in the supermarkets. I learned that humans were creating and innovating and building and commercializing; and that the oceans were dying.

Each summer for the past five years I have traveled to the British Virgin Islands to teach sailing, sustainability and marine science to teenagers through immersive, multi-week sailing trips. For the majority of the students that I taught, that experience was the first time that they began to really understand the relationship between humans and the environment. They saw vibrant reefs, teeming with fish of every color, and they saw white, lifeless reefs killed by ocean acidification and chemical runoff. They learned that they could help to minimize their own impact through small actions like using reef-safe sunscreen and avoiding single use plastics. They got excited about the underwater world, and became aware of their own patterns of consumption and waste. They were learning about their connection to the environment — a lesson that I had learned many years before — and it was so energizing to see. Those students will now grow up and move into their own careers as politicians and city planners and researchers, and a part of them will forever remember that they are connected to the natural world.

Every child needs to have the experience that I had, that these students had. Whether it be with the ocean or the mountains, in a community garden or city zoo, we are obligated to teach our children that they are connected to the environment around them. As Sylvia Earle said, “We teach them the numbers and letters but we fail to communicate the importance of our connection to the living world.”

This is, as I see it, the core strength of planetary health education, where a goal of learning is to identify connections and interdependencies across disciplines. Planetary health education is a form of teaching where we are anchoring scientific content with real world impacts — a lesson on biogeochemical flows, for example, becomes greater than a collection of facts about the carbon cycle or water cycle; it connects with each student as they begin to see where their health and wellbeing is affected by those cycles, and where they, in turn, affect the cycles.

To impart upon the children of today the importance of interconnectedness and systems thinking, of stewardship of their environments, and of how their actions connect to their impacts, is no small project. It will take the contributions of each of us, in a variety of capacities. Yet our differences in experience are complementary; they make us incredible assets for collective education. Each one of us has an experience, however small, of a moment where nature revealed itself, where they recognized the raw power and beauty of the natural world. It is our responsibility to equip the younger generations with these stories, this appreciation, and the certainty that their efforts will have an impact, so that they can grow into a world where they are able to recognize the tendrils of anthropogenic change. And where they feel empowered to do something about it.

So, go out and share your story of connectedness with a parent, sibling, colleague or teammate. Let your story serve as a catalyst for meaningful discussion. Let the ripples from your experience emanate across the waters of the world.

“Many of us ask what can I, as one person, do, but history shows us that everything good and bad starts because someone does something or does not do something.” -Sylvia Earle

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.