During the quarantine period, I got in touch with Daniel Whal’s work on human and planetary health. This biologist defines Health as an emergent property of the complex systemic dynamics at different levels of scale.
This means that health makes its way from the cells to the planet. In other words, a healthy cell lives in a healthy human body, which develops in a healthy family, which resides in a healthy community, which is inserted in a healthy bioregion that belongs to a healthy ecosystem, which is supported by a healthy planet.
This sequence also works in the opposite direction. Our actions have consequences, positively or negatively affecting any and all of these levels, which in the end affects the health property of the system in which we live. To better understand this definition, I will introduce a basic notion of systemic thinking and its usefulness.
By definition, a system is a set of organized elements or components that work collaboratively to achieve a purpose, for example in the human body we have several systems (digestive, endocrine, cardiovascular, etc.) and dimensions (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual). These systems and dimensions are organized to, interdependently and collaboratively, sustain life in balance.
An imbalance in the functioning of an organ in any of these systems affects the health of the entire system. When we talk about a health problem, reference is made to the fact that the whole body is affected and not just the unbalanced organ.
Additionally, the human body is inserted in other higher-level systems, with which it interacts also in an interdependent way. They are at the micro-level (family and communities) and at the macro-level (bioregions and ecosystems in cities, countries, and continents on the planet).
In this context, health emerges as a quality of the interdependence among people and with the planet. The quality of nutrition and the degree of environmental toxins produced depend on this interdependence.
Individual and collective choices and the quality of the relationships among stakeholders influence not only personal health but also the quality of air, water, soil, and food through exposure to environmental toxins (chemicals, pesticides, electromagnetic radiation, heavy metals, waste, and CO2 emissions, etc.).
So what to do?
According to the Rockefeller Foundation, planetary health is defined as the health of human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends. This concept aims to help us better understand the impact of human beings on social and natural systems. There is a need for a change, at the individual and at the system level. And this is where the usefulness of systemic thinking lies: facilitating a holistic understanding of the interactions between multiple entities and the impact of their actions on expected outcomes.
In the systemic context, it is required the mobilization of the intersectoral collaboration between stakeholders to co-produce the knowledge and the commitment for action, in terms of:
1. Developing a shared vision of the challenges of planetary health in a relevant context of decision-making with stakeholders to act multidisciplinary on the effect of environmental changes on human and planetary health.
2. Defining preventive or mitigation strategies to address impacts and outcomes, based on multidisciplinary research in the socio-ecological field of knowledge; and
3. Communicating and facilitating, on one hand, the emergence of human health and well-being at the individual and societal levels, and on the other hand, promote and monitor greater coherence with the sustainable development processes.
These complex and dynamic interactions between the human body and the planet at the micro and macro levels, including the relevant interactions between global, regional, and locally implemented changes, must take into account the feedbacks and reactions of the scientific community, the local public administration, business groups, and civil society, in order to facilitate the acceptance and adoption of the new models and practices.
These feedbacks and reactions can influence the magnitude of positive or adverse effects on systemic health. For example, moving forward with the installation of 5G technology without solid scientific evidence about its effects on human and ecosystem health could affect the balance of the whole system.
What can we do to take care of the quality of human health and the planet?
Reaching a balance point is always a challenge, and the larger the quantity of stakeholders involved, the hardest it is. Planetary health involves the social, economic, and natural systems, so health-promoting strategies and policies play a key role at the system level. At the individual level, we can contribute to achieving this balance through our choices, intentionally buying what we need, and keeping in mind the impact of these choices on the exploitation of natural resources, on the sustainability in production and consumption patterns, and on health itself.
Knowing more about how to do it is a great first step.
As a reflection, I invite readers to think about the impact of your shopping choices in the coming days and the impact that these choices will have on your own health, and on the economic activity close to home. For example, what is the environmental impact of buying fruits and vegetables from local producers?
At the essence, when we talk about health we talk about interdependence for survival and thriving.
AMARNA Vida Organization Development Coordination & Transformation Coach