Subscribe to our weekly International update on Health Policies

A few suggestions to boost the likelihood of planetary health within the timeframe needed

By Kristof Decoster
on April 11, 2017

Last week, at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health conference in Washington DC, planetary health was one of the key themes, I hear. The inaugural issue of the Lancet Planetary Health was launched and Richard Horton himself told attendees in a keynote speech,  “What climate change is about is the fate of civilization,”. “We have 1 generation—20 years—to get this right. If we miss this opportunity over the next 20 years, we are in seriously bad trouble, irreversibly bad trouble.”    I happen to agree, and so do many others. Harvard intends to play a key role in this necessary and urgent shift towards planetary health, together with other partners (such as The Lancet, Rockefeller Foundation, and many others).

Also last week, at the Biovision 2017- World Life Sciences Forum in Lyon, speakers and participants stressed that greater youth involvement and healthier lifestyles are perhaps the only way to save the planet.

Perhaps. Still, a key question is: how do you get there, how do you mobilize young generations in vast enough numbers so that they create the different world that is so urgently needed?

I never studied in Harvard, and given the decreasing neuron activity in my rapidly aging brain I’m afraid I never will, but I have a few humble suggestions nevertheless for the young colleagues in Harvard (Renzo, are you listening? 🙂 ) who want to push this new paradigm and agenda forward.


Lead by example.   As long as illustrious planetary health proponents (such as Richard Horton, Michael Myers, Martin McKee, Ilona Kickbusch, Jeffrey Sachs, Michael Bloomberg etc) happily fly around the globe to preach the planetary health gospel (whether they call it ‘planetary health’ or not), their credibility will be essentially nil among vast segments of ordinary citizens. No matter how much they engage in offsetting their carbon footprint via schemes. If they don’t get that, perhaps they’re less smart than I think they are.  By the way, the same goes for the – currently frantically campaigning – 3 WHO DG candidates.  The “It’s Monday, so this must be Dubai” attitude is not exactly what I’d hope for among WHO DG candidates for the SDG/planetary health era.

True, we all have our planetary health sins – I suspect Martin McKee, for one, likes a nice piece of beef/niurou/braai/Bratwurst… (depending on where he finds himself on a particular day) now and then – and I will certainly be the last one to blame him. But I’d say that as long as Gates,  Musk or others haven’t come up with some innovation to let planes fly in a far more carbon friendly way, ‘happy flying’ is the most visible sin.  Even if you participate in an carbon offsetting scheme.  In my opinion, it’s about as toxic for your (planetary health) message as the systematic use of tax havens by multinationals and high net worth individuals for the claims – now all the time made in Davos and at international institutions such as IMF/WB/… by the 0.01 % or their representatives – that we need to make sure that ‘globalization leaves no one behind’.

Behaviour from our elites that appears (systematically) contradictory to their core message is in the longer term also very corrosive for our democracies, and you shouldn’t thus be surprised if people don’t buy your message, and instead turn to populists, crooks, authoritarian leaders or worse. So please, push Richard et al to ration/curb their flying behavior sooner rather than later (with some “bonus/malus” system, might be a nice thing for the IHME chaps to focus on). Naturally, if planetary health spokespeople dare to fly with Ryanair, punishment should be even more severe.


Some observers (Laurie Garrett being one of them) reckon that the best chance for planetary health to get the ears of London & Washington, in the current environment, is by focusing on global health security and the increasing risk of pandemics. As important as I think this threat is, I disagree.  Only if planetary health proponents team up consistently and structurally with the people fighting inequality in the world, we have a chance to pull this off in a generation, as required. The health of the planet can only be preserved if we manage to make this also a fairer planet, and do so soon. There is simply no other way. So a strategic focus on global health security would be wrong. Yes, it should be one of the focal areas, but the core fight is the same (holistic) one as the one the SDG agenda (or perhaps a more ambitious version of it) advocates for.

How do you get there, then? Well, you might want to put your eggs in several baskets, and massive youth mobilization is certainly one of them, but The Time is (also) Now for rather drastic measures. Especially if you think, as for example Tim Jackson seems to hint at in interviews, that as things stand in the world, it’s more likely that an authoritarian regime can implement many measures of a planetary health/prosperity without growth/ doughnut economics , economy for the common good   … agenda.

If you reckon – like me – that’s not exactly an enticing prospect, how about pushing for some of the following measures in our – still – democracies ?

Why not require from our political leaders, before they enter a presidential race (like in the US, or in France now) to first work, not for a token (PR) day, but for a full month in a very humble job, be it cleaner in a hotel, a care worker for the elderly, a truck driver on EU roads, … you name it.   It would be an enlightening experience for many, and might even be good ‘filter’ to ensure some of the oddball and most selfish or power hungry candidates never join the race in the first place.  We can call it a ‘full monthy’!

The same goes for our leaders of institutions and organizations – wouldn’t it be lovely if the likes of (former Harvard boss) Larry Summers would help clean the campus of Harvard for a month, and do so every year? I’m sure next time Larry flies to Davos, some of his thinking would have undergone a rather impressive “paradigm shift”. I’m also thinking of finance ministers, IMF technocrats, directors of hospitals, … who would probably think again before suggesting once more “cost-effective” measures, cutting staff while investing ever more in infrastructure or machines.  (PS: men in powerful positions would need to work an extra month a year, like this, taking on the double burden of many ordinary women – no nannies etc allowed!).

Idem for “the leaders of tomorrow” – Harvard students, Sciences Po students, Graduate Institute prodigies, … A similar “bath”/embeddedness  – once a year, for an entire month – in a very humble working environment would work wonders to instill this holistic planetary health/truly inclusive world mindset. And it really shouldn’t be on a voluntary basis. I’d inject, in other words, a few “authoritarian” measures in our democratic societies – to avoid worse.

And a last common sense suggestion to increase the likelihood of a fundamentally different economic system premised on different values –  I never really understood why kids get three months of holidays a year, retired people also have seas of (well deserved) free time (if they still enjoy a more or less reasonable health, that is), but all adults of working age need to join the rat race till they drop.  In spite of having often far less energy than their dynamic offspring! (there is a correlation there 🙂 )

Doesn’t make sense. So wouldn’t it be great if planetary health proponents also advocate for the right to take two months off every year? Good in terms of division of labour (given the hordes of unemployed), and it will also boost creativity on the work floor, when staff come back after refreshing holidays. For the ones among you who favour a more neoliberal term – heck, two months off a year would also make you far more resilient, in the long term! Can’t argue with that.

Larry, Richard, Renzo, … what do you say?

add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *