Provocation: Exploration of the term planetary health

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt

What comes first, people or planet?

No, this isn’t a chicken vs. egg philosophical riddle. (Or is it?) The query was part of a series of events surrounding provocative questions, led by Andrew Maynard, associate dean for student success in the College of Global Futures. In reality, humankind is a key part of the larger planetary system. The question serves as a reminder that decisions by people can and will alter planetary outcomes, sometimes for good and sometimes not.

Much of the conversation focused on the idea of planetary health, a tribute to the newly dedicated Rob and Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health, where the event was held. Maynard was joined by Netra Chhetri, associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; Melissa Nelson, professor in the School of the Sustainability; and Dave White, director of the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation.

Thinking about the term “planetary health,” White said it has power as a metaphor to encourage the production of knowledge and engage people in advocacy. We need to use that power to further the mission of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, which seeks “a future in which all life thrives on a healthy planet,” he said. Humans must repair their relationship with the planet, which due to extraction and consumption is “out of equilibrium with the planet’s ability to provide the resources to support a healthy society.”

How we define health varies by language and culture, Nelson said, and as part of planetary health, we must raise the voices of the voiceless.

“In the Ojibwe language, my tribe, our word for medicine … is ‘strength of the Earth.’ So whenever we get something from this medicine, it comes from the Earth,” she said. “Not only do healthy communities receive medicine from the land in terms of water and earth and food and air, but they actually contribute back medicine by creating beauty and sustainable systems, whether its canals or canoes or agriculture or farming terraces.”

During a provocative exchange–which is on purpose–Maynard interrupted Chhetri as he spoke about the diverse food options that existed when he was younger.

Referencing Russia’s war against Ukraine and how it is threatening many other countries’ ability to supply enough food, Chhetra asked: “What kind of system did we create, was it like that before? There is something wrong,” he said. “I grew up interacting with over 50 different varieties of rice and 10 varieties of corn, and many other things in my backyard. None of those are there at this point in time …”

Maynard interjected: “Can I ask you–is that just nostalgia? Or is that something that’s really important?”

Taking a long pause, Chhetri replied: “I think it is more than important because if we fail to acknowledge … It is not enough to acknowledge–we have to really transform ourselves to bring about a new system as quickly as possible. Otherwise, we are in danger of losing other peoples.”

Watch the whole conversation–and all Global Futures Laboratory Earth Week events–at the Global Futures Laboratory YouTube page. If you are able, attend events in person. Get the details on the Global Futures Laboratory website.



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ASU Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory

ASU Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory

Designing and shaping a future in which Earth will thrive.