The proximity of Valentine’s Day and the plan by a University of Victoria student, Antonia Paquin, to create love letters for the Earth for Valentine’s Day, put me in mind of the work of Dr. Helen Caldicott, an internationally renowned Australian physician and anti-nuclear activist.
Now 80 years old, she sprang to fame in part due to a short film of a lecture she gave on the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Made for Canada’s NFB, If You Love This Planet won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1982 — helped perhaps by the U.S. Justice Department officially labelling it “foreign political propaganda.”
Caldicott was no stranger to controversy. In the 1970s, she helped lead the opposition to French atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific. She went on to lead Physicians for Social Responsibility, a U.S.-based anti-nuclear organization founded in 1961. In the early 1980s, I was an associate medical officer of health in Toronto, and we, too, were inspired by her work, and by the work of the Canadian branch of PSR, which later became Physicians for Global Survival.
Like health departments in many other cities around the world at the time, we did a report on the expected health impacts of a one-megaton nuclear weapon air burst above Toronto. The findings were devastating, shocking the public and politicians alike and contributing to the global movement to limit nuclear weapons, which ultimately led to several treaties to limit nuclear weapons. The international umbrella group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, co-founded by American and Soviet physicians, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for its work.
That work is not over, as the recent decision by the U.S. and Russia to pull out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty demonstrates. Nuclear war remains the greatest single threat to the health of people and myriad other species, and to the survival of human civilization. But we now face an equally serious, slower but more certain threat — human-induced global ecological change, in particular climate change. And once again, physicians have been mobilizing for many years to protect health.
In 1992, PSR expanded its mission to address these global environmental threats, as did Caldicott, whose 1992 book If You Love This Planet was focused not so much on the nuclear threat as on the ecological threat. And in Canada, I was one of the co-founders in 1993 of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, whose mission is to better human health by protecting the planet.
The current president of CAPE is Dr. Courtney Howard, an ER physician based in Yellowknife. She reminds me of Caldicott — smart, passionate, eloquent and seemingly tireless. She is particularly focused on climate change, and has led the Canadian work on the Lancet Climate Countdown Report, an annual international report on the health impacts of climate change.
Most recently, CAPE was on Parliament Hill on Feb. 5, along with representatives from the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, the Canadian Public Health Association and the Urban Public Health Network, calling on federal parties to recognize that climate change is the greatest public-health challenge of the 21st century, and to make climate solutions a priority in the 2019 federal election.
Back to Paquin’s plan for love letters to the Earth. It’s an important idea at two levels. First, it’s a youth-led initiative, part of a growing global movement of young people rising up and saying “enough” — witness the high-school climate strikes, including in Victoria, inspired by the 15-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. I am grateful to the young people who are organizing and leading these strikes.
Second, it’s about changing our relationship with the Earth. We have lost our connection with nature, seeing it as an object apart from us that is there for us to exploit, rather than as something we are part of and dependent upon. If we are to save the Earth and ourselves from ourselves we need to re-establish a reverence for nature, we need to be able to feel the pain we are inflicting on the Earth, we need to love this planet.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.