In 1948, the World Health Organization defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”
I find it a good and simple definition. One of its strengths is that it fully recognises both mental and social well-being, with the latter inevitably bringing in our relationships with others — our families, communities and society as a whole.
However, I would make an important change by adding environmental well-being.
One aspect of environmental well-being is having a healthy local environment — clean air, water and soil and a healthy built environment. The other aspect is ecological well-being, something that was not so apparent 70 years ago. But today, we recognise that our health is dependent ultimately on the well-functioning of the Earth’s natural systems. No health without planetary health, we might say.
And yet, that simple concept seems to elude most of our political and corporate elite, and millions of our fellow citizens. We act as if we can continue to exploit and pollute the Earth beyond its ability to withstand such harm, without consequence for us.
But I have been heartened in recent weeks by a number of examples showing a strong interest in health and well-being as a motivating and driving force for positive change. For example, I sit on the Planning Committee for the Atlantic Summer Institute, an annual summer school on P.E.I. focused on the mental well-being of infants, children and youth. This year’s theme is The Great Reconnect, and is focused on how we help young people form strong connections with their families, each other, their schools and communities, and with nature.
I have also been involved in discussions about a number of local activities that all, at their roots, are about improving human and planetary well-being. One local group, brought together by Steve Woolrich of Rethink Urban (and an occasional fellow columnist), is discussing how to address community safety and well-being in a humane and compassionate way. Another group is looking at how to create more livable, sustainable and healthy urban environments through creating “gentle density.”
This concept, championed by Vancouver-based urban planner Brent Toderian, is about “density done well.” In a 2013 article, he noted that density isn’t just a downtown thing, but includes “artfully adding to the inner city beyond the downtown, and building smarter suburbs that are more mixed, compact, walkable, and transit friendly.”
His long list of benefits ends with “improving public health, diversity, creativity, safety and vibrancy.”
Finally, this past week, I was also able to participate in the online annual conference of the Planetary Health Alliance in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The alliance grew out of the 2015 report of the Lancet-Rockefeller Commission on Planetary Health, which established this new field of work. Planetary health is understood by the alliance as “focused on characterizing the human health impacts of human-caused disruptions of Earth’s natural systems.” Given that, you might have expected a strong focus on science and data about health and ecology.
So you would, perhaps, have been surprised by the focus of the opening session, which was all about the values needed to take us to and through the Great Transition to a world “where all people thrive by protecting and regenerating Earth’s natural systems for generations to come.”
The keynote speaker was Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York and an Indigenous woman. She talked movingly about the wisdom of both Indigenous and scientific knowledge for achieving our shared goals, stressing that “sustainability is not about looking for ways to go on taking,” but that we need to listen to what the Earth asks of us.
She was followed by speakers on Indigenous values, Earth ethics, religion and the Buddhist-rooted Bhutanese concept of measuring and being guided by Gross National Happiness. Embedded in many of their presentations was the need for a value shift that leads us to reject the current economic system and move to a new well-being economy.
Ultimately, societies, governments, businesses and communities have to focus on well-being — why else would they exist? Happily, in many ways and places, the conversation is starting, the move to a focus on creating well-being is underway.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.