Planetary health is a relatively new concept to the medical community.
It recognizes that the natural world or planet has limits for processing toxins, not unlike how our human bodies need to regulate. When that limitation is crossed, disease sets in.
Our planetary body is sick and showing us the symptoms we call climate change. The reasons for our illness are plentiful. The climate crisis is directly connected to declining biodiversity, air and water pollution, land degradation, ocean acidification and environmental racism. Too often, the narrative on climate change is portrayed solely as a scientific, economic or political conundrum. It is vitally important for a health and social justice lens to be brought into the mainstream conversation.
A simplified definition of planetary health is ‘the health of humanity and the natural world.’ This concept is certainly not a discovery of academia. Indigenous knowledge keepers have honoured the sky, the earth, the plants, animals and insects as an interwoven web of life since time immemorial. And the dark corners of Canadian history are marked with attempts to wipe out Indigenous ways of knowing by labeling them as mystical, unimportant and demonizing cultural practices. Lands and waterways have been altered and exploited under the guise of ‘progress.’
Irreverent colonialist agendas continue to exist and we see a value for consumption and conquest over kinship and connection.
Environmental racism happens when the government and industry allocate polluting or damaging enterprises on a disproportionate scale, without any regard or consultation with the affected communities. The historic and current situation of Canada is stained with examples of environmental racism. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation is predisposed to a higher than average risk of developing respiratory-related illnesses and certain cancers due to the toxic air quality created by the 60 petrochemical companies known collectively as Chemical Valley. The Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, known as Grassy Narrows First Nation, has seen decades of illness related to mercury poisoning, a result of industry dumping toxic waste upstream of the Indigenous community. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and allies continue to oppose the oil and gas industries that threaten their local watersheds, traditional foods, medicines and Indigenous way of life.
It is well documented that Indigenous, Black, and racialized populations have greater health risks related to environmental health inequities. Exposure to heavy metals and fine particulate matter are associated with cancer, birth defects, and organ damage. In addition to environmental factors, structural inequities related to employment, healthcare, and community affluence further determine the health of racialized populations. Such health inequities can be seen in data emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic whereby Indigenous, Black, and immigrant populations have experienced higher rates of infection and death. With the global prediction for food insecurity, diminished air quality and more prevalence of infectious disease, the effects of climate change will affect the most marginalized citizens on a disproportionate scale.
We are now living in a time in which human activity is the principal force shaping the biophysical conditions on the planet. This has led to an excessive burden on the planet’s systems and the capacity for maintaining homeostasis or balance. The consequence is far-reaching and will impact the most marginalized first. Health equity and social justice need to be part of the climate change conversation if we are to reduce the impact of our collective disease and move forward on this planet in a sustainable and just way.
Megan Tomlinson R.N. is a member of the Comox Valley Nurses for Health & the Environment www.cvnhe.org