Talking about planetary health, suggests Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni, is no longer enough. An internal medicine hospitalist at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Surapaneni is a committed advocate for understanding planetary health as a crucial component of human health, and vice versa.
“Science is a tool, and I encourage people in STEM to build a bridge from the ivory tower and bring science to the people,” Surapaneni says. Public forums that incorporate a multiplicity of voices, disciplines, and methodologies are essential in her work to empower individuals and communities to organize towards sustainability.
The University’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing hosted its eighth annual Wellbeing Series this year, and offered a special fall mini-series titled “The Wellbeing Series for Planetary Health.”
“It’s hard to think of a more pressing issue,” Bakken Center Director Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, RN, FAAN, says. Indeed, each of the speakers and performers at the fall Series stressed the urgency of planetary health by foregrounding the ways that the ongoing climate crisis is inextricably linked to public health, including structural racism and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Center convened health workers, climate justice leaders, artists, and activists in a free, three-part virtual series, incorporating live music, panel discussions, and spirited calls for action. Kreitzer notes that because this event series was offered via Zoom, the Center was able to expand audience reach and engagement. Though the measures taken to ensure pandemic safety created physical distance, the Center did not forego the intimacy of an in-person event. One audience member noted, “I learned that Zoom can be creatively harnessed when you take it outdoors. I loved sitting by the campfire and listening to healing music.”
Storytelling illustrates our interdependence
“We are to live as relatives with all that is living,” Dakota poet Strong Buffalo invoked the instruction of Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, in the land acknowledgement that opened the Wellbeing Series. Songwriter and poet Ben Weaver strummed a banjo behind him, and the dulcet harmony was woven with birdsong and the sound of breeze rippling through trees and grasses. This pre-recorded segment of song and poetry placed the concerns of the Wellbeing Series in its context: our shared ecosystem and the cross-cultural, multidisciplinary commitment that is required of global citizens to fight for its wellbeing.
Interdependence arose as a crucial theme not only to understand the consequences of the climate crisis, but also as the means to forge the way forward. “Rather than single solutions made by people in power, the climate movement calls for passionate, powerful people operating in community-engaged movements on the ground,” emphasized Julia Frost Nerbonne, the Executive Director at Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, in her description of effective climate justice strategy, narrative, and action in Part 3 of the Series.
Kira Liu, the Community Engagement Coordinator at Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, describes her work as solutions-focused and story-driven. “Seventy percent of Americans agree that climate change will cause harm, but, more than data, we need the head and the heart. Storytelling is how we meet people where they’re at.”
An Eye for Justice
Sam Grant calls for nothing short of an entire overhauling of the world system in order to establish a mutually reinforcing dynamic between health of the people and health of the planet. The Executive Director of MN350 delivered a rousing presentation in Part 3 of the Wellbeing Series that inspired viewers to heal their relationships to the planet and each other. “Eco-Apartheid,” a term Grant cites from environmental activist Vandana Shiva, denotes the structures of division and domination that have led to current unsustainable patterns of living. For Grant, multiple layers of social transformation need to occur in order for current systems of eco-apartheid to move into ecological and intercultural democracy, decentering a strictly science-based framing of climate issues in favor of an explicitly justice-oriented model.
This macro-level analysis of planetary health as a multi-layered system was echoed in myriad speakers’ impassioned evocations of planetary health as social justice. “Historically, communities of color and low income communities have been excluded from conversations about climate change, despite facing the brunt of its effects. These communities need to be centered,” assessed Liu, whose organization collects and archives personal stories about the climate movement. Liu sees the diversity of perspectives in the climate movement as a strength, and states that it would behoove climate organizers to “lean into” this plurality as a force for change. Recently, Climate Generation published the book Eyewitness: Minnesota Voices on Climate Change, a collection of stories, artwork, and poetry from contributors all across the state. A tool for literary activism, Eyewitness will be delivered to state legislators as an urgent call for united political mobilization towards an issue that truly affects each and every person.
For Dr. Surapaneni, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought issues of equity and justice to the front and center. “There’s an increased awareness that when we continue to exploit our ecosystem, the bill comes due. Because we were all forced to stay indoors, a lot of us have become aware of our interconnectedness and have found out who sees benefits of exploitation and who pays the price.” She advocates for a human-based approach to science; one that does not abandon the data, but uses it to improve the quality of life of communities according to their specific cultural and social needs. Dr. Surapaneni’s work on the State Transportation Advisory Council as an advocate for biking and walking has shown her that even the issue of healthy transportation in communities is rife with social and economic barriers that deter access or inform capacity. Rather than prescribe a universal model of success or health, Dr. Surapaneni hopes that scientists will instead appreciate the value of showing up in person and communicating directly with affected communities so that collaborative, long-term solutions are possible.
An opportunity for change
Winona LaDuke, co-founder of the Native environmental advocacy group Honor the Earth and resident of the White Earth Nation in Northern Minnesota, believes that Minnesotans need and deserve a new Green New Deal. Her work in industrial hemp farming is crucial to her imagining of a world economy that has moved beyond fossil fuels, illustrating what Mary Jo Kreitzer describes as “the importance of thinking globally and acting locally.”
LaDuke’s presentation in Part 3 of the series dovetails nicely with the spirit of hope, collective action, and individual agency throughout the Series. “Consciousness precedes action,” surmises Kreitzer, “and our role at the Bakken Center is to raise awareness of these critical issues and give people information and tools to make decisions in their lives. I may not be able to change the level of gas emissions allowed, but I can choose what kind of car I drive or to ride a bike.”
“The Wellbeing Series touched me spiritually with the visuals, stories, songs, and scientific facts,” wrote one viewer as feedback. The Bakken Center’s presentation of planetary health in both wide-angle and microscopic framing provides ample space for viewers to plug in and make the issue personal. Space to experience climate grief and allow that grief to catalyze one’s actions is held in tandem with scientific data, song, and storytelling.
The Wellbeing Series for Planetary Health shows that for an issue as urgent as planetary wellness, everyone is required to participate as a changemaker. As Sam Grant says, “Each crisis is a transformative opportunity.”