Reframe or Relinquish

Originally posted on the 23rd October 2014 via University Copenhagen IARU Sustainability Conference website and reposted with permission from author Jack Fisher

‘The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.’ – Professor Colin Butler referring to the popular Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani’s quote in a 2005 New York Times article named ‘The Breaking Point’.

As scientists within Global Health we often focus on health related climate change challenges by identifying the problems facing populations, but often with little concrete solutions to offer. Unfortunately during the first afternoon of the IARU Sustainable Solutions 2014 conference within the health session titled ‘Elucidating sustainability-health interactions’, played to the same tune of negatively framed solutions.
Flickr: climatesafety
Flickr: climatesafety
Of course Professor Butler’s reference was highly relevant, poignant and hard hitting, however we as health scientists focus too much on the negative aspects surrounding our highly relevant topics. However it doesn’t arouse the sleeping politicians, the sluggish policy makers and the surplus driven businessmen and women of this world.

Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, passionately exclaimed that the 4 things scientists should do to better in disseminating their information to non scientists were to ‘give us facts, adapt language to a risk based framework, help us understand behavioural science and talk in solutions’. The latter being the most important.

Flickr: sekfeps
Flickr: sekfeps

As I learned in an workshop in London only last weekend, with the global advocacy group NCDFREE, negatively framed messages are often greeted with little enthusiasm, little interaction, and most importantly, very little response. Yes, the picture may be bleak. Yes, these global health challenges do need to be highlighted among public and professional domains. Yes, health scientists can’t act upon these without the relevant funding from national and international organisations. However when we talk about climate change in a global context, we have to take Mr Bakken’s comments seriously, and therefore don’t just talk the talk, but actually walk the walk when it comes to multi disciplinary collaborative action.

One potential solution to achieving this could be with the formulation of Planetary Health which was referred to by a number of talks during the afternoon session. The Lancet released a manifesto earlier this year highlighting the role of social medicine and the need to drive away from a capitalist society which drives bio-psycho-social inequalities within societies. More importantly there is specific reference to the need to frame health messages to tailor to different audiences within this crucial agenda.

Flickr: Ben Heine
Flickr: Ben Heine

However it is alarming to find no direct reference to business within this manifesto. The only reference unfortunately is to our ‘tolerance of neoliberalism and transnational forces dedicated to ends far removed from the needs of the vast majority of people, and especially the most deprived and vulnerable, is only deepening the crisis we face.’

It is an all too familiar story that we as health academics tar the whole of the business world with the same brush. Even Katherine Richardson, Chair of the Scientific Steering Committee, University of Copenhagen, referred to Peter Bakken as the ‘bad guy’ during his introduction. Lucky enough he took this reference with a pinch of salt, but emphasised that ‘not all individuals within business are bad guys’. I’m sure we can’t say that all scientists are working for the good of academia.

However this is simply a reality of business. Businessmen and women are centred around creating and driving profits. Scientists are centred around discovering and disseminating new information. However we must overcome these differential dimensional perspectives if we wish to work towards a collective effort against climate change. We both need each other’s knowledge, support, and power if we truly wish for collective social change to enhance human health and the human planet. As health scientists we have to adapt to the way we communicate outside of academia and take the comments that Peter Bakken referred to very seriously. Whether the new concept of Planetary Health will initiate this is debatable. What is a certainty is that we don’t have time to train multiple generations to learn from their predecessors mistakes as this ‘moving target’ could soon become out of sight.

This post was written for the IARU 2014 Global Challenges: Achieving Sustainability conference held in Copenhagen, Denmark. Jack Fisher is a MSc Global Health student at University of Copenhagen. He has no conflicting interests to declare. 

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