History, Planetary Health, and the Superpower of Long-Term Thinking

About a month ago, I attended the Universitas 21 Workshop on Planetary Health, a gathering of researchers of different backgrounds from twenty-one universities around the world – from Chile to Australia – who came together to discuss how to operationalize their concern for and interest in the growing non-discipline of Planetary Health.

Planetary Health is a movement of scholars from multiple disciplines that breaks disciplinary boundaries to address the increasingly clear reality that human, animal, environmental, and planetary health are all intertwined, and that the continuation of one is dependent on the continuation of all others. It is a (non) field of scholarship very close to my heart, and it was an absolute pleasure to meet many other scholars from backgrounds as diverse as art, microbiology, psychology, and political science who all had a vested interest in growing this topic. One of the most useful parts of it, from my perspective, was learning how and why historians, a group of scholars including many traditionally averse to involvement in contemporary issues, could be absolutely critical to the success of this movement.

An infographic of a person with the planet behidn them, with little bubbles surrounding them describing the many facets of planetary health. Text says "Planetary health broadens health research to include external systems that sustain or threaten human health."
“Infographic: Planetary Health: a new discipline,” The Lancet Planetary Health (accessed March 11, 2022).
[Image description: An outline of a person stands against a background of the Earth, with small bubbles surrounding them in a Rutherford model-style orbit. In these bubbles are things like “climate,” “economy,” “politics,” “land,” etc.]

On the first day, we gathered for a panel on community-centered approaches to planetary health intervention. The panelists all discussed their fascinating work on co-developing functional ecosystem restoration projects, addressing community health concerns, and establishing sustainable solutions to environmental degradation generally alongside the communities who occupy these landscapes. After an early career researcher was invited to talk about his own work, he asked the panelists the extremely important and timely question: “What do you do to prepare for when your involvement ends and the project takes on a life of its own?”


Finally, one of the panelists replied, “That doesn’t happen for us. When we invest in a community, we’re there for fifteen years.”

At which point I promptly yelled at my (muted) computer, “FIFTEEN YEARS IS SUPPOSED TO BE A LONG TIME?????”

My incredulity was rooted in my disciplinary background, but also in my specific academic work. These organizations were influencing infrastructure—planting trees and mangroves and setting up health systems. And I had spent the last seven years of my life trying to demonstrate how these types of large-scale environmental and political programs have massive effects on human health far beyond the lifespan of the social and political regime that constructed them. The sewer systems that determine the environmental health of the entire city of London were first laid in the 1860s. The same is true of the land the British imperial government reclaimed from the sea to create Mumbai. In Melbourne, Robert Hoddle laid the grid-pattern for the city’s orientation in the 1840s. And, while much has been built on top of them, the structure of those systems remains fundamentally the same. The infrastructures of cities were determined by decisions made well over a hundred (and in some cases, a thousand) years ago – almost certainly longer than the members of municipal boards were considering when they assessed their annual budget.

The more I listened to panels throughout the week and talked about this gut reaction with my wonderful, thoughtful co-attendees, however, the more I realized that many, many fields were (understandably) grounded in short-term thinking. Funding cycles encourage short-term deliverables and gains; policy can often only be guaranteed for the length of a single electoral cycle, if that; and more and more, we are being pushed to do something now, before we cross the dreaded 450 ppm “tipping point” into extreme and devastating climate change.

But success in navigating our way out of this planetary crisis is dependent on developing solutions and re-imagining social structures in a way that prioritizes thinking on a longer timescale: centuries or milennia, rather than decades. There are arguably few disciplines so well equipped for this as historians, let alone to think about the multiple overlapping conditions that allow a policy, an innovation, or an idea to succeed or fail, and the consequences of this outcome. And yet, I was the only historian in attendance in a group of over 200 scholars.

As James Dunk, David Jones, Anthony Capon, and Warwick Anderson argued in 2019, historians may have a unique role to play in the field of planetary health.[1] We can look to the past to analyze what methods have been more or less successful in inciting large-scale policy changes in health and environment – they point to antinuclear advocacy and global efforts against AIDS, for example. But it is also the practice of history, the imagination and analysis which both prioritize the recognition of long-term patterns and consequences of human decision-making, and the ability of historians to write that positions us to address planetary health in important ways.

Having spent a week fully engaged with members of other disciplines thinking through planetary health concepts, I would argue that these skills are absolutely invaluable in building awareness and effectiveness in the planetary health movement. Historians, if they choose to enter the conversations where academic questions are formulated and policy decisions made, can become the consistent and insistent voice asking (and answering) “But what are the long-term implications of this decision? What worked before, and what needs to change now to avoid the same mistakes?” Equally importantly, we can persuasively and accessibly communicate why these decisions are important through acts of “well-informed imagination – and evocative writing.”[2]

This use of our particular skillset will undoubtedly lead to stepping out of our comfort zones – to engaging types of material and disciplinary languages that are unfamiliar to us; and to stretching the historical imagination forward in addition to backward. But as the emergence of active organizations like Historians for the Future indicate, there are many of us ready to do this, with the understanding (especially in the wake of the most recent IPCC report) that the fate of the entire planet hangs in the balance. So my conclusion, as I foray further into the woods of interdisciplinary planetary thought, is this: Historians, our way of thinking is valuable. It is sorely needed. And it is time to get to work.

[1] James H. Dunk, David S. Jones, Anthony Capon, and Warwick Anderson, “Human Health on an Ailing Planet – Historical Perspectives on Our Future,” New England Journal of Medicine 381 (2019): 778-782.

[2] Ibid.

*Cover image: Kootenay National Park in British Columbia. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: The snow-capped rocky mountains curve away from the camera under a cloudless blue sky; large pines stand in the forefront of the picture. A road follows a similar curve to the mountains in the front left of the picture.]

A note from the author: If you are interested in getting involved in interdisciplinary work for the planet but aren’t sure how to get started, please contact either myself (emily@envhistnow.com) or Elizabeth Hameeteman (elizabeth@envhistnow.com) about opportunities.

Edited by Natascha Otoya and reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.

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