Planetary Health and Collective Wisdom

July 20, 2023

Reading time: 34 minutes

Authors: Erin Dixon (Gizhagate), Caroline Kisia, Revathi Sharma Kollegala, Wanda Krause, Camilla Alay Llamas, Rachelle Fox, Erin Gleeson, and Jennifer Garard.

How can we weave together collective wisdom, Two-Eyed Seeing, and digital age transformations for planetary health?

In 2015, the Lancet Commission published their findings on planetary health, sparking a global discussion around the current state of human health, the health of the planet, and the interconnected nature of these systems:

“By almost any measure, human health is better now than at any time in history. Life expectancy has soared […] and death rates in children younger than 5 years of age have decreased […] But these gains in human health have come at a high price: the degradation of nature’s ecological systems on a scale never seen in human history. A growing body of evidence shows that the health of humanity is intrinsically linked to the health of the environment, but by its actions humanity now threatens to destabilise the Earth’s key life-support systems.

As a Commission, we conclude that the continuing degradation of natural systems threatens to reverse the health gains seen over the last century. In short, we have mortgaged the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present” (The Lancet, 2015).

Given the concerns raised in the Commission’s findings, what concrete measures can we take to alter the current disastrous trajectory? How can we ensure that initiatives focused on health produce positive outcomes for people and the planet? While planetary health issues are global in nature, it’s at the local level where action is taken and impacts are felt. To ensure effective and equitable planetary health initiatives, we must translate global-level knowledge and connect it to local contexts. This requires a deep understanding of local realities, cultures, and practices. Interventions must be culturally sensitive and respectful of Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ knowledge systems and take into account the unique social, economic, and environmental influences at play. Local actors, including community members, traditional knowledge holders, and leaders must be involved in co-creating solutions that are appropriate and relevant and that address existing power imbalances. Collective decision-making is critical for successful outcomes. The confluence between planetary health and collective wisdom lies in a shared recognition of the interconnectedness of complex systems. Both approaches stress that solutions to global challenges must be collaborative, interdisciplinary, and inclusive of diverse perspectives and experiences.

In this article, we explore the role of Indigenous Knowledge and Science and collective intelligence in weaving new narratives that uplift reconciliation, rights, and responsibilities in the context of planetary health and discuss deepening global leadership and employing integral frameworks that strive to connect between consciousness, behaviour, culture, and systems. We relate these threads to the digital age transformations underway by examining, among other things, the role of education and participatory action research in leveraging the power of digital technologies for thriving communities and a flourishing planet.

A beautiful rainbow stretches across a green forest scene with bright coloured flowers. Binary code is overlaid on the right half of the image to represent the digital age.

Silos of practice

One of the biggest issues when looking at planetary health systems from a global perspective are the current structural silos keeping different communities of practice isolated from each other. For example, in Western medical science, the focus remains almost exclusively on human health, only occasionally moving beyond humans to include a One Health approach. Environmental health approaches focus heavily on the impacts of environmental change on human health. These types of approaches are intrinsically different to a holistic, Indigenous, and integral understanding of Mother Earth as connected to the health of all.  

In the case of conventional Western medicine, we see doctors and medical professionals who are competitive in their knowledge of medicine but often don’t have a strong understanding of the determinants or factors of health that lie outside their medical training. There is a noticeable disconnect because current perspectives on health are largely determined and advocated for by people or institutions in higher resource settings. It takes, on average, 15 years for a doctor to complete their training, during which time they are overworked, seeing overwhelming numbers of patients. There is little time outside the medical program to study independently and incorporate other knowledge systems. On top of this, a lot of the textbooks used to train medical professionals around the globe, more often than not, originate from the United States or Europe and contain no information on Indigenous Knowledge or even place-specific local knowledge on health and disease. As a result, there are silos not only in theoretical approaches but also in practice. For example, many medical professionals may not understand that healing in the context of human health requires much more than placing bandages, sutures or giving medicine.

Even Western sciences are not seen from a holistic and systems view, whereas – again in the context of human health – family systems, intergenerational systems, cultural systems, and environmental systems, among other systems, are in actuality determinants of health and disease (Mate, 2012). If we take into consideration culture as part of health, we can see a range of effects on how people define health and how they become healthy or contract illness or disease. Additionally, health problems find their origin in people’s daily lives and in what we call social determinants of health, such as poverty, equal access to healthcare, lack of education, stigma, discrimination, and racism. These determinants are contributing factors of health inequities. These non-medical conditions shape daily life and can influence health in many ways. People also communicate illnesses in ways that are culturally described, such as the causes of illness, which could mean social and spiritual dysfunction or disconnectivity to nature in some context. It’s very important to understand that a patient’s culture will influence interpretations of illness and ways of treatment. Dr. Judith van de Kamp’s research in Ghana highlights how individuals explain what is wrong when they feel ill and the profound effect this has on their behaviours in health seeking. There is an inextricable association between illness and the conditions in a person’s familial, social, political, cultural or economic environment, including the levels of stress due to a multitude of other sources.

So, how can we change current medical practices and break free from the structural silos preventing more holistic approaches to healthcare? First, we need to acknowledge that health and understanding of disease causation is context specific and we must ensure that people with diverse perspectives are welcomed or allowed to voice their ideas. Before that happens though, we have to create spaces that are open, welcoming, and that can influence movement building. In order to create these open spaces, we need active citizenship that acknowledges and welcomes diverse perspectives. For active citizenship to flourish, planetary health education should be embedded in the curriculum (as early as possible) to help societal transition from siloed to transdisciplinary approaches. Second, when we think about public health, we have to also begin to think about how it integrates the material, the biological, the social, and the cultural aspects and accept the complexity that lies within this approach. Third, we need to explore how we can achieve the highest standards of health, while at the same time protecting the state of the natural resources on which it depends. Our health and well-being is not disconnected from the health and well-being of the rest of the world. The climate crisis can add an estimated 250,000 deaths, pollution of the environment not only affects the space we live in, but also affects the plants and animals we depend on for our food. It’s essential we take care of our land, our seas, our soil, our air, and our animals among other things. And the best way to do this is by tapping into and harnessing the power of collective knowledge from all groups and beings that reside here on Earth.

Indigenous Peoples worldwide have recognized the limits of the current concepts of non-Indigenous systems on health. In particular, Indigenous Peoples address the link between specific social cultural realities and health outcomes. If we look into the dynamics of health, there are overlapping elements and some are outside the field of biomedicine. As discussed above, medical professionals are only one aspect of health. But in the process of working in silos, Western and traditional medicine are often seen as being in competition with each other, instead of being complementary. It is important to note that this is not applicable to all contexts globally. For example, Thailand employs the use of traditional healing practices in parallel to Western medical practices within their formal healthcare systems. However, for the most part, Indigenous Peoples remain unacknowledged and unaccounted for within current health systems, making it difficult to formulate policies on health disparity and initiatives. And this is unfortunate because Indigenous Peoples are effective promoters and replicators of their own knowledge and technologies. This is why we should ensure the planetary health movement is founded in step with collective wisdom and Two-Eyed Seeing. Two-Eyed Seeing is a guiding principle developed by Mi’kmaw Elders Albert and Murdena Marshall (2012). It embraces learning “to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western ways of knowing, and to use both eyes together for a holistic and truly informed perspective.”

Illustration: two puzzle pieces fitted together. One is a blue puzzle piece with an orange and yellow coloured eye on it. The other is a green puzzle piece with a blue and white coloured eye on it. Concept represents Two-Eyed Seeing.

Interconnectedness and Two-Eyed Seeing

Interconnectedness lies at the heart of planetary health and collective wisdom. This concept recognizes the intricate relationships between the cosmos, natural world, human societies, and individual wellbeing. Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems have long recognized this interconnectedness and provide valuable insights into the holistic approaches required to promote sustainable and equitable environmental and public health outcomes. However, as discussed in the article, “The determinants of planetary health: An Indigenous consensus perspective” by Dr. Nicole Redvers et al. (2022), “Traditional knowledges are not meant to be an assortment of information that can be simply merged with western scientific knowledge systems.”

Indigenous Knowledge lives as a holistic system of beliefs, values, practices, and experiences that encompass a deep understanding of the natural world and the connections between the physical environment, spiritual practices, languages, and social structures. Indigenous Knowledge frameworks that evolved through generations of observation, experimentation, and adaptation, recognize how the health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities are intrinsically linked to the health of the planet and how all these systems rely on each other to maintain balance and harmony. To understand more deeply this concept, we can look directly at “The determinants of planetary health: an Indigenous consensus perspective,” which itself exists as a living body of work brought forward by a “group of Indigenous scholars, practitioners, land and water defenders, respected Elders, and knowledge-holders” who “came together to define the determinants of planetary health from an Indigenous perspective.” Through the course of this collective knowledge-gathering, three “overarching levels of interconnected determinants, in addition to ten individual-level determinants, were identified as being integral to the health and sustainability of the planet, Mother Earth” (Redvers et al., 2022). These determinants are a call to action prompted by the “continuing strain against [Indigenous] sovereignty” caused by “the increasing effects of global environmental change within [Indigenous] territories, including climate change and pollution, and by threats and impositions against [Indigenous] land and water rights.” These determinants provide a clear framework and understanding of the role of collective wisdom in the sphere of planetary health.

Illustration of the interconnected determinants on a spiral with arrows that show how the Mother Earth-level determinants, Interconnecting determinants, and Indigenous Peoples’ level determinants all work in a reciprocal fashion with each other.
Source: Redvers et al. (2022). The Lancet Planetary Health.

The interconnected determinants are structured as follows (Redvers et al., 2022):

  • Mother Earth level determinants
    • Respect of the feminine
    • Ancestral legal personhood designation
  • Interconnecting level determinants
    • Human interconnectedness within Nature
    • Self and community relationships
    • The modern scientific paradigm
    • Governance and law
  • Indigenous Peoples’ level determinants
    • Indigenous land tenure rights
    • Indigenous languages
    • Indigenous Peoples’ health
    • Indigenous Elders and children

To understand this interwoven perspective, first we need to collectively recognize and talk about Mother Earth, our original mother. We need to see planetary health as a scientific concept to hold the one who first gave us life. One of the major issues Indigenous Peoples face from colonial violence is the destruction of matriarchal systems. We find this idea explored in bodies of work from Dr. Vandana Shiva around ecofeminism and speaking about the integral link of bringing back that knowledge, Reconciliation Canada have spent over three years doing research with Indigenous women across Canada asking not only what is the role of women in planetary health, but also around ideas of a new economy, and Dr. Dara Kelly out of Simon Fraser University has done some beautiful writing around ancestral systems – weaving Maori wisdom across and honoring all the different work that’s happening in that realm.

Another interrelated thread of research happening at both the community level and in universities, focuses on the concept of ancestral legal personhood designation for rivers and for all Nature with Indigenous Peoples’ stewarding this relationship on the ground. For example, “the Whanganui River Claims Settlement has granted legal personhood to the Whanganui River and the Protection Act 2017 legally recognises the Yarra River (the traditional name is Willip-gin Birrarung Murron) as a living entity in Australia” (Redvers et al., 2022). In Canada, the University of Victoria has a movement around decolonizing water. And we see a lot of scholarship starting to gather around meaning making, with Dr. John Borrows, one of the world’s leading scholars on Indigenous law and a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation in Ontario, researching how to bring Indigenous law into interplay with these other systems.

Outside academia, Regen Foundation – the non-profit arm of Regen Network that “supports diverse communities with ideas and technologies which integrate ecological, economic, and human well-being” – has been experimenting with combining these legal rights of nature with customizable eco credits through a “global network of grassroots DAOs to ensure climate finance ultimately supports sovereign regenerative bioregional economies” (Regen Foundation, 2023). DAO stands for Decentralized Autonomous Organization, a “type of bottom-up entity structure with no central authority,” using emerging technology where members “own tokens of the DAO” and can “vote on initiatives for the entity. Smart contracts are implemented for the DAO and the code governing the DAO’s operations is publicly disclosed” (Investopedia, 2023). For the Regen Foundation, they have a mandate “to distribute 30% of the total pool of $REGEN tokens, earmarked for non-commercial stakeholders. Through a process of enDAOment, [they] donate tokens to groups of farmers, Indigenous Nations and other non-profit partners.” By taking this collaborative approach, the “future of climate finance is community owned and governed” (Regen Foundation, 2023).

Screenshot of Regen Foundation website
Source: Screenshot of Regen Foundation website

How does this DAO technology work on the ground? In this system, different groups of Indigenous communities who collectively take care of the health of one river (that stands as its own legal entity) co-own the system and receive grants for the work they do, which in turn benefits the health of those communities. The river itself is represented digitally as a DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization), but the collection of Indigenous communities, they are its stewards. By using this DAO technology, based on the health of the river at that moment and the health of the different communities, insights can automatically be given to make data-driven decisions on the ground. Combining all of this data allows communities to ask questions, such as: “Should we be cleaning up upstream this time or should we look downstream because that’s where the fish are dying? And if it’s downstream, it’s the responsibility of one particular Nation. If it’s upstream, it’s the other Nation. And they’re the ones who have to do the work. And how are each one of their health metrics doing? Do we have a difference in any of the metal concentrations, for instance, on the banks of the river?” In this way, Indigenous communities can have a say in exactly how financing goes to climate and planetary health measures.

Dr. Lyla June Johnston, an Indigenous musician, scholar, and community organizer of Diné, Tsétsêhéstâhese and European lineages talks about how our systems can work with nature. So how do we transform? How do we decenter humans? How do we, when we’re looking at pathways forward or futurisms, use knowledges to not only protect but expand habitat – designing for perpetuity, designing for beyond generations we can see, and remembering beyond generations we think we can remember?

Source: TEDx Talks

Along with nature, we have to think about the modern scientific paradigm. Dr. Leroy Little Bear, a Blackfoot physicist, speaks about the differences between Western and Indigenous science and their concepts of time and space and place and how this affects our relationships to the planet and each other. Dr. Little Bear (2016) also talks about language and how, “all of the metaphysics are caught in the language. The language acts as a repository for all of that knowledge” and addresses the reluctance for Western science to acknowledge Indigenous Knowledge as science.

Source: Federation HSS

These issues are reflected in the recommendations from the World Virtual Indigenous Circle on Open Science and the Decolonization of Knowledge (2020). Dr. Lorna Wanósts’a7 Williams, esteemed member of the Lil’wat First Nation and leader in Indigenous language revitalization and education, was host for the Circle. The report from this collaborative Circle calls for the following key recommendations – which intersect with the recommendations for planetary health:

  • Acknowledge Indigenous Knowledge as science
  • Recognize Indigenous spiritual practices as vital to guide and inform Indigenous Knowledge
  • Support the revitalization of Indigenous cultures and languages, recognizing that they are integral to Indigenous Knowledge
  • Work towards an understanding of science that prioritizes relationality – relationships with people, community, land and all Creation
  • Recognize an Indigenous conception of time that ensures longevity of relationships and sustainability for future generations

All of these frameworks and recommendations stress the importance of the collective consciousness – that it’s not just about the health of a person, it’s about community wellbeing, and the wellbeing of the planet. For Indigenous youth, this is expressed as: connection to land, connection to self, connection to spirituality, and connection to community.

Local community connections

In a global sense, this idea of connection to community means to think holistically about how to address the complex issues involved in health outcomes. As concepts around planetary health continue to advance and as research in the field advances, there is a need to listen and begin to discover each other’s work, leveraging on local knowledge as a source of local solutions to the challenges faced by the local communities in order to provide those communities with the necessary resources. We know local communities have lived for eons and there exists extensive local knowledge and practices that have helped propagate the species while allowing for natural habitats to regenerate. But with a rising population having access to smaller and smaller spaces, coupled with issues around modernization and urbanization, many of these practices have been challenged.

In Kenya, SHOFCO – a grassroots movement working in the urban informal settlements – supports communities in managing their own health. When you think of the broad determinants of health, there are many issues that impact wellbeing, particularly in a slum setting. We see overcrowded and poor housing. There are issues of scarcity when it comes to access to water. Sometimes, more than 400 people are sharing one toilet and bathroom. In many cases, interventions have drilled boreholes in an effort to provide water to communities, but now as a result of groundwater depletion of aquifers, the search for water requires deeper drilling. And we know that just access to water itself has important linkages to childhood illnesses and diarrheal diseases that in many cases are waterborne. Air pollution remains a major issue due to the use of fuels in limited spaces. For example, one tiny space can serve as the cooking, seating, and sleeping areas simultaneously. As a result, we find indoor air pollution and all the respiratory illnesses that come along with that. Communities also experience outdoor air pollution caused by dump sites releasing various gasses in the neighbourhood due to challenges with sanitation, along with polluting emissions from vehicles. We find issues around extreme poverty, undernutrition, mental health challenges that were made worse during the recent COVID pandemic, and various other cultural and spiritual concerns that intersect with all of these.

Screenshot of Shofco website
Source: Screenshot of SHOFCO website

Population displacement and rural-urban migration creates challenges when it comes to the health of communities. With urbanization, we see people moving away from eating healthier traditional foods to eating larger quantities of processed foods. In particular, we observe increases in the consumption of red meat, dairy, starches, sugar, etc. In parallel, within both urban and rural settings, we note an increase in illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and other lifestyle related diseases. Other difficulties occur when displaced populations – fleeing climate-related disasters or armed conflict (conflicts often triggered by a fight over natural resources) – take refuge in forested areas. Aside from the destruction of the environment that happens when trees are cut down to provide shelter building materials or fuel for cooking food, we also have the problem of zoonotic diseases and the ability of illnesses to cross from animals to humans. So, we need to think of ecosystem health as a whole and examine the different, intersecting layers that touch upon several social determinants of health, along with the impact within our natural ecosystem when we overexploit what the Earth has to offer. For frontline workers, as we talk about localization at the global level, planetary health offers an opportunity to advocate for a global and a national response and for subsidies in many different sectors of the economy, including in the areas of energy, agriculture, water, fisheries, and health to support local communities to better be able to thrive in spite of all the changes.

Financial and digital interventions

Financial issues play a major role in outcomes related to planetary health, including climate-related disasters. The current reality is communities face serious shortfalls of money to manage disaster risk and reduce it. In addition to the lack of funds, there aren’t enough systems designed to scale. On a global level right now, especially in the context of the UN Climate Conference COP27 in Egypt, one big agenda item looked at loss and damage financing, which is relevant to conversations on the intersection of human health and planetary health. For a lot of developing economies and emerging economies, many of the serious health problems faced in those countries are inevitably tied to climate change, even though those countries and regions have not played a big role in creating the climate crisis. For example, the whole continent of Africa is a net carbon sink, which means they have barely contributed to global warming, but are experiencing the catastrophic effects of it. Without loss and damage financing, a lot of these countries do not have sufficient funds to work on health systems or disaster management, which, if they did, might reduce some of the health issues caused by these extreme climate events. There are philanthropic organizations working in this area, but communities don’t just need public sector funding or philanthropy. They need innovative instruments that combine these different streams of revenue because there isn’t enough money on the ground.

Cultural scaling with involvement from community leaders is also required as local leaders have the power to disseminate information in the local cultural context and connect people to resources. For example, many conventional global communication strategies fail to produce the intended results on the ground. Whereas locally guided messaging in the natural style of the community in question, including oral histories, songs or more “close to the heart” styles of communication, can have far-reaching impact. SEWA – a grassroots movement of women’s cooperatives with over 1.8 million members as of date – uses this successful strategy. People sing songs every time they come together, whether to make decisions or to pool resources. They have street plays on the local level and it allows community leaders to drive change without feeling overwhelmed by the challenges they face. So, we need to allow space at the global level for local leaders and local communities to have their voices heard and listened to. This includes conscious thinking about culture and the language used, holding convenings at different scales, and transforming the framing of conversations by elevating transdisciplinary and dynamic approaches.

Screenshot of Sewa website
Source: Screenshot of SEWA website

Local leaders also have the power to learn from the global scale and connect it on a local level. But, for this to be effective across communities, both financial assistance and the right technology systems need to be in place. It is in light of this situation that the Regen Foundation designed their collaborative enDAOment model, mentioned previously, that supports “climate justice initiatives with DAO technologies” (Regen Foundation, 2023). For this model of financing to scale, all the systems within it need to be interoperable. Too many technologies and information systems do not work together, creating insurmountable barriers for local communities. In short, we need commitments from all players, whether public or private, big or small, to make information open, to make it interoperable where you can combine all the data and derive the meaningful insights that community leaders need. In this way, we can effectively connect human health with planetary health by using technology in ethical and beneficial ways.

A concrete example of this structure can be found in the work the Regen Foundation is doing with “Women’s Savings Group” as a means of scaling community leadership. In Kenya, these groups are called Chamas. The emerging DAO technology they use allows people on different channels to get together and align on decisions based on data. But Chamas are not only about decision-making, they are also a financial vehicle. Women who belong to Chamas can get loans and grants even if they don’t have an individual bank account. So, this data-driven collaborative system removes barriers that can directly impact the health and wellbeing of those involved. And when looking at issues of scaling for planetary health, this is an interesting social structure to explore because there are a lot of Savings Groups in regions across Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. If they are considered community leaders, then we have a very powerful vehicle for connecting local communities to global systems.

Planetary health from a global leadership perspective

In which ways might we engage and leverage the interplay of the individual, local communities and global systems to help us address planetary health? What is it we need to focus on? How can we make the shifts required to move forward in ways that help heal and nurture people and planet? Due to the complex nature and interlinking systems of planetary health, we might critically consider global leadership through following an integral perspective as one way to see, be, and act holistically. To address complex challenges and wicked problems for planetary health requires leadership capacities, practices, and competencies that are “guided by systems principles, an understanding of globalization forces, insight into how to support vibrant civil societies, and, significantly, awareness of global mental models and worldviews that are diverse and anchored in wisdom” (Krause, 2023, para. 2).

Global leadership is concerned with capacities and the developing of competencies to lead oneself and others with an understanding of complex global systems. Wicked problems impact planetary health and are global issues (Atleo, 2011) and global leadership guided by wisdoms are needed. It is important to remember, though, that the wellbeing of all communities and the planet are part and parcel of all individuals’ wellbeing and health. The Integral theory can help us envision new ways to bridge the gap from global to local. This perspective is based on Ken Wilber’s work, which brings in five aspects. These follow the AQAL framework as part of Integral theory, which stands for: all quadrants, all levels, lines, states, and types. This article highlights one of the five towards a holistic approach to understanding how to navigate and lead within complex adaptive systems that are  part of the broader cosmos. When we seek to address planetary health issues, we tend to focus on the external aspects of the AQAL framework – the external individual behaviour quadrant and collective systems quadrant, as located on the right side of the AQAL model of Integral theory. While these latter two are undoubtedly important areas, they are not the only areas to which we must pay attention. It is equally important to consider the internal quadrants on the left-hand side, which focus on consciousness at the individual level and culture at the collective scale. 

Image sourced from Segatori, 2017 - "Ken Wilber’s All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) model is the basic framework of Integral Theory. It suggests that all human knowledge and experience emerges within four primordial perspectives that can be mapped along the dimensions of 'interior vs exterior' and 'individual vs collective'."
Source: Image and caption from Segatori, 2017 – “Ken Wilber’s All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) model is the basic framework of Integral Theory. It suggests that all human knowledge and experience emerges within four primordial perspectives that can be mapped along the dimensions of ‘interior vs exterior’ and ‘individual vs collective’.”

Considering the consciousness quadrant (upper-left on the AQAL framework), we can explore what worldviews we may be centering as dominant in our consciousness and explore possibilities of decentering these or engaging with other worldviews. In this process, we often have to unlearn before we can see and connect with other perspectives. Deeply exploring the consciousness quadrant requires envisioning ourselves acting purposefully while at the same time understanding what things we need to unlearn and what knowledge we need to grow and embody. Typically, in both academia and in practice, we use linear thinking and approaches. Instead, we can embrace a more holistic and global mindset and approach. Going beyond the global may even be possible if we include the cosmos. Again, this is not a linear process as the cosmos is both within and without the individual and human collective. To aid in tapping into the consciousness quadrant, we can ask ourselves a series of questions:

  • What values are we holding?
  • Are there values that need to shift a little or be infused with others to do better at supporting planetary health?
  • What is our purpose?
  • How can we motivate ourselves towards a particular goal for planetary health? 

For the culture quadrant (lower-left on the AQAL framework), we can explore how we can network together. Often we think of collectives as organizations, and those are integral aspects as well. However, what is needed most critically, at a time when planetary health is being eroded at great speed with devastating consequences, are competencies for adaptiveness, resilience, and navigating complexity. We might, then, examine how we can connect based on what we are able to contribute in the moment and in-context locally, whether that’s our expertise, our material benefits, financing, or physical presence to take emergent action aligned with what is needed: kindness, care, or our wisdom. Networking, by bringing our best and developing our emergent inner selves to co-create and navigate the complexities in a connected manner that builds on our strengths, is often highly effective.

As to the behaviour quadrant (upper-right on the AQAL framework), we can explore how our behaviours or habits may be in sync with our worldview – or not. It’s important to identify the disconnects. For example, if we absolutely believe in recycling but our behaviour is not aligned with that belief, then we need to think about how to bring our actions into alignment with our inner knowing and belief around recycling. How is our being translating to our doing. How can we be more intentional about the acts that support our sense and purpose for regenerating and nurturing the health of our planet? How might our love for Mother Earth be expressed in the way we conduct ourselves?

The systems quadrant (lower-right on the AQAL framework), as part of the broader macro context, includes the socio-economic and political systems in which we are operating. These systems exist at multiple levels – they are nested within one another. It is important to keep in mind the need to connect the local to the global, with global issues having a strong influence on our behaviours, individual thinking and perceiving, as well as on mechanisms to come together as collectives to co-create. These aspects are all important determinants of planetary health and can act as drivers of change in so far as they might structure, constrain, or enable actions and influence local worldviews, acting as an interface across different levels of the nested systems. Some drivers may appear to have minimal influence at first, but given the right conditions or in combination with certain variables can become key considerations for navigating and leading for planetary health (Krause, 2023). In addition, we might explore the macro-level drivers and dynamics in order to better understand how to lead in the sharing of knowledge systems around the world (bridging Global North and Global South, East and West) in ways that prioritize addressing the widening gaps of inequity and environmental degradation, as well as the continued and current forms and mechanisms of slavery, control, colonization, and labour and resource extraction (Krause, 2023). 

The Integral theory perspective offers us a framework to support how we might lead ourselves and others with a more holistic understanding of complex global systems for planetary health. The Lancet Commission, by Whitmee et al (2015), has highlighted three failures we need to consider in our planning for planetary health. One is empathy and our conceptual frameworks. In other words, broadening our concepts to be more holistic in our approaches and focusing on empathy by connecting with others, especially those who are marginalized or those who are more impacted by climate change. Considering global leadership or the capacities to lead in our times, we offer five ways we can categorize competencies for planetary health:

  1. Future Orientation – Capacity to plan for a better more inclusive peaceful future.
  2. Self Leadership – Courage to take the lead, rethink one’s own world views, ability to see new perspectives, new meanings, understanding bias, understand mental modes, empathy, compassion, caring.
  3. Culture – Tolerance, equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging, teamwork, intercultural, cross-cultural.
  4. Agency – Hope, refusal, embracing of diversity, future thinking, skills, tools.
  5. Systems – Being, doing and acting that encompasses the wider world; integral; see how global is differentiated; understanding of the political and economic structures and influences, comprehending ‘one-ness’ in action.

To develop these competencies, we might consider first developing a future orientation. Another aspect the Lancet Commission touches on is our tendency to think about the here and now, and little about the future. As Milkoreit explains, “Individuals are not able to feel and anticipate an imagined future with the same intensity that accompanies their memories of the past or their experience of the present” (2017, p.18). This short-sightedness impacts how we think, react and plan. Most of the time when we’re addressing challenges, whether related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or more consciously the SDGs in relation to enhancing planetary health, we think only about the now. We also tend to think in siloed ways, as described earlier. We need to expand that horizon. We need to braid a new future. However, throughout this process, we must also remember those who came before us, what they have done, and how we can build upon the foundations they have created. From an Indigenous perspective, we may consider the concept of seven generations. In defining what seven generations entail, some view this as seven generations ahead, some as three generations behind our current generation and three generations forward (Whyte, 2018). The main idea, however, is that we do not just consider ourselves when making decisions, planning, and taking actions towards healing and planetary health. 

Another aspect the Lancet Commission focuses on is inequity – the fact that we need to address inequity when thinking about planetary health. Throughout this article, we have spoken to issues related to inequity and how to move forward using equity, diversity, and inclusion as the basis for all decision-making, planning, and acting. As part of self leadership (individual consciousness), empathy, compassion, and caring are key to global leadership. The fuller embodiment of these qualities can help us mitigate inequity and also build bridges between local and global communities of practice. Considering agency (external behaviour), at the same time, we must make space for agency around refusal. For example, Indigenous Peoples or local communities may use their agency to refuse a global initiative because they understand it will not work as intended within their geographic, economic, and cultural context. Dr. Carole McGranahan is a leading scholar on the concept of refusal and how it can promote innovative ways of navigating macro systems drivers (the external macro systems). She notes: “Refusals illuminate limits and possibilities, especially but not only of the state and other institutions.” We should not view refusal as a negative concept, but a necessary process when weaving together collective futures. We must focus on innovation and explore different techniques and technologies and perspectives and governance structures. We must create open spaces where everyone is welcome to voice their opinions, their ideas, their views (the collective and culture quadrant).

Hope for the future

Planetary health has the capacity to shape how we hold conversations due to the dynamic, transdisciplinary nature of the issues. We can start to see the echo of our collective voices and the opportunities we have to convene at all different levels. In these conversations, it’s important to realize that we can be vulnerable, that we don’t know everything, that there’s a lot to unlearn and learn. We have been inculcated with a lot of historical knowledge that might not be true at this moment. So, we need to open up space at the local level for local leaders and local communities, proximate leaders to have a seat at the global table, to be able to have their voice heard and be listened to. When solutions are being designed, begin by asking local communities whether the proposed initiative is likely to work within their context. For it to be successful, the solution and wayfinding must be acceptable to the local community’s culture, belief system, knowledge systems, available resources and structures.

By recognizing the interconnectedness of complex systems and harnessing the knowledge and expertise of diverse actors, we can develop solutions and processes that are effective, equitable, and sustainable. We must also focus on innovative financial and technological systems that advance planetary health while working in tandem with local community leadership. Technology can and should play a role in scaling up human health in a way that connects to leading through competencies that enhance and advance planetary health. Data can facilitate the transference of local knowledge to global perspectives in climate science, as long as we collect data that measures community wellbeing in a holistic manner that gives community leaders the capacity to utilize the emerging technology to help craft meaningful insights and make decisions based on an understanding of local and planetary systems. Such approaches require significant mobilization of resources in order to ensure that no one is left behind.

Planetary health is about the health of human civilization and the natural systems on which it depends. One will not flourish without the other. Damage to the planet damages human health. Therefore, it’s critical that as we think about human health, we also consider quite closely the planet upon which we live and the living and non-living aspects of our Mother Earth of which we are all a part.


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