Australian university adopts ‘planetary health’ as raison d’être

Holistic sustainability concept meshes with ‘moral purpose’ of institution in Melbourne’s unfashionable west

March 13, 2020
Source: Alamy

The summer bushfire crisis has provided a springboard for an Australian university’s plan to adopt “planetary health” as an underpinning rationale of everything it does.

The governing council at Victoria University has given in-principle approval for a plan to embed planetary health, which examines human health through the prism of the natural systems that sustain life, across the entire suite of the university’s activities.

Deputy vice-chancellor Corinne Reid said the initiative could be as redefining for Victoria as its decision to import the “block teaching” model from Canada and Sweden. And as with block teaching, Victoria plans to take the idea to a level unmatched anywhere else.

Global academia has embraced planetary health since the idea was given impetus five years ago by The Lancet and the Rockefeller Foundation. The Planetary Health Alliance, a consortium of almost 90 academic and research institutions and dozens more government and non-government agencies, boasts members in every populated continent, including eight in Australia.

The University of Sydney claimed bragging rights for appointing the world’s first professor of planetary health in 2016, and many courses and research groups pursue a planetary health mantra. But Professor Reid said Victoria would be the first institution to inculcate the principle throughout its teaching, research, outreach and estate management.

“We as a whole institution are committing to this path,” she said. “It’s not just about having a sustainability officer with a passion. We will embed this in everything we do – our thinking, our policy revision, our strategic planning. It’s layered through every document coming out of our organisation.”

Professor Reid said the university would spend the coming months “laying out plans” for the initiative. “It’s something we’re developing from the bottom up,” she said. Two forums to workshop ideas, where Professor Reid expected perhaps a few dozen staff, each attracted 130. Another meeting, staged to invite applications for the A$1 million (£505,000) VU has set aside for an internal grant round, netted 100 researchers.

While A$1 million is not a huge amount of money, it commands attention “in the context of our institution”, Professor Reid said. “This is what we can afford and that’s part of being a sustainable university.”

She said the concept had resonated in the marginalised communities of Melbourne’s west, where Victoria is based. “The moral purpose of VU is about working with disadvantaged communities”, where climate change has a “differential impact” and green space is not plentiful, she said. “Most of the west of Melbourne has an industrial heritage which doesn’t fit itself well to the health and well-being of its community.”

The deadly summer bushfires that choked Melbourne with the world’s worst air had rammed the message home. “A term like planetary health can feel vague or nebulous,” Professor Reid said. “Moments like that really bring it to our doorstep. When it is anchored to something you are watching out your window, that you are experiencing when you breathe, it helps give a sense of reality.”

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“When our impacts on the planet become so extreme that they’re visible . . . planetary thinking becomes not a quaint notion but a practical necessity.” Alex Steffen, “Planetary Thinking” (August 31, 2007)
The normative imperative of planetary awareness has become stewardship of the global commons. Outside of the academy the threat of global warming is leading to the awareness to build ecoliteracy around the world. Intellectually speaking, this global ecocentricity manifests itself in the development of environmental and ecological perspectives across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. This geocentric focus raises the challenge of developing “geo-thinking” beyond disciplinary compartmentalization. Thus a tetragrammatic model of the “geo” forms of the disciplinary fields of politics, economics, sociology, and anthropology could produce a new architectonic for planetary thinking. This architectonic would not just be a question of adding the responses of the separate social sciences to globalization. A configurational intellectual synthesis would be achieved focused on the geocentric-planetary dimension. The historical human long-term on planet earth can be reconstructed using a plurality of civilizational perspectives up to the present situation of conflict/dialogue. In particular attention should be given to the mixed outcomes of modernization worldwide with respect to, positively, the development of planetary ecoliteracy and, negatively, the degradation of environments and processes of decivilization that impede the emergence of the possible signs of planetary awareness.