Youth as champions of planetary health thinking

By Emily Kocsis 

“Reframe everything you are doing within the lens of planetary health...your life will be more exciting and meaningful.”

This was the sage advice provided by Dr. Courtney Howard, one of the three outstanding panelists challenged with the often difficult task of providing a concluding address. There was no shortage of memorable anecdotes and powerful stories shared by panelists Dominique Souris and Ingrid Waldron, but this wholesome piece of advice from Dr. Howard is what resonated with me. I’ve always been interested in systems thinking, and the complex web of relations linking human, animal and environmental health, but until recently, planetary health always seemed like a fringe ideology. So hearing Dr. Howard explicitly call out planetary health, and endorse its virtues, was very exciting.

Reflecting back on the conference, and this piece of advice, I’ve come to recognize why this endorsement of planetary was so encouraging: it provides support and validation to an approach championed primarily by youth.

As Coordinator for the Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research’s Students and Young Professionals Network, I have the privilege of collaborating with emerging leaders in global health on a daily basis. I work with students and young professionals (or SYPs) from a variety of educational, cultural and social backgrounds on activities that strengthen the competencies and connections of SYPs interested in global health research and practice.

Many of the speakers, workshops, posters and breakout sessions at CCGH lent further support to my suspicion that planetary health thinking is being led by youth. From hearing about how youth groups in Nigeria are partnering with students in Victoria, British Columbia around climate change solutions, to learning about the Canadian Federation for Medical Students efforts to strengthen competencies in planetary health in medical education, there were many examples of youth innovating in the planetary health space.

Further, the idea of building on all of our existing strengths and working together in new and more powerful ways - very much at the core of planetary health - was consistently championed by young leaders at CCGH. At a workshop on diversity and leadership in global health led by Shawna O’Hearn and others, the majority student and young professional audience were asked what diverse leadership in global health looks like, and what steps might we take to ensure diversity in global health leadership. The responses to this question illustrate the bold and innovative thinking that characterize youth perspectives to complex global health challenges.

Attending CCGH provided me the opportunity to further observe and understand an ever apparent movement in global health: the incredible capability and commitment of youth to planetary health and systems thinking. To close out the conference, one of the panelists appealed to the audience with these words: “the system isn’t working. We need to adapt! I don’t very much trust the older generation with this.” After witnessing countless examples of youth approaching wicked problems from a planetary lens, I am increasingly confident that youth will be at the forefront of efforts to create systemic change.

The Canadian Society for International Health (CSIH) brings the Canadian global health community together to better achieve a shared goal of improving health worldwide. The 25th Canadian Conference on Global Health (CCGH) examined the theme of governance for global health, acknowledging the importance of accountability and the influence of power and politics on health. Societies thrive when investments and public policies seek to improve health, and it's determinants.