A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.
We — Elise, with a background in Religious Studies and Anthropology, and Josi, an Environmental Planner and Landscape Architect — believe in the power of our dreams. Together as Public Health students at the Charité Berlin, we are working passionately to make the great transformation for a healthy planet a reality.
The visibility of planetary urgency
For three days straight, the thermometer has climbed to 35°C and sometimes even beyond these temperatures. The nights barely offer relief from the heat. Where there should be green areas and colorful meadows, there is nothing but dried-up undergrowth. We are in the middle of summer and big patches of the forests with withered leaves alert us of a significant lack of water. Spruces are the first trees to dry out and there are increasingly more of them. Communities have declared the highest level for fire hazard due to drought. The heat is not just affecting plants and forests, but also animals and humans alike. The health of older people and small children is particularly at risk. The weather forecast predicts that the heat wave will persist for two more weeks. What can we do with this information? Is there hope for improvement?
The first steps of our journey
Our common journey began in November 2019 when we were given the opportunity to take the responsibility for the previously existing PH Club in Berlin, Germany. In Planetary Health we have found a concept that represents our vision. We believe that it is possible to tell a story in which we act in a sustainable way and preserve the health of the planet for future generations to pass on our precious gift of life. We never imagined how far we would reach although each of us had their own dreams, adding one piece of the puzzle to the whole.
One of our dreams could not have started more beautifully: The day we got the unique privilege to be a part of the Planetary Health Alliance Campus Ambassador program — a network of rescuers of our planet. We were given the possibility to apply together for the program and were welcomed with the words: “If we want to go far, we have to walk together”.
Here we go …
A couple of weeks before the announcement of the selection of the PHCAs, we spontaneously planned an introduction session of the PH Club on our campus in search of like-minded individuals. We introduced them to the field of Planetary Health and Deep Ecology. As a result of this meeting, we formed a core group of four women working together. We arranged weekly meetings to get to know each other better, to share knowledge and exchange ideas. Each of our meetings started with a check-in and ended with a check-out where we shared our state of feelings, our hopes, wishes and fears. In our gatherings, we practiced active listening and cared for the well-being of all participants. After an overwhelming exam period, we felt prepared to transform our vision into reality and wanted to dive into the work. We intended to plan the entire year’s program in March…
… or not?
Unexpectedly, a moment arose that seemed to affect nearly all life on earth, and we had the feeling of being in a surreal world that was new for each one of us. For an instant, we felt that we could no longer reach our goals due to the Sars-CoV-2 outbreak which was wreaking havoc in every corner of the world. In fact, this was a wake up call for mankind showing that we cannot continue to live this way by exploiting the natural resources and harming the environment. If not now, then when? If not us, then who? We realized that we had to view this distressing predicament as an opportunity to generate a positive collective vision to create a better world.
How we approached our vision
As the pandemic affected many people and their mental health suffered due to physical and social distancing, we created a poster that aimed to give hope during these times. It provided ideas for cultural activities that those affected can undertake during leisure time to improve their mental health and general well-being. The poster also provided general information about the emergence of COVID-19 to raise awareness about zoonotic diseases.
We modified our plans and shifted our activities to the virtual space. We also started to closely cooperate with the student initiative “Charité Studis for Future” on our campus. Together, we initiated a webinar series with diverse speakers titled Planetary Health, Climate Change and Chronic Respiratory Diseases, Environmental Justice and COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis to convey knowledge about the relationship between environmental health and health protection.
After the first webinar, we were delighted to receive a request for a joint collaboration from Anastasia Zagorni from the “DesignFarm Berlin”, an institution at the University of Arts Weißensee that promotes start-ups. Together, we intend to map the linkages between deforestation and outbreaks of zoonotic diseases such as Sars-CoV-2. Our aim is to show the interrelatedness of all living beings and (eco-)systems and to provide ideas at relevant interfaces that enable individuals and the collectives to influence their own decision-making. Thus, the project intends to indicate possible ways of taking action to prevent environmental destruction as well as the impairment of human health, and as a consequence, the emergence of new types of zoonotic diseases.
Additionally, we conducted a seminar for our Public Health fellow students together with Professor Sabine Gabrysch from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. In the format of the “WHO Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19” and Harald Welzers’ book “Everything could be different: A social utopia for independent people”, we wrote a letter from a future perspective from the year 2050 on how we have achieved a healthy and green recovery to maintain a positive vision for action and to think Planetary Health in All Policies. During group work, the students discussed potential measures for implementation with the impressions from the letter and who to involve in a transdisciplinary working process in various fields of work in Public Health (e.g. municipal level, health insurances, federal ministry of health, departmental research, European Union, World Health Organization).
Together with a group of other PHCAs from all around the world, we have a unique opportunity to develop a Planetary Health ABCs book for school children aged six to eight years which will be translated into multiple languages and distributed as an e-book. For this idea, we received the “COVID-19 Student Engagement Award” funding award from the University of Toronto which we intend to use for printing copies for school children who do not have access to online teaching or materials.
One of our next projects will be an interactive online workshop or game for school children about Planetary Health to create awareness among the youth and next generations. The workshop will be planned together with the “Environmental Education Centre Kienbergpark” in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, an underserved district in Berlin. We are also in talks with the head of the Institute of Landscape Planning and Ecology at the University of Stuttgart in southern Germany to conduct a seminar for students during the winter term. From our first collaboration with the “Charité Studis for Future”, we will continue working together and will take the responsibility for requests from students within the Health for Future regional group Berlin.
We want our dreams to become reality
What does it take for our dreams to turn into reality? It is the will to step into action and to focus our energy on projects and ideas that matter the most to us? We also need courage and trust — which are especially challenging in a world where the uncertainty about the future is prevalent. Seeing this uncertainty as a window of opportunity is one of the realizations that helped us to understand that every single decision and every action matters.
We must not let COVID-19 slow us down
To us, it seems that COVID-19 made it easier to engage in new collaborations across disciplines and organizations — which fits perfectly to the concept of Planetary Health. We connected with like-minded people from other cities and even other countries. Two new members recently joined our core working group. We are now six women leading the PH Club in Berlin together, and we are incredibly excited about our future work.
We would like to express our gratitude
None of this would have been possible without the web of wonderful beings that inspire and support our emerging ideas, especially our team members Charlotte Bunge and Felice Hellweg. Another one of these magnificent people is our mentor Professor Teddie Potter. We feel tremendously honoured to be accompanied by her and her wisdom. In one of our conversations, she said “The children of the ancestors will find you”.Here we go continuing the work of our ancestors, protecting the environment and the gift of life.