Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, April 2016

Earth + Health are One:  EARTHEALTH1 Coming to UCSF for Earth Day

Please join the UCSF community for EARTHEALTH1, a student-run climate change conference.  It starts with an Earth Day dinner on April 22nd, followed by a daylong symposium on Saturday April 23th to share concerns, actions, and support for climate change policies and health co-benefits.  Come enjoy a delicious banquet of sustainable food and learn about the amazing ways our bodies, health systems and earth systems mirror each other. The Friday evening reception dinner will include speeches by UCSF’s Sustainability Director Gail Lee, Dr. Daphne Miller UCSF Associate Professor and best-selling author, and Dr. Kinari Webb, Founder and President, Health and Harmony. Friday’s event will be held at the Millberry Union conference center, Golden Gate Room.  Register HERE.

Get Inspired

Channel inspiration and energy from the Friday Earth Day Dinner Reception & Speakers into EARTHEALTH solidarity and action during the Saturday Symposium.  Speakers, videos, a community fair, lunch, breakout sessions, discussions, and wrap-ups will be included.  It is from 9:30am to 5:00pm on April 23rd at Toland Hall Auditorium, 533 Parnassus Avenue, San Francisco, California 94143.  “Quite simply, EARTHEALTH1 is a declaration of interdependence: what is happening to our earth and earth systems mirrors what is happening to our health and our health systems,” articulated Alex Schrobenhauser-Clonan, UCSF-UC Berkeley Joint Medical Program, a UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative Fellow, and co-organizer of the event.  He continued, “The metaphor of a 21st-century government-fueled “space race” for clean energy and sustainable industry has been used by many advocates before, and so the name EARTHEALTH1 consciously has the ring of a NASA space mission, but the message is this: we here at UCSF as students, faculty, staff, and administration need to make a heroic effort to lead the UC system and the health care industry in reducing our fossil-fuel use and researching and maximizing the health co-benefits of the clean energy and sustainability revolution.”

The format will include talks, take action breakout sessions, and tips from health professionals with decades of experience in environmental health, social responsibility, and sustainability.  In addition, enjoy a scrumptious lunch in the UCSF Faculty-Alumni House and peruse the tables of different student and community organizations who are working on the multifaceted movement for better health and social opportunity through sustainable innovation. 

According to Alex, the culmination of the conference will be a Community Fair and Take Action Breakout sessions that will allow participants to jump in and turn their concern about climate change and the future into concerted action with classmates and colleagues. He explained, “I hope everyone leaves with a renewed sense of optimism and wonder at what a complex and beautifully-attuned world we live in, even as we face uncertain times…Let’s dream together about how our Earth and our health are one, and we can get back to something about community and ecology that modern life and modern medicine has lost touch with.”

For more details and to register go HERE.

Read on for more insights from Alex on what inspired the creation of this exciting event.

What inspired EarthHealth1?

I’ve been inspired by metaphors and analogies throughout my life; I think they are one of the most incredible aspects of human intelligence—the ability to see the underlying similarities between disparate patterns in nature or society. The Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers were guided by mechanistic metaphors like the idea of the universe and its celestial bodies turning and acting against each other like gears in a watch. This helped Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton develop laws of planetary motion and gravity. This focus on gear-like mechanisms continues into modern-day medicine, in the numerous enzymes, viruses, and other biological models I’ve studied as a medical student. My inspiration for EARTHEALTH1 came from the unnerving realization that my generation of trainees will be the first to work into the second-half of the century- beyond 2050 (the year I’ll be turning 65)- when some of the most disruptive and health-threatening effects of climate change will occur if our societies continue on the path they are on.

Climatologists and other earth scientists have been laboring for decades to describe the sobering facts and greenhouse-gas-related mechanisms of global warming, but there is a deficiency of creativity and compassion when it comes making climate science and clean energy the up-front, close, and personal priority it should be for all of us. If we want to continue to improve and advance health worldwide into the future, for our patients, future generations and even for ourselves, clean energy and sustainability needs to an urgent priority. We need new guiding metaphors to unleash the creativity and innovation of a moonshot-like effort to rapidly, widely, and justly transition to clean energy and sustainable design in all our industries; the health care industry can and should be at the forefront of this effort. Simply put, our Earth and our health are one, and we’ve acted in defiance of that essential truth for too long.

What are your hopes for the event?  What do you hope to accomplish?

I hope to build student and faculty momentum to assume the mantle of health expertise and advocacy for the importance and promise of the UC-wide commitment to get to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions on all UC campuses by 2025: the UC President’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative. Because UCSF does not have an undergraduate population or an earth sciences department, we’ve have seen less climate change research and advocacy than schools like UC Berkeley, but the work that the Office of Sustainability has been doing is phenomenal and we have very strong institutional support around sustainability - now we just need students and faculty to recognize that the wonders environmentally-focused health care and the perils of unchecked climate change can be central to their education, professions and careers.

This is not just the work of a lifetime: it is specifically the work of our lifetime, we are living and working in the most critical moment for our planet’s climate in thousands of years. We have entered the Anthropocene - a new geologic time period where human activities and the choices we make right now about how we power and provide resources to our societies (and systems like health care) can have a significant impact on the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and ecosystems for many centuries to come. I know there are many more students and faculty who are concerned and want to act, but having been waiting in the wings for a chance to use their voice and position as a health professional, one of the most trusted and respected positions in society. I hope this event allows many of us to find our voices, join together and begin to make UCSF a climate and health powerhouse.

What will attendees learn or leave with?

We have a lot of phenomenal speakers lined up. Overall, attendees will learn that these issues aren’t just for “environmentalists”- in fact, there is no longer be a meaningful distinction between environmentalism and the rest of society. We’ve come to the point where human activities determine the quality and stability of the environment in ways big and small, and that realization is leading us back to millennia-old intelligence that our connections to the earth determines our health and humanity. Especially in the U.S., where native cultures were imperiled or obliterated by our resource-hunger drive West, we lost this intelligence, but its been kept alive and is now returning to our sciences. As I said at the beginning, new metaphors aligning earth and health are leading to new scientific perspectives and projects. Bold researchers and clinicians are highlighting how the human body is responding to changes in our soil, forests, water, air, and weather. The activism of health professionals that was prominent during the Cold War and the rise of nuclear threats is now shifting to this new and rapidly-developing threat of climate change. There is a rich history of legislative, institutional, and community-based success stories for turning the tide back against health threats, and attendees will learn from some amazing leaders in these successes.

What do you see as the link between sustainability and health?

Sustainability is holistic thinking that recognizes that we live in a world of cycles and sources; it’s obvious when you state it, but everything we touch, feel, taste, and see in the hospital or other health care setting originates from the soil, or below the soil as in the case of groundwater or oil, or in the sea or in some other ecosystem, perhaps half way around the world. These ecosystems are vital in assuring that we have the water, food, clean air, manageable weather, and materials necessary for health care systems to keeping running smoothly into the future. These ecosystem “services” should be considered as crucial to a patient’s health as the internal medicine services or surgery or pediatric services that direct a patient’s care. Unfortunately, many of the products and utilities that health centers buy, or the buildings they construct, create carbon pollution and other forms of harmful waste and ecological degradation. Waste and pollution is anything that is created at quantities that can’t be processed and placed back into natural cycles by our ecosystem services in non-damaging forms. We’ve forgotten to treat these sources and service and cycles with the same respect we would another colleague or team. Quite frankly, this ever-present, but uncredited member of our health care teams—the Earth as a health provider—is over-worked and burn-out by the demands we are putting on it.

So I think sustainability and health are not only related in a materialistic way, in terms of working to make sure that the story of all the “stuff” we use in health care is respectful of the sources and cycles our systems use, these concepts are also related on an emotional and personal level: over-worked health professionals know that our health care system can be unsustainable from a life-balance perspective, and they are not alone:  there is literally a whole world under a similar strain. Fortunately, and most excitingly for me, there is the possibility of building a 21st-century medicine to rival the gains we made at the microscopic- and microbial-focused dawn of modern medicine, heralded by the antibiotic age and its focus on developing pills for diseases. This will require shifting our focus to the macroscopic world of atmosphere, land, and water and developing health-maximizing programs of renewable energy and sustainable urban planning that target chronic disease at its daily source: our industrial food and agriculture, our disconnection from accessible, safe, and clean spaces for physical activity, our sedentary commutes and work environments, the stressful reality of living in urban, rural or suburban isolation because of the dissolution of strong social fabric due to short-sighted and discriminatory civil engineering and non-participatory city planning. All these changes have fed a corresponding cultural shift to valuing the so-called convenience of cars or other modern amenities over the resilience, strength and joy of tight-knit community. Health care can help lead a shift back to better long-term, sustainable, participatory planning. By focusing on these social and ecological determinants of health, health care can move to a prevention-based model that lightens the chronic disease burden on our primary care and specialty providers, as well as on our most primary and yet most-specialized provider, the Earth.

What call to action do you have for the UCSF Community?

Quite simple: Let’s get it to it and let’s do it! Sustainability is not some special interest you develop over years of study. You learn by doing. Until a year ago, the only thing I was “doing” about climate change was a considerable amount of worrying and suppressing anxiety over its meaning for children, family, and the decades-long career I intend to have in medicine. Then, through the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI) Fellowship I received last year, I began to learn about the phenomenal things happening at UCSF and in the UC system with the goal of maintaining a livable planet far into the future. In organizing the EARTHEALTH1 conference, I’ve gotten to connect with so many different people on campus that live for this stuff, and I’ve learned that I can and should have a say in the ways that our student activities and curricula, our buildings and operations, and our research and advocacy make this an essential aspect of the UCSF identity.

By 2025, I want UCSF to not only reach carbon neutrality as part of the CNI, but to become a place where students feel prepared to explain the connections between climate, ecology, and health, as well as how to live and work in world already experiencing a large burden of disease attributable to dirty energy and unsustainable industry. I want future students to be able to look around them at all the processes and buildings that make a hospital and university system run and be confident these things are contributing to their patients’ and communities’ health rather than endangering it. I’d like for us to shoot for something even bolder than the net-zero emissions goal of carbon neutrality.  I’d like administration, faculty, students, staff, and public-private partnerships to come together to reach for clean energy independence, where we actually create more clean energy than we use. This is not pie-in-the-sky: Gundersen Health System in Wisconsin, which like us has four hospitals and many clinics, gained energy independence in 2014 through energy efficiency upgrades and local renewable energy projects. We have our own financial and spatial constraints being the health system of the one of the most expensive and dense cities in the nation, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on what would get UCSF to energy independence, but I think it absolutely thrilling to think about harnessing San Francisco’s famous microclimates for UCSF’s energy: Can you imagine sleek solar arrays providing most of the energy for the sunny Mission Bay campus, small urban wind turbines flying like proud flags over our windy Parnassus flagship campus, and perhaps even utilizing tidal power flowing through our famous Golden Gate to electrify the VA?

Learn More

For more details on EARTH1 go HERE.