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The Health of the People is the Health of the Planet

Jun 10 2014

We often encounter platitudes about what an interconnected place the world is, how we are all linked in the circle of life, and only by working together through interdisciplinary collaboration can we overcome the obstacles between a us and a global paradise. While idyllically compelling, this optimistic idea can seem vague when we are faced with actual public health, environmental, or social justice problems. But the personal history and impressive career of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland made these possibilities seem concrete as she enraptured an audience with her speech, “From Public Health to Sustainable Development in an Interconnected World: A Life in Public Service,” kicking off her extended visit to Stanford.

Brundtland’s career and life’s work stands at the juncture of many disciplines as the former three-term Prime Minister of Norway—the first woman and youngest person to ever hold this office. She has also served as Norwegian Minister for Environmental Affairs, a UN special envoy for climate change, and director-general of the World Health Organization. Currently, Brundtland is deputy chair of The Elders, an independent group of world leaders dedicated to peace and human rights. 

You can’t push one issue… unless you choose women and girls

Brundtland described an interwoven world where the importance and rights of the individual are constantly linked to and reflecting the needs and fate of our wider world, or, in her words, “The health of the people is the health of the planet.” Interdisciplinary collaboration, confidence in evidence, and, a willingness to act fearlessly are integral tools according to Brundtland. A global community must share its evidence and choose to act on it. This action is central: “action without a plan, like a plan without action, is not much to be admired,” she said. 

When it comes to solving the world’s problems “you can’t push one issue, whether public health, the environment, or social equality, before the other,” explained Brundtland in a conversation before her speech “That is, unless you choose girls and women.” Throughout her career, Brundtland has focused on two particular issues to make wide changes based on very local, personal choices: breastfeeding and child marriage.

Women’s rights, public health, the environment: Can’t take one without the others

Breastfeeding was an early focus of Brundtland’s academic research and serves as a compelling example of how personal choices can have a large-scale impact. Women around the world are often discouraged from breastfeeding for a variety of reasons including incorrect health information, concerns about beauty, inability to feed while working, and perceptions of inappropriateness. This, Brundtland argues, creates an environment where “milk substitutes undermine the best, cheapest, and safest food for infants.” 

For women in developing nations, in order to ensure a healthy population from infancy up, mothers’ rights and health need to be a priority. If more babies are breastfed, more children will likely get the nutrients necessary for early health and survive infancy so that parents may be more likely to “choose to have fewer children because they see the ones they have growing up.”  This decision may improve familial physical and mental health, producing smaller and more tight-knit families, which would in turn reduce the strain that large populations can have on the environment. From women’s bodies to world population, Brundtland boldly connected public health education such as this to the world economy’s best interest. “Health is an investment in the economy,” she stated, “Invest in health and the economy will improve.”

The girl effect: The Elders address child marriage

Brundtland is the current Deputy Chair of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to work toward peace and human rights. Former President Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan, among others, have devoted their later careers to the Elders, working for world change that doesn’t end with the confines of a specific government. 

The Elders have focused their considerable strength on eradicating child marriage. An estimated 10 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year worldwide. The preponderance of these girls grew up in poor families. Brundtland explained that the Elders are putting their international weight behind “locally supported grass root movements” to allow women and girls greater opportunities that provide alternatives to child marriage. 

Child marriage increases the likelihood that a girl will live in and be unable to escape from poverty, perpetuating a system of early marriage among her progeny and placing her at health risk due to early sexual activity and childbearing. According to the Elders, a girl under the age of fifteen is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a twenty-year-old woman. Because girls leave school when they marry, the practice harms both women and their communities. The Elders contend that children born to young mothers are also at greater risk of dying before their first birthdays. By this reasoning, said Brundtland, “The fact that women are discriminated against in the world holds the whole global community back.”

Optimistic approach to global challenges

As Brundtland told the story of her life in public service to her Stanford audience, she discussed how her experience on the international stage convinced her of the interwoven nature of world issues. Called to public service through work in medicine and as a public health expert, her rise in Norwegian politics was a succession of meeting challenges by relying on evidence to analyze problems and an interdisciplinary approach to solve them. 

In the face of the world’s toughest challenges—poverty, education, ill-health—it is hard not to become pessimistic. However, Brundtland’s message was a hopeful one—she encouraged the listening students and faculty to make a difference in their communities despite the inherent difficulties. After applauding progressive values of education, equality, and sustainability, Brundtland left the audience with the burden of our responsibility to the global community’s wellbeing and optimism for the future. 

When it comes to sustainable development, “there is no solution without shared responsibility,” she stated. Only by accepting how interwoven our lives are to each other, tied together by the knots of societal recognition, public health, and environment, can we take “shared responsibility” for our world. Only then can we, together, move toward a more sustainable future.


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