Embracing the complex density of reality

Denis LemassonGeneral practitioner and co-founder of Alliance Santé Planétaire. Alliance Santé Planétaire is an independent French organisation founded in January 2021. Its members come from diverse cultural and professional horizons. Its objective is to promote planetary health in French-speaking countries and to inform patients, caregivers, legislators and citizens on issues related to planetary health. To this end, the organisation carries out awareness projects, educational projects and field actions. https://alliancesanteplanetaire.org
Santé Planétaire. Soigner le vivant pour soigner notre santé French translation of Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves Howard Frumkin et Samuel Myers (dir.) Préfaces de Marie-Monique Robin et de l’Alliance Santé Planétaire. Postface de Bruno Lhoste Éditions Rue de l’échiquier, 2022

Publisher’s note

Some books are so packed with new discoveries that they have the power to transform the lives of their readers. This is one such book. It addresses a new field of scientific knowledge, whose methodological, epistemological and ethical approach will have significant consequences on how we think and act. Obviously, by its very nature, a scientific publication such as this cannot be considered as definitive. No doubt corrections will be necessary, and objections will be raised. Nevertheless, it is our hope that Santé planétaire. Soigner le vivant pour soigner notre santé will prevail as an indispensable tool (among others) for the comprehensive understanding of health considerations and contribute to reflection on the subject.

Human activities have a major impact upon terrestrial ecosystems and in turn the destabilisation of these ecosystems has a major impact upon human health. Yet, nothing – or very little – is done, despite the scientific and medical evidence piling up. The human race is aware that its survival is threatened, yet it fails to challenge the precipitating structural state of affairs. The prospect that we face is so vertiginous, the inevitable transformation so radical, that – despite all accumulated evidence – the human community is in continual cognitive denial of the imperative to protect our species.

This book lays the foundations for “planetary health”. With this new scientific approach, it is possible to establish a diagnosis that embraces the complex density of reality. And so we need to rethink the very architecture of our knowledge. In the words of novelist Milan Kundera: “The rise of the sciences propelled man into the tunnels of the specialized disciplines. The more he advanced in knowledge, the less clearly could he see either the world as a whole or his own self.”[1]Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, Harper & Row, 1988. No scientific field can single-handedly enable us to understand the impact exerted by human actions upon nature, the chains of bio-physico-chemical cause and effect generated in the human “environment” or the feedback effects upon our lives. For over a century, we have been burrowing into the mountain of knowledge like blind moles stripped of all other senses, digging galleries by the hundreds while neglecting to consider the network as a whole. Through its eighteen chapters, this book presents new tools for perceiving the complexity of ecosystems. This has been achieved by doctors conducting research alongside ecologists, economists and chemists, urban planners working with physicists and sociologists. The complex web of ecosystem interactions blends data from disciplines that had not until now measured reality against the same indicators. Distinctions between human and so-called “hard” sciences are disappearing before our eyes while new methods and new communication systems are being invented. We are witnessing an epistemological leap in which interdisciplinary conceptual bridges are emerging – the only means possible for approaching equations containing so many and diverse unknown factors.

The effects of our actions are sometimes unexpected. There are so many causal chains, and our ignorance is still so monumental. Science can but be driven by the humble recognition of its own limits, and can only report temporary, forever empiric, truths. Humility and uncertainty are necessary if we are to continue coming up with resilience-building solutions when the goalposts keep moving.

Herein lies this new field’s decisive stride forward: offering solutions. Faced with the perils of climate change, air, water and soil pollution and biodiversity decline, scientists can no longer simply describe phenomena or discuss results. They have a new responsibility and it behoves them to accept it. And they must do this, not to continue indefinitely extending hegemonic scientific power over other modes of existence but to humbly enlighten citizens with their discoveries so that we might all be fully informed before we vote, make decisions or take action. Indeed, we are reminded daily that scientific evidence of a phenomenon does not automatically prompt political action. And there is much to be done in this regard. Without demagogy and without the corner cutting that would inevitably obliterate its meaning. A dignified, patient, respectful and exacting endeavour to “impart” scientific messages, translate them into intelligible language, present them in accessible formats and disseminate them, so that they may become the seeds of the changes to come. Such is the purpose of this book. And such is the purpose of our organisation, Alliance Santé Planétaire.

In these uncertain times of “pandemic manufacture”[2]Marie-Monique Robin, La Fabrique des pandémies, La Découverte, 2021, and Pocket, 2022. and resurging warrior nationalism, endlessly fuelled by predatory reasoning, philosopher Gilles Deleuze suggests that there is “no need to fear or hope, only to look for new weapons”.[3]Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations (1972-1990), Columbia University Press, 1995. It is our hope that this publication will contribute to such intellectual rearmament, so that we may rise collectively to the challenge we face. It is of the upmost importance that we examine the relationships between human well-being and ecology in order to better understand just how interdependent we are within the biosphere and to finally experience our non-separation from it. In the words of philosopher Emanuele Coccia: “One of the greatest contemporary Amazonian thinkers, Ailton Krenak, often repeats that life is not something that surrounds us, but something that passes through us, inside and out. There is no environment – nor is there any surrounding life – there is simply a flux, a continuum of which we are an ongoing metamorphosis.”[4]Emanuele Coccia, Metamorphoses, Polity Press, 2021.

There is no doubt: to protect our planet is to protect our health.

This text is drawn from the preface written by Denis Lemasson on behalf of Alliance Santé Planétaire for the French translation of Howard Frumkin and Samuel Myers’ book. Shared here with kind permission of its publisher Rue de l’échiquier and Léa Thévenot and Thomas Bout’s effective intercession.

Translated from the French by Naomi Walker

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1 Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, Harper & Row, 1988.
2 Marie-Monique Robin, La Fabrique des pandémies, La Découverte, 2021, and Pocket, 2022.
3 Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations (1972-1990), Columbia University Press, 1995.
4 Emanuele Coccia, Metamorphoses, Polity Press, 2021.