Corona and Climate: One Planet, One Health

Recognising the complex interconnections between environmental, human and non-human health, Irus Braverman explores One Health, an integrative, multidisciplinary approach to understanding and conserving health across disciplines, species and scales.

Photo by Daniel Klein on Unsplash.

Each of us has likely heard, at one point or another, that everything on this planet is connected—the flap of a butterfly wing and so forth. And we might even feel, intuitively, that this is true. But in the face of the different catastrophes that have been competing for our attention day in day out, things might not seem all that connected. In fact, the catastrophes seem to be demanding our urgent prioritisation: which is the one we’d be willing to hit the streets for, or invest our money in? At the Black Lives Matter demonstration, which drew hundreds of passionate protesters in our midsize U.S. city, my 10-year old seemed disappointed. She has been striking for the climate on many Fridays for the past year. “We’ve worked so hard and we’ve never got a turnout like this,” she said. “The climate crisis just doesn’t seem to be as important to many of these people.”

But that isn’t necessarily true, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Not just butterfly wings but also the myriad planetary crises are deeply interconnected: the coronavirus crisis is connected to the climate change crisis is connected to Black Lives Matter and the social justice crisis. Although we understand this intuitively, our brains and our knowledge systems somehow compartmentalise them, as if we needed to decide on a focus to be able to comprehend an issue. The One Health approach to these issues expands the lens so as to recognise the interconnections, bridging our habits of compartmentalisation and the silos of our disciplinary ways of knowing. It allows us to recognise that we are facing unprecedented challenges on multiple fronts: a rising demand for dietary animal protein, a loss of biodiversity, and the fact that over 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic.1 Such challenges require a collaborative, holistic, and interdependent approach to health.

“The myriad planetary crises are deeply interconnected: the coronavirus crisis is connected to the climate change crisis is connected to Black Lives Matter and the social justice crisis.”

Experts don’t all agree about the history of the One Health approach. Some trace it back to the One Medicine approach of the early 1900s, others claim that it only began in earnest with the rise of conservation medicine in the 1990s. But one thing is in broad agreement: that One Health, in its contemporary manifestation, is “a transdisciplinary approach to study the relationships among the health states of humans, animals, and ecosystems to ensure the conservation of all”.2

Adopting such a triadic outlook that includes humans, animals, and the environment is crucial to One Health (or, as some still call it, “conservation medicine”). As Thomas Lovejoy wrote in the preface to New Directions in Conservation Medicine: “We have come to understand that the health of humans, animals (and plants!), and ecosystems are all inextricably intertwined. Indeed, given the major disturbance to the biophysical system of the planet itself through climate change and ecosystem destruction and degradation, we also must include the ‘health’ of the biosphere”.3 The book Conservation Medicine: Ecological Health in Practice further defines this new discipline, arguing that, “scientists and practitioners in the health, natural, and social sciences [must] think about new, collaborative, transdisciplinary ways to address ecological health concerns in a world affected by complex, large-scale environmental threats”.4

One Health is not only interdisciplinary, then. It is also multi-scalar. Scientists can “piece together an understanding of the processes—spanning all levels of biological organisation, from cells to ecosystems—that comprise the ecological context of health. Such an approach is a radical shift away from viewing diseases solely in terms of the response of individual organisms to infection or the spread of infection through populations”.5 What were once perceived as more or less rigid categories are increasingly understood as messy, fluid, and dynamic multi and interspecies relationships.6

Reflecting on the coronavirus outbreak, Saint Louis Zoo’s veterinarian and a strong proponent of One Health Sharon Deem cautioned about the tendency, even within One Health, to highlight the plight of humans and neglect everything else. In her words:

“Most people have no idea that Ebola has wiped out half of the great apes in areas in the Congo. They just think of it as a human disease. So we jump right into our concern for humans. But in the long run, we are going to shoot ourselves in the foot because we are not going to get down to the root cause at the conservation level. The only positive thing in the [coronavirus] is that people are saying [that] we need to close down wet markets. [So] we are realising that we need to figure out ways to feed humans—but not at the cost of wildlife trafficking and human pandemics” (interview by Zoom, January 2020).

Deem is passionate about wildlife: “In 50 years, we could be a planet of 11 billion people and billions of domestic animals, but close to zero free-living wild animal populations. How pathetic is that? . . . It’s tragic.”

But does the One Health approach go far enough? In “Views from Many Worlds”, social anthropologists Hayley MacGregor and Linda Waldman suggest that it doesn’t.7 They assert that although One Health speaks about multiplicity and cross-disciplinarity, it is at the same time reliant upon (western) scientific ways of knowing and practising medicine, and on traditional distinctions between humans and animals, and between nature and society. They show, for example, that the vast majority of One Health texts do not incorporate Indigenous vocabularies or insights about colonial structures and ethnic, racial, or gender power dynamics.

How, precisely, to bridge interdisciplinary silos has indeed been the challenge of One Health. Animal health experts, human health experts, and ecologists all have a seat at this table. But social scientists and humanities scholars have, as of yet, not been too involved. When I first contacted her, Sharon Deem was delighted that a social scientist was taking interest in One Health. Without anthropologists, she said, we wouldn’t have understood local burial practices that contributed to the spread of Ebola and we could not have then effected change on this front.

But the role of social scientists in this context can, and should, be broader than identifying local human practices that contribute to diseases. Social scientists can provide a mirror for One Health to reflect on itself so as to recognise the limits of its expertise, as integrative and transdisciplinary as it already is, and to consider other forms of knowledge that move beyond the scientific ones. This is a call for the inclusion of such scholarship so as to build a “multier” disciplinarity of One Health.

“Social scientists can provide a mirror for One Health to reflect on itself so as to recognise the limits of its expertise, as integrative and transdisciplinary as it already is, and to consider other forms of knowledge that move beyond the scientific ones.”

This, perhaps, is what social science and posthumanities participation could bring to One Health: a fresh perspective that would productively unsettle the categories implied by One Health frameworks and the boundaries they still all-too-readily draw between humans, animals, and the environment. “Human exceptionalism blinds us,” anthropologist Anna Tsing wrote, in a statement that is not only descriptive but also cautionary.8 Despite such criticisms, it is important to acknowledge that the novel practices of One Health are a bellwether of this powerful and potentially transformative moment and one that shows us that the way forward is in making the connections.

1. King, Lonnie J. et al. 2008. One Health Initiative Task Force Report. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 233(2): 259–261.
2. Deem, Sharon L. 2018. Conservation Medicine to One Health: The Role of Zoologic Veterinarians. In Fowler’s Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine Current Therapy, Volume 8. pp. 698-702. Elsevier. P 699.
3. Aguirre, Alonso A. Ostfeld, Richard & Peter Daszak. 2012. New Directions in Conservation Medicine: Applied Cases of Ecological Health. Oxford University Press. P xii.
4. Aguirre, Alonso A. et al. 2002. Conservation Medicine: Ecological Health in Practice. Oxford University Press; Aguirre, Ostfeld & Daszak 2012, 3.
5. Ibid.
6. Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press; Tsing, Anna. 2012. Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species. Environmental Humanities 1: 141-154.
7. MacGregor, Hayley and Linda Waldman. 2017. Views from Many Worlds: Unsettling Categories in Interdisciplinary Research on Endemic Zoonotic Diseases. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 372 (1725): 20160170.
8. Tsing 2012, 144.

This article is part of our Corona and Climate Series, an ongoing collection of opinion pieces from leading experts in the SEI community. In a time of intersecting planetary crises, this series analyses the parallels between ecological and epidemiological crisis, focussing on questions of resilience, adaptation and justice on local and global scales.

Irus Braverman is Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Geography at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York. Among her monographs are Zooland: The Institution of Captivity (2012), Wild Life: The Institution of Nature (2015), and Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink (2018). Her latest monograph, Zoo Veterinarians: Governing Care on a Diseased Planet, is forthcoming in October 2020. Much of the text here draws directly from this book.