Until I was forty I had planned to be a writer, and when I realized that wasn’t going to work out, I shifted my focus to sustainability. I only finished one novel, and my agent was Stephen King’s editor, Chuck Verrill, who had an agency in New York called Darhansoff and Verrill. My main problem as a writer was that I had no idea what a plot was. “You know what this book could really use?” Chuck would say. “A murder.”
To support myself I worked part-time in bakeries, a summer in Beverly Hills, a year at the Hotel Meridien in Boston, four years at a neighborhood bakery in Evanston, Illinois while in college. At the Cakewalk in Beverly Hills, every cake had to be unique, and when I would finish a cake the owners would circle it to judge whether the colors and design were unique enough. At Benison’s in Evanston, volume was the key, and the owner would often say to me, “We want to make them happy, not ecstatic.”
Eventually I decided that health benefits would be a good idea, so I started working part-time in universities, first at Harvard, then, starting in 1991, at MIT, a short walk from my apartment.
My second problem as a writer was writer’s block, but a very unusual form of writer’s block. I couldn’t press the send button. I could never let anything go. I could happily spend days, weeks, forever writing drafts. But letting it go, no, never. This problem has traumatized me my whole life. In high school my English teacher would write a big red A at the top of the page, then cross it out and put an equally beg red C, with the word “late” next to it. I was en route for the job of my dreams, writing book reviews for the Boston Globe, then spent a month trying to write a two-page review of my first assignment.
In college I had 8 incompletes and would never have graduated if it hadn’t been for a kind film teacher, Stuart Kaminisky, who offered to work with me on an independent study to finish the papers. Somehow writing for Stuart, I banged out the papers in a matter of weeks, and graduated only a semester late. Truly, Stuart, thank you.
“Parsons needs a Mother Hen”
There was only a single time in my entire life when I wasn’t traumatized by my reluctance to finish work, and that was when friends asked me to be the Building Manager at an environmental center at MIT. I was 60 years old. Before I started I met with the center’s previous director, who told me that the atmosphere in the center wasn’t good, it wasn’t what I remember from the five years I had worked there at the start of my MIT career. He said the center needed a ‘mother hen.’
And that was the role I played, and as mothers the world over most certainly know, a more thankless, unappreciated, unnoticed, and yet more urgently needed role could not be imagined. But I came alive in the role. Not overnight but gradually. Once a faculty member stood in front of my desk stood screaming at full throttle for a full five minutes because I had moved something without permission. And for the first time in my life I didn’t react in that kind of situation because I had a larger goal in mind. This particular faculty member had warehoused stuff all over the lab, and I needed his support if I was going to clear it out and repurpose those spaces. So I shut up and he apologized, and I apologized, and life went on.
But the dysfunction that the previous director had warned me about eventually proved overwhelming, and 14 months later the job came to an end. And because the same three friends who had asked me to apply for the position in the first place, were also the same three MIT faculty who tried to launch a Center for the Environment at MIT in 2008, I saw a parallel between what happened to me and what has happened to MIT. Something has gone pathologically wrong at MIT, precisely in response to the challenges of climate change. And trying to tell that story I am back to square one with my damn writer’s block, writing draft after draft after draft, but unable to press send on anything except an occasional Linked-In post.
My Mother’s Story
My mother and I loved garage sales. We were estranged for the last five years of my mother’s life, but garage sales remained a pleasure and an easy way to stay connected in some way. So I would take the bus down to Cape Cod and my mother would meet me at the Burger King in Hyannis, and off we’d go with her carefully mapped itinerary.
Years earlier, at one of these outings, she suggested I buy a used sewing machine. $25. I started to make my own curtains, hem my pants. And at some point I asked my mother if she would show me a few basic stitches.
And she became a person I had never known before. A true teacher. Both my parents were DIY incarnate, and each always had five projects on the go. But until this single hour, as the result of being asked, my mother became this extraordinary teacher, showing me a stitch, letting me try myself, try again if it failed, then try again, and then she would demonstrate again, let me try again.
The estrangement between my mother and I was based, initially, on my brother’s drug adduction, then my niece’s. And how all this relates to my struggles at MIT, let alone climate change and climate action…. well, this is the stuff that writer’s block feasts on.
But out of all that, two pieces stand out in relief. My trauma is my mother’s trauma, and understanding that is the crucial way forward for me…..
It’s hard to say which one is my favourite. They have such radically different personalities, different strengths and weaknesses, but they truly complement each other. My little Yin and Yang puppies. One is eager to please yet totally food-obsessed, while the other is a sensitive genius with lust for adventures. Both love cuddles on my lap (sometimes even together!) and giving me ‘kisses’ on the nose. They are little bundles of jumpy excitement every morning when I first get downstairs or come back from errands. I rescued them young enough to really invest time in their training (and cuddles), and now get to enjoy their good behaviour with pride. Finally, after years of traveling the world, I have a place I can call my own, and the stability to have these beautiful companions in my life. I have to ask myself though, how long will this stability last? What future should we prepare for?
In the north-east of Bulgaria, not far from the mighty Danube River and on the famous XXX Loess plains, sits the town of Popovo. Many of its people left for new opportunities after the accession to Europe, and it feels quietly empty at times. The people are kind and welcoming, and know that the true meaning of a good life is in relationships, not things. Most of their food is produced locally, and they seem almost viscerally offended by the idea of eating fruits or vegetables out of season. The pace of life remains steadfastly slow. It is surrounded by many vibrant villages, each with their local flavour and traditions.
My new home finds itself in one of these villages, nestled at the foot of forest-covered hills, and surrounded by dark-soiled agricultural fields. Throughout summer the whole horizon is painted by canola, wheat and sunflowers, as the local farm dedicatedly tends to the industrial scale business of food production. The people here do not have much, but what they do have they are keen to share with each other. The community is strong, and they support one another. Nothing is wasted, with people willing (and able!) to repair or repurpose almost any item. Livestock are still driven through the village, and loads are transported by horse and cart. The excellent soil supports strong growth from all that is planted, even with the dry climate. Fruit trees are planted all over, and any fruit that is not eaten is turned into home-made brandy. Highly respected walnut trees are plentiful, and the nuts openly shared.
It is for these reasons that I refer to my house as my ‘lifeboat’. A lifeboat is carried on large ships to provide improved odds of survival in the case that the main ship begins to sink. Important enough in calm seas, as treading water is only viable for so long, but imperative in the case of stormy seas. They are an insurance policy against disaster. A lifeboat without supplies may be suitable for short periods, but would become simply a floating coffin if not for resilience supporting supplies. A fishing kit, solar still, these sorts of things. So, this house is my well-stocked lifeboat, prepared to launch and aimed at resilience among the stormy seas. Finally, not only can I finally have dogs as I have the space to give them the life they deserve, but I finally feel safe. I feel like I can be a part of a strong team, pulling together locally to navigate whatever the future throws at us.
I wasn’t always concerned by climate change, you understand. For most of my life, I lived in blissful ignorance of the threat. At some point, given how often I encountered the topic, it could even be called willful ignorance. Somehow the topic never quite landed between my ears, and up until only a few years ago, absolutely not on my shoulders.
I grew up in a middle-class household in a working-class industrial town. It was a tough place to possess a good vocabulary and curious mind, but the proximity to London and its free museums helped satisfy my need for intellectual pursuits. My grandfather would often take me to Kensington for the day, where we would split our time between the science museum and natural history museum. My grandfather had an excellent career as a draftsman, followed by success as a local historian following his retirement. He was an excellent partner to explore those caverns of knowledge. As an engineer and a competent manager of people, he was always able to ignite my deeper curiosity on an object – to explain the deeper meaning and purpose.
Looking back at my childhood retrospectively, my family had excellent sustainability and environmentally conscious values. My mother was (and is) a keen gardener, so I spent most of my younger years steeped in nature. I loved digging, and together we built a wild area of ponds teeming with fish, insects and amphibians. My father, for his part, would always keep old items in case they would be useful to someone at some point. Despite being a successful man, a certain satisfied peace and happiness would come over him when rehoming his old possessions. He was also fond of showing his creativity with wood, sharing the hobby (and skill) with my grandfather. My grandfather carried the indomitable spirit of the blitz, and some of my fondest memories were being phoned after a heavy storm to come help repair a broken fence panel. He by no means lacked the funds to replace the whole panel or to pay someone to do it, but to him, it was simply common sense to respect your possessions. It was through my family that I learnt the true meaning of materialism; the respect for the things you own, and the duty to keep them in service as long as reasonably possible.
And yet, by the age of sixteen, the only thing I was truly passionate about was riding motorcycles. I would ride the things almost in circles, riding purely for the thrill and freedom of the road. Not only did they satisfy some primitive and spiritual need in me, but I found a huge and welcoming community of peers. We were united by our love for this activity that others found utterly bizarre and dangerous, and yet we found as natural as breathing. Riding a motorcycle involves putting a barely controlled explosion directly under your testicles, and risking the equivalent of attacking your legs with a belt sander if you fell off. This was to say nothing about the extra level of commitment someone needed to be a year-round motorcyclist in the United Kingdom; a land which was cold and wet through summer, let alone winter. Yet my only real concern was how I could find money to pay for petrol.
I went to study Zoology at Bangor University in North Wales. This turned out to be an even colder and wetter place, but a great university course (and even better motorcycling roads!) In my first year, back in the long-forgotten age of 2005, I actually had a course on climate change. I spent my whole time arrogantly scoffing at what the ‘hippies’ were panicking about, and how it wasn’t really a concern. I have no idea where I had developed that opinion from, but I was certain that they were simply wrong. Right up until they introduced Malthusian Crisis, that is. Malthusian Crisis is an idea that was introduced by the Reverend Thomas Malthus in XXXX, and still stirs controversy due to the logical conclusions it naturally leads to. This essentially states that populations will grow exponentially when food supplies are good, and the extra labour gained will only improve the food supplies linearly. This would lead, almost as a natural law, to populations outstripping their food supply, and dying back. This mirrored what occurs in the natural world, with an ecosystems ‘carrying capacity’ often defined as the population size an area could sustain without being degraded and losing productivity. Somehow, that one fact landed, and I took it as self-evident that overpopulation would be our demise, absorbed it on a superficial level, and went back to partying. I actually missed the exam due to a mix-up with how the exams were notified, meaning I had to sit it in the semester break, and revised at an ‘if-I-fail-this-I-fail-uni’ level of focus. Even with this attention to the topic, somehow I went back to eating huge quantities of meat and recreationally riding a performance motorcycle. Like I say, it was a wide way from feeling like my own problem.
I finally graduated into the recession of 2008 and learnt first-hand how quickly the prosperity tap can be turned off. When I consider how lightly we all used to spend money before then, and how obviously employable we considered ourselves, I shudder. To cut a long story short, I never much enjoyed life in the United Kingdom at the best of times, and austerity measures and a cut-throat employment market sharpened that feeling. I followed many others of my generation to Asia; teaching English as an easy source of money and adventures. Again, I felt no pang of guilt to become so used to international flying that it become boring. I lived in multiple countries, learnt multiple languages, and ate just about every type of animal you could imagine. It never bothered me where they came from, or what quality of life they had. It was simply a case of ‘when in Rome’. At that time, the most important questions were completely ephemeral. Those of externalities, and what damage was the production doing to our planet, my home, and its continued viability to support me?
I even had a year living in Australia, in the home of the resource boom, Western Australia. I spent my time trying to break into the mining industry; the well-known source of macho work with heavy machinery and a high disposable income. China’s record growth left it hungry for resources, and the Australians wasted no time in satisfying that demand. At no point did I question the damage it was doing, or the ‘need’ for such growth. I just wanted a fun and well-paid job. I needed to work outside of the cities for 3 months to qualify for a second year, and so ended up working on two huge livestock farms as an alternative to the dreaded fruit picking. It was an exciting and grueling lifestyle that I loved; grit, danger and the satisfaction of a hard day’s work. I was upset by how some of my colleagues treated the animals and fought to encourage violence-free ‘low-stress stock handling’ techniques and to treat them with tenderness and respect – much to the amusement of some of the older workers. However, I never once questioned the emissions that were produced for that meat, or where their feed came from, or what it took to produce it. I was just happy to be paid to ‘play’ with cattle and sheep for a job, and sought a way back to that ‘idyllic’ life for several years after.
Love then took me from rural Australia to a Chinese boom-town, as I chose to follow my then-girlfriend back to her home town as she worked on her escape tunnel. I went from living alone in a deserted paddock, 40km from the nearest post-box and able to see galaxies in the sky at night, to a swollen city of 10 million where one could barely even see the moon through the air pollution. There were no animals, only concrete, cars and people. It was a brutal and disjointing shift, and the largest cultural and lifestyle disparity I ever experienced. One of the greatest joys from that time, though, was just how cheap and high quality the meat was. They also had varied types of tofu, which I also gorged myself on, but the true delight was the dirt cheap and expertly cooked pork and duck available on every street corner. Being able to afford meat was such a visible source of pride among the local people that I found it simply a part of their culture, and always eager to please, inhaled my fair share. I was a vocal critic and educator about shark-fin soup, having had the upsetting experience of seeing bull sharks finned live on a Mozambican beach, and knowing that such poor people were not rationally able to turn down such higher return for their time. I used to concern myself about the risk of breeding a pandemic due to their mixed dense animal husbandry style, but I never once concerned myself about any other externalities from the lifestyle we lived. It was a rude awakening (after actually gaining lung issues and skin allergies from the air pollution) to find out that the worst pollution coming out of China was argued to be rushing out of the intensive pig farming. This great tsunami of nitrogen-filled manure pushed straight into the ocean led to huge dead zones all along the coast, and especially at the end of the mighty Yangtze River.
Leaving China and looking for a change, I ended up running a voluntourism ‘base’ in Kerala, southern India. It was a varied and challenging role, where I lived with a constantly changing team of motivated young volunteers. These motivated young(er) people forced me to confront not only the weakest sides of my character but also my beliefs about the world. It was a development based role that refreshingly focused on rehabilitation and vocational skills. It was clear that what most of our beneficiaries needed was opportunity and empowerment, not charity, and I am proud of steering it further in that direction. It was also my first encounter with the modern social justice ideology, with a clear dichotomy between those genuinely out to do good, and those simply seeking to control or manipulate. I was introduced to many issues in sustainability and inspired to research them further myself, opening a Pandora’s Box of critically stressed systems. I was able to see how many issues were simply downstream symptoms of a bigger problem. This meant that many well-intentioned efforts were set up to fail by working at the wrong scale, and it was obvious that for many problems, it was ‘turtles all the way down’. I was for the first time aware of just how injured our global system was. It was, in any case, possibly the most important (and challenging) year of my life, and one that really realigned my priorities.
I left that role keen to make positive changes in the world. Trying to match my developed skillset with an obvious need, I spent a year working on an English teaching concept aimed to make English fluency accessible for those unable to afford to travel. The idea was solid, and I had good initial success, but it was clear that the pace of technological innovation would render it obsolete in only a short time, so it was not something I was willing to commit to. I had also continued my research and education on the global system, and after being introduced to the Limits to Growth report by an excellent Adam Curtis documentary, I was certain that there were bigger issues in the world that I might be able to use my eccentric experience and skill base on.
Around this time, while I was coming to terms with becoming 30, my grandfather was given mere weeks to live. I found that out on the day Trump won the election in 2016, horrifyingly enough. I was leaving the Kuala Lumpur apartment I had been staying in to head to a short contract in Kazakhstan, flanked by the shocked newsreels declaring the impossible had happened, and then by the time I reached my layover in Bangkok I had many missed calls. I knew he had been sick some time, but it was still a great shock. I was incredibly lucky to get back in time to personally say goodbye to the most positive force in my life, with my whole family certain that he refused to go without saying goodbye to me. I got to the hospice late, and as he realised I was in the room, he summoned his remaining strength to shine all his love to me in the most intense eye contact of my life, accompanied by a powerful handshake. I was by his bedside as he went less than 48 hours later.
The loss of such a grounding figure was incredibly difficult for me. He had a way of making me feel like I was conquering the world, like what I was doing was genuinely interesting. I gained so much joy by bringing him into the brighter sides of my life, allowing him to vicariously enjoy the highs and sparing him the lows. He would always ask when I would write my book, but without my peer and cheerleader, it all seemed hollow now. It became clear that I had still never quite started ‘it’. Never quite got a grip into something tough and held on. I was not meeting my own high standards, and the sand was running. As Confucius said; “We get two lives. The second life begins, once we realise we only have one.”
I got back to the moonscape of Kazakhstani winter, and whilst finishing my (mercifully short) contract, I set to work on finding a deeper purpose. What did I want to work on? What problem did the world have, that I found important and would want to help solve? Knowing that overpopulation was the upstream cause of many problems, but doubting it would be tackled globally in any meaningful fashion (following what I had learned from my travels until then), I was sure that the next best thing would be to work on food security. I had been incredibly lucky to avoid hunger in my life, but had seen the changing diets and rising pressures in all the countries and continents I had lived. I sought out online tools from various charities and organisations, with particular thanks to 80,000 Hours and Live Your Legend, to try to narrow my options down further. This took into account not only my passions and concerns, but also in which areas I thought I was above average in. That is to say, what area I could excel in. This process led me to agricultural economics, the study of how to distribute scarce (agricultural) resources. I had all but given up on math at 15 years of age, despite (or because of) the unique way I process mathematical problems.
To cut a long story short, I worked incredibly hard to be able to get on a masters course in Germany. It was as big a bureaucratic nightmare as one would expect, further complicated by family issues and my continued heartbreak from the loss of my grandfather. I was also by no means assured a place, given my long break from studies and the application complexity. I hedged my bets by working in the events industry, volunteering at a local social organisation, and trying to resurrect my friend’s auto-parts business (learning a lot about Real Ekonomik as I went). It was certainly not a boring summer! Even after I had been accepted, and firmly committed (in body and mind) to going to Stuttgart to study, I was still stuck with the horrific task of finding accommodation. One takes such things for granted, but I almost had to give up on my studies because it seemed so impossible to find a room. I was informed of a student dormitory a mere two weeks before the course started, which was a great relief given the absolute impossibility of the private market, but further highlighted how vulnerable I was to homelessness in western Europe (a problem I had never faced in Asia).
And that is the story of how I came to be a full-time masters student at 31. My first semester was a blur of money worries and imposter syndrome, spent desperately trying to avoid spending money whilst trying to force mathematics into my head. Luckily I had taken the excellent Learning How to Learn MOOC, which prepared me well for a lot of challenges, and which I owe my success to. I joined almost all the student groups available, and have never been so busy in my life as those six months. It paid off though, as one group, the International Association of Agricultural Students, was kind enough to allow me to partake in the meetings without changing from German. As a native English speaker that is a huge favour that few are empathetic enough to do, and I remain grateful for that huge boost in my German journey. I tried to be helpful with my proto-German, and was involved with arranging a one week trip to a region of Southern Germany called the Allgäu. It was on this trip that I would make friends with this young Bulgarian farmer who came with us – a life-changing encounter, and the path to my lifeboat.
So, come semester two, I had the hardest (maths laden) modules out of the way and had switched to using only German in my free time, limiting my social options a lot. This coincided with getting a job at a research institute, which came with its own office, and where I through endless journals on food security as part of my research for a project on Climate-Smart Agriculture. I had chosen the topic hoping to find signs of a viable plan, but all I saw was greenwashing and profiteering. It did not make for happy reading. Somehow it felt like I had been reading other material to my peers and professors – how could they all be so calm, knowing that sustainable intensification was all but assured to fail? Did they not see that the aquifers were nearly exhausted? Paper after paper stated the challenges to be overcome, and then directly conceded that we had almost no hope of meeting them. The worst discovery of all came towards the end of the semester when I found out that our miracle and presumed saviour, liberal use of nitrogen fertiliser from the Haber-Bosch technique, was incredibly high emission (in production and use) and was a key driver of climate change. Said climate change was also, incidentally, a force set to decrease agricultural productivity and yield in all major crops, with clear evidence already appearing. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I added my own layer of general knowledge to these issues, and felt immense anger that we had given up trying to stabilise the global population – every system we looked at was being eroded by it, and the threat of untold human suffering hovered over me like a constant hum. Any attempt to discuss the issue was met with suspicious – the topic had become politicised, and the pursuit of truth had been abandoned. My mental health suffered immensely.
Come the third semester, I was working on a project on global food system resilience. We were to show that by modelling the global weather disturbing Tambora volcanic eruption from 1815 (that had led to frozen fields in June and widespread European famine), simulating yield losses, and modelling flow of remaining food. My boss’ idea was that the modern food system could withstand almost any shocks, and that globalisation and efficient resource use would save the day. All the papers I read could not have disagreed more emphatically. The closest papers I could find on the topic tended to relate nuclear war to global food systems and famine, and again, this is not a cheerful subject to be stuck reading at depth. I was also tasked with finding the most reliable weather dataset for the past 200 years, leading me to see far too much raw data. The trend was irrefutable. It was heartbreaking to see the complete fatalism of my peers, the expectation of some Deus Ex Machina that would come and fix it all for us. I was also in my third room since being in Germany, with Brexit looming, and thoroughly sick of feeling so insecure. My Bulgarian friend had enjoyed his trip so much that he elected to study at our university, and my complaining about how hard it was to get a house in Europe led to a discussion on how cheap houses were in his village… an idea was forming.
That semester, I also took a thought-provoking course on ethics in the food system. We studied ethics as a subject in and of itself, but during the course also had active class debates and outstanding guest speakers. We were encouraged to openly cover our learning journey in a journal, and I set out to strongly argue my concerns about population growth and food security, and was a massive buzzkill to the usual ‘if we all just recycle a bit more, everything will be fine’ narrative we are often forced to follow. We did an exercise where the whole class (of well-qualified masters students of sustainability sciences) had to show their level of hope for the future… it turned out we were all incredibly pessimistic. That said, I could see that I was often steering the conversation towards more fruitful directions. That my gift for pragmatic realism and devils advocacy could bring the passion and creativity out of them. I was also feeling a rising urge to fight. To hit the destroyers of our future head-on, and to mount an effective resistance.
And so it came to pass, within my graded journal, that I declared (in January 2019) the following;
“Once I have a place to safely return to, that I believe can survive whatever the future throws at us, then (and only then) am I willing to come back and start joining in the fight to steer international discourse.”
It was a declaration that I would fight against this dark future, and strive to prevent it. However, as an act of self-love and prescience, I would first ensure that I had property in my name, in an area with resilient people, and primary food production – a lifeboat for the tempestuous future we might soon arrive at. I had spent that New Years in Bulgaria already, visiting my friend’s village and looking lustfully at houses, whilst appreciating just how tough and capable the local people were. Their values aligned with mine, and they pursued the good life in an admirable way that I wished to emulate.
I handed in my work, sat my exams, got my good grades… and then I went to Berlin for the summer. I worked with Extinction Rebellion, curious if that was the key to cracking social change. If they had managed to expunge the communist radicalism and fear of leadership, it could have worked. Maybe it still will. In any case, I learnt an awful lot from my time with them. I met many motivated and passionate people, albeit few with positive hopes for the future. I tried to ‘unite the clans’, playing devil’s advocate to any conversation partner. I don’t so much like to debate, which implies a winner, as rather point out flaws and problems in the logic. Through doing this I became far more open to new ideas such as universal basic income or citizen’s assemblies. I engaged with the public, who were often quite annoyed to be held up on their way to work or such, and tried to de-escalate and find common ground. I also got to overcome my barriers with money; learning the power of trusting in the good in others. Many great ideas for social reform are shot down due to cynicism about human nature, and Berlin helped me combat or refine my own biases.
I began to realise that understanding the problem was all well and good, but without hope for solutions, I would drive myself insane. Worse than that, I would annoy everyone else so much that I’d never get invited to parties again. I still had a thesis to write, and it seemed most parsimonious to write it on a topic I was interested in as a career. Yet more pressure to narrow down the idea. At some point I had my idea about combining oat milk and insect protein production in a closed process. I had often toyed with circular systems, such as human waste and biogas fuelled passive housing, and this idea seemed to tick many exciting boxes. Not just likely to be profitable, but also sustainable, useful, and good for supporting local resilience. I had not only my thesis topic, but a possible ‘regret-free’ business I could do from my Bulgarian lifeboat. As I wrote my thesis, having selected to focus purely on black soldier flies for insects, the literature gave birth to ideas that gave me hope for the future. On a large scale, it would reduce demand for fertiliser, soybeans, fishmeal, dairy, whilst preventing a huge quantity of emissions and massively improving local resilience to supply shocks. By feeding chicken or fish, it could help alleviate hunger. The idea was tantalising, and I had a desire to be practically involved – advancing the practical state of knowledge whilst producing something and working with my hands on the problem. I had my solutions, and arguably, my purpose.
And what about the puppies, you ask? Well, I love animals, especially dogs. I do not feel I can have children, for many reasons, not least sustainability. That paternal drive has been itching to come out though, a longing to have something to love and protect. The last decade I had changed country every 6 months or so, and rarely been in Europe. I returned to Europe only a few years back, and straight into the accommodation merry-go-round of my time in Germany. I yearned for dogs, and knew I had to keep waiting until the right moment – scared of the finality of such a commitment, and the massive change in life options they inevitably cause. Finally, with my Bulgarian lifeboat, I could make that dream happen. I had hoped to rescue some a straggly street dog at some point, but on the day I arrived I found a litter of young puppies in my barn. Choosing which two to keep from the five was a heartbreaking task, but I took my time and ended up with the two best dogs in the world.
And now, I have a renewed stake in the future. I feel secure from the threat of homelessness, or from having my control and agency removed from me. I have my mental rock to moor myself on, and emotional support for those times when the enormity of the global challenges becomes too heavy. Most importantly, I have found my purpose. Communicating the desperate need for urgent change, helping silence the climate deniers by using logic and finding common ground, and being involved in advancing the circular economy on a practical level.
Destined to serve
Growing up in a middle-class family in India, and that too a family of healthcare professionals, my education and career paths were pre-determined to a great degree. In High School, I would opt for Biology as my core subject, compete at a national-level entrance exam to get into a Medical School, and after graduating as a general physician, I would further specialise in Medicine or become a Surgeon. No one to blame, this is the general societal trend in India. Science is preferred over Arts and Commerce and becoming a Doctor, an Engineer, or a Lawyer is every child’s and their parents’ aspiration.
My father is an Orthopaedic Surgeon, my mother a Pedodontist, and my elder sister is a Pathologist. Becoming a clinician was something “in my blood”. I spent my childhood living in the residential campuses of medical institutions where my parents served, accompanied them to various national and international medical conferences, and experienced the routine and lifestyle of healthcare professionals first-hand. This is what I saw and grew up with.
Upon entering High School, I opted for Biology and in 2011, got admitted to one of the premier medical schools in India.
Health beyond the walls of the hospitals
It was in June 2014, while I was pursuing my medical education when the Indian Government announced its plans to establish ten more medical institutions like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) across the country to cater to the healthcare needs of more than a billion Indians. By this time, I was introduced to the wonderful subject of Community Medicine, which teaches about preventive and promotive aspects of healthcare at the community level. The announcement made me question if more medical institutions are truly the remedy for India’s healthcare problems. Or are we missing the point? Wouldn’t a nation be truly healthy when its hospitals will hardly have any patients to treat, as most diseases would be prevented from occurring?
As a physician in-the-making, an avid cyclist, and a track-and-field athlete, I truly believed that health was defined outside the walls of the hospitals. I still do. Our lifestyle choices, health behaviors, socio-cultural practices, economic and education status, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and our household conditions– all influence our health. I started to look at the field of medicine from social and environmental lenses.
This led me to join and contribute to two population-based research studies, being conducted by my medical school, in an urban slum in Haryana state in Northern India. This was my first step into real-world public health. From there, my interests developed further into the socio-behavioural and environmental determinants of health. After medical school, I joined a behavior change communication project in the most backward district of India, Nuh (Mewat). The project aimed at increasing the use of indoor residual spray among residents of malaria-stricken villages of the district. The experience of leading this kind of grassroots project strengthened my focus towards the need for primarily channeling resources and efforts into preventative and promotive care over individualised, treatment-centric healthcare. After deep reflection, I resolved to dedicate my life to researching population health problems, which motivated me to pursue a master’s degree in Public Health (MPH).
Breathing my motivation
During my Masters’s studies, I became interested in research that questioned the role that man-made and natural environments have in determining public health outcomes, particularly those pertaining to non-communicable diseases which account for more than seventy percent of deaths in India. By the time I completed by public health education and training, I was clear about the specific domain in which I wanted to build my research career: air pollution, India’s leading health risk factor and a major contributor to non-communicable diseases.
India harbours many of the world’s most polluted cities. About 80 percent of the Indian population is exposed to hazardous air quality. In 2017, 1.24 million deaths were attributable to air pollution alone in the country.
My motivation for air pollution and health research has been intrinsic. Being a resident of Delhi-National Capital Region, India, I have witnessed my hometown transition into a smokehouse over the years. I see political groups debate over environmental issues only when a public health emergency gets declared in the national capital due to hazardous air quality, only to pass the buck. Each year, I witness a short-lived public outrage among citizens, who fail to create a democratic demand for clean air.
Clearly, a lot can be expected to be done across various sectors to influence meaningful environmental actions. And large or small, I am determined to make an impact.
Two sides of the same coin
Soon after completing my MPH, I had the opportunity to contribute to the Delhi Air Pollution: Health and Effects (DAPHNE) study, one of the first population-based projects to investigate the health effects of air pollution in Delhi. Bestowed with clinical, research, and managerial responsibilities in the project, I was able to immerse myself into the environmental health research ecosystem in India. The project aims to examine the exposure-response relationships between air pollution and maternal health outcomes (preterm birth and birth weight), child health outcomes (acute respiratory infections and child growth) as well as adolescent health outcomes (asthma exacerbations) in Delhi.
Two aspects stood out of my DAPHNE experience. First, I better understood the delicate yet complex relationship between air pollution and the changing global climate. They serve as two sides of the same coin. Dust, allergens, soot, water vapor, and other particles and gases in the atmosphere are constantly interacting and forming new mixtures, often with the influence of heat and ultraviolet radiation. Many direct human health effects of these airborne agents have been well characterised. Some of these agents also have greenhouse properties, contributing to the overall warming of the planet, while others impart cooling effects. Climate change and air pollution are thus inextricably intertwined, so fighting one often produces gains against the other.
Second, I learned that many low income and minority populations and communities face disproportionate burdens from multiple, often co-occurring, environmental hazards, in conjunction with elevated exposures to social inequities and psychosocial stressors such as financial strain, housing instability, food insecurity discrimination, neighbourhood crime. This means that although Delhi’s entire population of 20 million people is exposed to toxic air, they are the socio-economically weaker groups that experience disproportionately worse health outcomes due to the synergistic effect of air pollutants and psychosocial stressors that such groups exposed to. It is this cumulative risk that must be assessed by scientists aiming to alleviate environmental health disparities.
These learnings from the DAPHNE project, along with a couple of others, fuelled my desire to pursue higher education and training in environmental public health, with a specific research focus: investigating the health effects of air pollution and climate change, taking into consideration the effect modification caused by psychosocial and economic stressors.
Connecting the dots, scaling up the action
Our choices guide our daily lives and the human society per se, it is our planet that reacts to those choices in maintaining the balance needed to sustain life and our planetary community. This has never been clearer than now with the COVID-19 pandemic. And though the COVID-19 crisis is awful, the public health implications of air pollution and climate change are worse and will continue to worsen, if not meaningfully addressed.
As a public health physician and a budding environmental epidemiologist, my life is now dedicated to connecting the dots between air pollution, climate change, and human health. I trust the power of evidence-based science, as it holds the potential to better inform environmental policies and actions that can be truly public health protective. However, I also realize that such research efforts alone are not enough to move the environmental policy needle. As scientists, we can do more.
Firstly, I question, as with any work that involves people or is for people or involves communities, how much are communities included in air pollution and climate change conversations? Such conversations must include the people who are and will be impacted by such pressing issues daily and not limited to those who have the background, competencies, time, and energy to understand and fight them. Effective communication of scientific information in a comprehendible manner with the populations at risk is needed to help align public discourse with the environmental and public health realities.
Secondly, having seen that the interactions between the environment and society are complex, I acknowledge that the solutions to planetary health challenges of this era require not just ecological and public health approaches but also historical, political, ethical, and economic approaches. Multidisciplinary collaborations are essential to integrate the environment, society, and population health at multiple scales.
Lastly, I believe that there is a need to promote inclusive intergenerational leadership, both within and outside of the scientific community. As of 2019, the world has the largest generation of young people in history, with 1·8 billion people aged between 15–29 years. Untethered by institutional affiliations and the ability to operate beyond political and geographical borders, this demographic holds the potential to break down the boundaries between the climate science and public health disciplines, and model the environmental health, justice, and sustainability agendas.
Human-driven changes to the natural world will likely drive the majority of the global burden of disease and other health impacts over the coming century. We won’t have another chance to get this right.
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