(Screenshot via Visit Philly virtual reality tour)
How could thinking globally improve our abilities to understand our region and ourselves? And how might local-global thinking help us make progress together?
I’m teaching a class at Haverford College that dives into these critical global citizenship questions. The global lens we’re employing is the new construct of planetary health. Planetary health considers how we could measure and improve upon human and ecological flourishing, all around the world. But instead of looking far away, the course focuses on the 30-mile radius around the college, where life expectancy gaps by neighborhood are larger than they are between Botswana (65.7 years) and Japan (83.7).
In North Philly’s 19132 ZIP code, average life expectancy is 65.7 years. In Society Hill (19106), life expectancy is 82.9 years. And in parts of Gladwyne (19035), just four miles to our northwest, life expectancy is 84.9 years. When we back up to look at the U.S. as a whole, we see that Pennsylvania’s average of 78.5 years is almost perfectly aligned with the national life expectancy of 78.6.
The gaps I share above aren’t special to Philly: Parts of rural America and other major cities actually have communities with life expectancies in the 50s. But that this occurs elsewhere does not make it right. Taking human dignity seriously, one must ask why comparatively similar people (people are people are people) have such radically different outcomes. (In the U.S. and around the world, a huge part of this differential is raced. I want to attempt to do this topic justice, so I’m focusing on it more explicitly in a separate post.)
Public and global health professionals have identified that most of the differences in life expectancy are due to things lumped together as social determinants of health: good schools, clean water, strong communities, access to health care, and more quality of life indicators that intersect at smart policy and access to resources.
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We in the suburbs, whether in Villanova or Haverford, are quite close to the City — and also deeply separated.
In class we learn about Puentes de Salud, an organization improving access to health care for the region’s rapidly growing Latinx population. But we also step back and look at the structural conditions that lead to the need for Puentes and other regional organizations like it: restaurants, businesses, and farms looking for labor, people willing to work yet unable to navigate a broken immigration system, and the significant peril then created for tens of thousands of the region’s workers. These conditions are quite local in their manifestation.
Just to our west, Chester County boasts one of the highest county-wide life expectancies in the state (81.2 years), yet achieves that extraordinary feat with life expectancies of 75 years in Coatesville and Kennett Square. Across the city and throughout the suburbs, we are a patchwork of inequity. Our roles and opportunities in produce trade, exquisite dining, and worker mobility are structured through the intersection of global marketplace assumptions, a vast network of national and international policy agreements, racism, and colonialism. Global thinking tasks us to look at the interactions of international policy and history with our local places, and highlights the webbed-ness of everyplace.
Employing a global lens on our region helps us better understand its dynamism, its role within systems, its many assets and its liabilities
The region’s deep interconnections are evident in the travel of produce from farms to restaurants, the ugly guarantee of choking traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway and up and down I-95 any weekday morning, and the volume of regional SEPTA riders (more than 130,000 daily). But the birds and bugs and waterways around us know interdependence in ways that human minds rarely approach comprehending.
Part of the point of employing a planetary health lens is to wrestle with the reality that the last century’s remarkable progress on promoting human longevity has paralleled extraordinary loss of environmental diversity and planet sustainability.
The life expectancy data points I’ve shared above are part of what we consider in class, along with their relationship to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. But we also bring these rather anthropocentric ways of understanding into conversation with the ecological concerns in planetary health, along with Robin Wall Kimmer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass.”
Kimmer illuminates the wisdom of plants and ecological systems, and helps us see their lives intertwined with our lives, thereby calling our attention to Haverford’s location in the Cobbs Creek Watershed, one of seven significant watersheds that wind through the suburbs and affect city waterways.
Thinking about water returns us to human and policy questions. The waterways we experience in the Philadelphia region today are in some ways unchanged since the Lenni-Lenape named the wiessahitkonk (“catfish creek”) — a place now known as The Wissahickon. Yet in other ways population concentration and industrialization have fundamentally altered this environment.
The environmental movement in the U.S. is often traced back to a fire on the Cuyahoga River, in Cleveland, in the late ’60s. That story is told as if that fire and that river were unique. They weren’t. There had been several fires on that particular river. And all across the United States, people had experienced multiple generations of sacrificing local environmental viability and beauty for economic gain. Locally, WHYY recently covered how the Clean Water Act transformed the Delaware River from a stinking, ugly mess to a place of recreation and waterfront celebration.
Later this semester we’ll kayak together from Bartram’s Garden, on to the Schuylkill River. As we paddle from this place of beautifully preserved Southeastern PA forest, with a gorgeous view of the city skyline, we will face the largest oil refinery on the East Coast. We’ll consider the threats that refinery’s operations pose to the region, particularly in light of regional rising waters predictions.
Oil and the Schuylkill aren’t the only interface of our region’s ecology with global industrial production, of course. A few years ago Haverford faculty and students in chemistry, environmental studies, political science, and visual studies cooperated with a filmmaker to complete a multimedia project, Troubled Waters, that investigates the ways in which our regional manufacturing output affects the Delaware River.
Employing a global lens on our region helps us better understand its dynamism, its role within systems, its many assets and its liabilities. And the more global lens quickly clarifies our extraordinary proximity to one another.
Haverford College sits just three miles West of the city’s western edge — City Line Avenue. That’s miniscule. It’s less than a 5K. Of course, I’m only talking about the distance between the College and the Western Side of the City. To get the whole way to Independence Hall, one would need to travel almost 10 miles. Every year, more than 30,000 people prove 10 miles isn’t really that far as they complete the Broad Street Run.
We in the suburbs, whether in Villanova or Haverford, are quite close to the city — and also deeply separated. A planetary health lens requires us to understand our interdependence, and to do community-building and world-building that decreases those indefensible life expectancy differentials, while finding ways to become more sustainable.
One thing is clear: It’s often difficult to imagine the world we need, yet we know we need better ways of thinking and doing. Through systems-thinking, ecological thinking, and historical thinking, a critical global citizenship aims to open our minds to new ways of thinking, new commitments, and new possibilities.-30-
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