Educating Planetary Citizens – A MAHB Dialogue with Suzanne York, Director, Transition Earth

Geoffrey Holland | March 23, 2021 | Leave a Comment

Geoff Holland – What are the biggest challenges facing the world today?

Suzanne York – As most of us are aware, there is an urgent list of global challenges. Probably the overarching challenge is climate change, which of course covers other numerous problems facing humanity. Then there is inequity and inequality, which are driven by systemic class divisions, racism, colonialism, globalization, and patriarchy. But the challenges that trouble me the most are biodiversity loss, erosion of human rights, and population growth. We are at a moment where we have to act now to save the planet, and to save ourselves. Business as usual cannot continue.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that how society interacts with nature has a price. Whether we pay attention to this and permanently change our ways is the big question. Already we are seeing global carbon emissions rise again as we begin to ease back into pre-COVID life.  

There is a reason why many scientists refer to our current geological age as the Anthropocene. Humans have been and remain the dominant force on the planet. According to the Living Planet Report 2020, human actions have driven a 68% average decline of birds, amphibians, mammals, fish, and reptiles since 1970. The rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history. People and the livestock we consume for food make up 96% of the mass of all mammals on Earth. Let that sink in for a moment.

Yet our global population continues to grow and consume. While birthrates have declined in many countries, it is not going down everywhere, and world population – currently at almost 8 billion people, could hit 10 billion by 2050. That’s not so far off. Even as developed countries see a decline in numbers, there seems to be no abatement to consumption.  

Weakening human rights in many places around the world is only exacerbating problems. Climate change impacts and climate-driven immigration will test the commitment to respecting human rights.

It is critical to support human rights in the face of climate change and environmental degradation, as the situation grows more dire with each passing year. People everywhere must have their rights to water, food, and health acknowledged and respected, women above all.

GH – Has the time come for humans the world over to embrace planetary citizenship?

SY – Yes, and this is a long time coming. Our “human experiment” of the past few thousand years is not working. Let me rephrase that. It is working for some, mainly the rich and elite. But it is not working for the vast majority of humankind, and it certainly isn’t working for the planet.  

The good news is that we know what to do to halt this dire situation. The bad news is that we aren’t acting like our house – the planet – is on fire and that we have to act now. Nature is obviously telling us otherwise.

The idea of planetary citizenship could help people rethink how we live on Earth. The exploitation of nature is only hurting our own well-being. We need 1.6 Earths to maintain the way we live today. Clearly, some people are consuming much more than others. Overall, for nature, it is not sustainable.

We are living in interesting times. More and more, people are recognizing that the way we live is dooming the planet and the well-being of current and future generations. Young people are energized and connected in unprecedented ways. Existential challenges like climate change, oil spills, and the erosion of democracy are happening here and now. Because of this, the time seems ripe for embracing the idea of planetary citizenship as the best path forward to correcting past wrongs.  

GH – What is the critical role of education in nurturing planetary citizenship?

SY – Education is key to fostering understanding and embracing planetary citizenship. Fortunately, there is no shortage of ways to access educational tools for most people. And there are so many ways to promote this idea, from social media to art to movies to online courses and webinars. Moreover, there is no shortage of subjects either, as planetary citizenship covers an array of topics. It’s not what can we do to support the earth, but which of the various solutions out there are the best ones?

There is much we can do, especially when we proceed with actions that put nature front and center along with people. We don’t have to recreate the wheel, just think and act in a way that reflects that humanity is part of the web of life. There are still some indigenous cultures that manage to do this today, despite outside pressures. That is the central part of being a planetary citizen – people are part of nature, not above it, and living in balance with the earth is how we must learn to live.

What topics can we educate ourselves about that could make a real difference? Here are some promising solutions for human and planetary health to alter our catastrophic trajectory:

  1. Rights of Nature
  2. Indigenous land stewardship
  3. Set aside land for nature – (e.g., initiatives like Nature Needs Half, Half Earth, and the Wyss Campaign for Nature)
  4. Rights for women and girls
  5. Reproductive rights for all
  6. Agroecology
  7. Traditional ecological knowledge
  8. Alternative economies/economic measures (e.g., Gross National Happiness indicator)
  9. Clean energy systems
  10. Vertical farming
  11. Plant-based diets
  12. Rewilding

There are, of course, many other solutions and ideas out there. The good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. All of the ways of being listed above are here and are part and parcel of being a good planetary citizen. What is needed is a big educational push, and with it, a media blitz. This would make a good project for Jeff Bezos’ new fund.  

GH – The reach of the media these days is instantaneous. Every corner of the earth is technically tied together. Unfortunately, the commercial media is controlled by a small cabal of corporate entities that are built primarily to deliver profit. What’s wrong with that picture and how do we remake the media to deliver its full transformative potential?

SY – You hit upon one of the major problems with the media – that it is owned by a handful of corporations. Six corporations own 90 percent of media outlets in the U.S. Big media, in particular, has a product to sell and make money off of, and therein lies the trouble. The media’s 30-second sound bites of critical issues, along with the constant mantra of continued consumption, are why things are such a mess. George W. Bush telling people to go shopping after 9-11 is a perfect example of how we see shopping – pushed by a $138 billion ad industry – as a panacea to our difficult problems.

One way to change this is to return to trusted local/community-based sources of news. The demise of hometown newspapers (print and online) is not only a sad fact of our age, but it has resulted in reduced awareness of what’s happening in one’s own community. 

Investing in trained journalists, along with citizen journalism, could improve the current picture. Corporate dominance of media needs to end, which means, at least in the U.S., changing laws that benefit media monopolies. See the work of Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, and numerous other books, for ideas on how to reform media.

GH – What would a public media campaign designed to encourage genuine planetary citizenship, look like?

SY – I would put together a brain trust comprised of David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Greta Thunberg, Vandana Shiva, Disha Ravi (referred to as India’s “Greta Thunberg”), Tom Goldtooth (Indigenous Environmental Network), and many others who understand the need to live in harmony with the planet.

We need voices of experts and activists of all ages and all backgrounds to make a call to action in support of planetary citizenship. Short videos to run on social media outlets but also on TV (or on other media platforms like Amazon) and messages aired on the radio (think public interest messages). 

Another idea would be to follow the example of WildAid and the success this organization has had in curbing the consumption of wildlife (especially sharks) in China through the use of popular artists calling for change.

GH – Social media has the potential to bring the world’s people together behind a common vision for humanity. Unfortunately, it seems to be used, as much as anything, to promote lies and conspiracies that perpetuate the status quo. How do we realize social media’s full transformative potential?

Before we can use social media to bring people together, we first desperately need to re-establish person-to-person connections and focus on the things we hopefully find that we agree upon. We won’t be able to realize social media’s full potential if we continue to stay in our supportive echo chambers and are unwilling to listen.  

So we look for common ground with people we know. Perhaps I’m wrong, but most people want clean air and water, they don’t want toxins in their food, they don’t want to see species go extinct. I know right-wing supporters who love to hike. If we have a conversation outside in the forest, there is a chance of coming to some agreement on protecting the environment.  

GH – Jane Goodall is a powerful voice in service to nature. She has said that if you want to change minds, you have to get to the heart, and the way to do that is with stories. Do you agree with that sentiment, and if so, what kind of stories does the world need right now?

SY – The world needs more messengers like Jane Goodall! She is someone who has had a big impact on my life and I greatly respect and admire her work. She is absolutely right in that we have to reach people’s emotions through stories. It is the best way to convey messages of connection, hope, and change and to inspire people to care about the environment. 

It is extremely important to help people understand difficult or complex topics. But issues such as population growth or climate change can overwhelm someone with statistics or specialized terms. People then become numb to the numbers, or they have trouble remembering facts. Could the world’s population hit 10 billion by 2050, or is it 2100? How much of California burned due to wildfires? How many species have gone extinct since 1970?

A person can passionately care about an issue but have trouble retaining crucial points. So as many experts and activists have noted – and especially Jane Goodall – using storytelling can help convey the urgency and importance of a topic and help someone recall why it’s important without necessarily reciting a bunch of facts. You don’t have to know how many chimpanzees in Tanzania are threatened by logging or farming or the rate of population growth. You just need to remember that a woman founded an organization that is trying to save chimps and bring people out of poverty.  

GH – Can you give some examples of how stories have changed the human cultural landscape?

SY – I think many stories have changed the landscape. I’ll share a few that I have used for the general public and that focus on connecting population growth, health, human rights, and the environment. However, depending upon the audience, talking about population growth or reproductive rights can be difficult. You don’t really mention population growth unless you say it’s a matter of family planning/reproductive health and rights and ensuring girls’ access to education. This is very true, but it risks leaving nature out of the equation, along with other subjects such as overconsumption and unsustainable reliance on perpetual economic growth.

We should be way past the point of population being ignored and a difficult topic, given what’s happening to the planet, but we’re not quite managing that yet. Stories can be a game-changer.

Also, people aren’t apt to remember statistics, as noted above. But they will remember a story of how one person or community affected positive change that helped people and nature.

Take Uganda, for instance. It is a rapidly growing country of some 44 million people that is geographically the size of the state of Oregon, which has less than 5 million people. Uganda is also home to an amazing array of biodiversity. Protecting wildlife, along with supporting reproductive rights and health, are of the utmost importance for the health of people and nature.

One of my go-to stories is that of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in Uganda, which takes an integrated approach to address the needs of local communities and protecting the environment. Their mission is to promote gorilla conservation by enabling people, wildlife, and livestock to coexist through improving health care in and around Uganda’s protected areas.  

It is run by a woman who is Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka (who is also on Transition Earth’s advisory council).

CTPH’s flagship program is at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, considered a biodiversity hotspot that is home to an estimated half of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park is surrounded by poor communities with a high rate of population growth. 

CTPH has successfully integrated family planning with these communities by focusing on wildlife health, community health, and empowering people through education and sustainable livelihoods. Via a network of community health volunteers, CTPH has promoted better health practices, including family planning, and has also fostered an attitude of environmental stewardship. In addition to their outreach on health, the organization has established human and gorilla conflict resolution teams (HUGOs) to address problems that arise between the gorillas and local communities. Lastly, CTPH created a sustainable coffee cooperative to support local job creation.

On the other side of the world, another organization also works to bring healthcare and jobs to people to protect biodiversity, including another great ape.

Alam Sehat Lestari, or ASRI, works in Indonesia, a country with 270 million people. They are based in Borneo, which has experienced a dramatic loss of its forests, due mostly to agriculture and palm oil production.

The town in which ASRI works, Sukadana, borders Gunung Palung National Park, home to an estimated 2,500 orangutans. Community members wanted to protect the forest, but poverty led many of them to turn to illegal logging to meet their basic needs. ASRI’s leaders listened to the locals who told them they had an urgent need for affordable healthcare. Now ASRI provides health services, ambulances, mobile health clinics, as well as training in organic farming, which the community requested.

ASRI also manages a reforestation program that is meant to not only revitalize the forest but to give the community a stake in conservation, which is a win-win for the people and nature. Local people are paid to prepare, plant, and care for seedlings in degraded areas. The reforestation program has enjoyed widespread local support. Some in fact pay for their health care by participating in the program. Children learn to value their local environment via a conservation and kids program.

ASRI has supported real on-the-ground solutions that empower communities with healthcare (especially family planning and reproductive health) and jobs while protecting the local environment.  

GH – The great 19th-century cultural gadfly, Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life”. What role should the arts play in bringing all of humanity together in support of our common planetary interests?

SY – As with storytelling, art is indispensable to educate the public and bring people together in support of initiatives that help the planet. Art can lead to conversations and inspire meaningful change, and it can add an element of humanity to challenging issues. Above all, it helps make things relevant, something a person can see and feel. 

In this time of pandemic and doom-scrolling, art can lead us out of the darkness and into beautiful things. Movies, novels, and children’s books are creative tools that can connect people to the environment and to one another. And poetry has long been a force on caring for nature and people.

Earthrise / NASA-Apollo 8


Photography is now more popular than ever, and perhaps is the best showcase for sharing the beauty of our world. Just consider the breathtaking Earthrise image sent by the Apollo 8 mission to the moon. One of the astronauts said at the time that “The earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space.” For many other earthlings, it was an instant understanding of how precious our little blue dot is.

It’s interesting to note that in many cultures, song is used for public education on a variety of issues. Just recently a Masaai community in Tanzania used it for informing people about COVID-19. Many other communities use song for education on contraceptives or sending girls to school.

Art is an outlet where the sky’s the limit.  

GH – What can each of us as individuals do to embrace our common humanity and encourage the kind of world we wish to see?  

SY – Books have been written on this question! I’ll keep my response very simple. I think we need to see the world with the eyes of a child, where everything is new, beautiful, amazing, and fun, and where we are open to learning and want to learn. 

We basically need to learn to share the planet – our only home – with one another and with nature. I believe most people don’t want a hectic life, don’t want to be part of the rat race. Perhaps this is what we can take from this pandemic. That human connections matter, that spending time in nature is healing, and that we have much to learn from nature. Living out of balance with the planet has severe consequences. It’s time we alter our path and become planetary citizens.

Suzanne York is the director of Transmission Earth, a project of the Earth Island Institute that promotes human rights and nature’s rights in a world of unsustainable growth.

Previously Suzanne was Senior Writer and Program Director with the Institute for Population Studies in Berkeley, CA, where her work focused on the interconnectedness of population growth with women’s empowerment, human rights, consumption, alternative economies, and the environment. She has an M.A. in Public Policy from American University and a B.A. in Business Administration from Portland State University. Suzanne is a member (and former Chair) of the Sierra’s Club Trade, Human Rights and Environment Teams and also its Global Population Team.

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