When I was a child, I had the good fortune to receive an education that set me up to be who I am today.
My headmistress was a true educator. She believed that young women needed to have a rounded and holistic educational experience and thus made sure that we studied both the arts and sciences. There was also a healthy focus on values and ethics, the lessons from which I keep close to my heart until today.
And, for me at least, the most challenging and yet most rewarding aspect of the way in which the school was run was its focus on leadership development, which was not taught in the strictest sense of the word, but rather inculcated.
Of course, this was all a long time ago now, and the subjects that I was taught were appropriate for that moment in time. They shaped my higher education and my eventual qualification as a doctor.
But like everything else, education changes with time. And as the speed of change accelerates, my sense is that education is having a hard time keeping up and making sure that today’s children are ready to face tomorrow’s challenges.
Malaysia’s investment is significant, with the largest allocation from the national budget last year going to education. This is wonderful, and as an educator I applaud this prioritisation. But as we look to the future, surely it is incumbent upon us to make sure that our children are as well-equipped as they can be to address the consequences of the poor state of planetary health, that they are aware that there are ways to repair the damage, and that they play a pivotal role here.
Catching children at an earlier age when minds are hungry for knowledge should be a priority for us all. Shaping the thinking of our young children will not only help them to realise the importance of a planetary health approach but also start to influence parents and others to rethink their behaviours. The early years are the moment to build our children’s creativity and to make them independent, responsible and resilient individuals.
Children should be introduced early on to the linkages between the environment, animals, plants and human health; educated on how to behave in a way that is in harmony with nature; and about action that they can take to protect their health and respect their surroundings.
A commentary published in The Lancet journal summarised the evidence of the positive impact of planetary health education on young people. For instance, young people who learned about climate change at primary and secondary levels show reduced vulnerability and increased adaptive capacity to natural disasters and climate change in adult life.
A school-based project on waste education at primary schools in South Yorkshire, Britain, was effective in influencing how parents managed household waste, leading to increased participation in recycling and decreases in residual waste. Similarly, educating children about the connection between human, animal and environmental health has been shown to increase students’ interest in pursuing future careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Building planetary health into our national curriculum as a core subject would be a very wise first step.
Pulling together an inclusive policy process involving educators, parents and other stakeholders to work together on this may be something for the Education Ministry to consider. It may be possible to draw on lessons from work already underway at Sunway University where the Malaysian government’s Mata Pelajaran Umum (general subjects) core requirement for all undergraduate students was redesigned earlier this year as a “Community Service for Planetary Health” short course.
Thirty-six students majoring in communications, advertising and branding participated. During a seven-week period, they took part in online sessions where they learned the fundamentals of the planetary health approach and were exposed to tools and skills for diagnosing problems and designing solutions. They worked closely with host organisations on projects that addressed specific planetary health-related issues (like healthcare waste management, urban farming, raising public awareness) and harnessed their skills in communication and advertising, among others. Overall, the course helped raise students’ awareness of civic responsibility and the contributions they can make to advance planetary health at the community level.
The university’s goal is to make this course available to all 3,000 undergraduate students regardless of their discipline by 2024, thus helping to expose our young leaders to the relationship between planet and people.
For me, this is a great start, but our collective goal should be that every young person in Malaysia has the opportunity, from Year One onwards, to learn about planetary health and the role they can play in making the planet a safe and healthy place for them, for their children and for generations to come.
We know that younger generations understand the urgency and seriousness of the climate emergency. Primary and secondary schools should take advantage of this growing awareness and support students with education on planetary health rather than try to ignore this quite literally life-changing subject.
Education of young children must be focused on a planetary health approach because future threats are not only related to climate change and the environment. The risks our young people will face are much broader, and planetary health offers a holistic approach to understanding and addressing these challenges. Resources are available from the Planetary Health Alliance of which Sunway University is a part – bringing them into our core curriculum would be a very positive next step.
Dr Jemilah Mahmood, a physician and experienced crisis leader, was appointed the executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University in August 2021. She is the founder of aid organisation Mercy Malaysia and has served in leadership roles internationally with the United Nations and Red Cross for the last decade. She writes on Planetary Health Matters once a month in StarLifestyle.