|Gil Bashe and Bob Martineau
The communications field must quickly collaborate to create a new discipline—and for no lesser mission than saving the planet and its inhabitants from environmental degradation and its disastrous health impact.
The close connection between environmental health and the health of our people, communities and economies is undeniable. While public health impacts are often the basis for environmental regulators’ actions, we seldom approach these challenges together. If we fail to remember they are deeply connected, addressing them is much more difficult. Attacking individual aspects of a complex problem is like fighting a hydra: you may knock out one evil, but if you fail to attack the root cause, a dozen other problems rear their heads in its place.
Yet here we are—facing disaster without anyone owning our planet’s health. That’s why environmental and health PR pros must unite, blending our skill sets into one, new public health communications discipline that drives a broader, united effort.
It’s overdue; the line between environmental and public health communications disciplines becomes more blurred every day. Industries must build out their environmental communications planning and programs, taking a far broader view that should synthesize environmental health, economic sustainability, and human health and wellness.
Can the health and environmental/sustainability comms experts reach out, integrate and rise to the challenge? We can, and we must. But first, let’s critically assess the scope of the problem:
Environmental and Health Degradation Go Hand in Hand
Pollution doesn’t just happen; it is a byproduct of modern life. The direct result of our impact on the planet, environmental degradation is accelerated by the collective hunger of our consumerist culture. Driving when we could instead take public transportation pollutes the air and wastes massive amounts of fossil fuel. Our desire for possessing new gadgets consigns older electronics to landfills. Even our need to create new medicines results, inadvertently, in harmful waste from manufacturing and from discarded health products, which can cause problems, including the promotion of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Though we breathe, eat and live in the environment, we often forget just how interconnected all aspects of our health are with the world around us. Exposure to dangerous levels of air, soil and groundwater pollution is proven to cause a cascade of life-threatening woes that include cancers, nervous system disorders, respiratory diseases, and premature births.
It doesn’t end with our personal health; our world’s economic health and a healthy environment are closely intertwined. As industrial smoke rises in nearby neighborhoods, companies struggle to hire and retain workers and deal with lost productivity and shrinking markets. Workers deal with increased medical costs as their most important economic assets—their homes—plummet in value.
Poor environmental health goes hand in hand with a multitude of ills that impact BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities disproportionately. Black Americans are 75 percent more likely than other Americans to live in redlined communities situated near factories that emit hazardous waste, with environmental risks a clear cause of widening racial, health and economic disparities.
Environmental and Health Advocacy Communicators Have Much in Common
Environmental and health communicators already share an understanding of complex systemic issues that can lead to crises on the one hand and can drive positive change on the other. This means that both can learn best practices from each other quickly and adapt them to meet particular needs, expanding their strategic options and further populating their tactical toolboxes in order to increase collective impact.
- The environmental movement is driven forward through the work of activists who face a common environmental threat. Likewise, patient advocacy communities, bound together by people who face the same disease, are capable of driving forward the development of treatments.
- Both environmental and health communicators employ novel approaches to digital technologies that facilitate more effective communications. These digital communications platforms and approaches enable both disciplines to find connections more easily with those in common cause and allow communicators in both areas to amplify reach and impact.
- Any step that’s good for the environment also benefits the long-term health of both individuals and all of humanity’s endeavors. That should be stressed as a common message, as long-term environmental health is the realistic key to sustainable human and economic health.
Environmental Risk is a Risk to All Health and Life
The threat to human health and life posed by environmental dangers must be communicated. That threat is a great unifier that all of us, whether as individuals, families, workers, corporate officers, or community leaders, face together. As communicators, we must recast the connection between pollution and health risks as extremely immediate and personal through awareness building, advocacy and guideline-setting programs.
We also need corporate America to recognize the problems they face and the solutions that they can effectively support. They are already receptive to the messages we bring: Wall Street investment firms say they care about environmental issues. Historically, investors and analysts rarely connected shareholder value to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risk, but change is afoot. C-suite leaders who place ESG on their radar screens note its importance to their company's well-being and long-term investment community impact, and when the last administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, the leaders of many major corporations stepped forward to uphold businesses’ responsibility.
Though they may not have realized it before now, health PR pros in agencies and corporations have an important role to play in saving our planet. By teaming with their environmental communications colleagues, they can exert enormous economic leverage throughout the world. The health sector’s economic and innovation clout can and must be redirected to shape private sector behavior into more sustainable business models.
We in health and environmental PR must mobilize, using everything we’ve learned from harnessing corporate power and building patient and professional health advocacy communities to avoid the looming environmental disaster. The tactics that help environmental and health communicators raise awareness and drive action already exist. By collaborating, reviewing best practices, adapting to the challenges we face, and creating new, shared strategic imperatives, we can save our own health by saving the planet.
Gil Bashe is managing partner, chair, global health, FINN Partners. He is also an advisor to the Galien Foundation, DTRA.org and Newtopia; Health Tech World and Medika Life correspondent; and a digital health influencer. Bob Martineau, JD is senior partner, environment, energy & sustainability, FINN Partners. He served as commissioner of environment and conservation, State of Tennessee, and is a past president of the Environmental Council of the States.