By Sandi Halimuddin
“Titanic: 2,208 people; 16 lifeboats. Earth: 7,000,000,000; no lifeboats,” UW associate professor Benita Beamon said to the audience, who burst out in laughing.
In response, Beamon joked that the crowd was overly optimistic about the realness of the issue of sustainability in the face of climate change.
Sustainability, the matter on hand, is no laughing matter. Yet during the third plenary session, titled, “From HIV to Hurricanes: Interactions between the Environment and Human Health,” panelists were cordial and even humorous, when discussing issues as sustainability, food security and disease in the complex networks of human-environment interactions.
When using the term environmental health in the global health context, moderator and UW professor of Environmental and Forest Sciences Susan Bolton, was eager to clarify that it refers to questions of “how does the status of the ecosystem impact our health… and how do we impact the ecosystem.”
The panelists briefly covered their personal research efforts in the field, which illuminated the complex, and often surprising connections between human health and the environment.
Dr. Lori Hunter explored the “important reciprocal connections” between the environment and Sub-Saharan livelihoods in the wake of AIDS/HIV mortality in households.
In regards to environmental degradation, Hunter said, “Shortage of capital may mean a shortage of social options that can promote certain behaviors [increasing vulnerability to HIV/AIDS].”
The symbiotic relationship between humans and their environment has structural and cultural implications, Bolton noted.
Although the topics ranged from environment dimensions of HIV/AIDS pandemics, animal diseases and public health, and management policies for humanitarian relief, all three panelists noted similar challenges in global health.
Speaking of the need for interdisciplinary research, “Complex problems need complex solutions and lots of people coming to the table,” said Beamon, who applies traditional industrial engineering techniques for problems such as humanitarian relief and global health.
Hunter and Beamon both noted the difficulties of finding collaborators and funding for interdisciplinary works because multiple reviewers have multiple lenses and multiple interests. Thus, although a multi-faceted approach is more encompassing, “Interdisciplinary work is slower… [and the] output is slower,” said Beamon.
Dr. Guy Palmer of Washington State University, who noted his optimism about interdisciplinary work, said, “The real challenge is I don’t know who else knows the solution to these problems.”
Palmer stressed the need for interdisciplinary research, collaboration and lenses to decrease the disconnect of knowledge between different sectors and levels of society.
“It’s about finding that expertise and [figuring out] how you coalesce expertise and [begin] reading broadly,” said Palmer.