The Human Particles of Planetary Health

By Professor Sabine Chaouche, Associate Dean (Research and Postgraduate Studies), School of Arts,  Co-Director (Sunway) – Future Cities Research Institute and Leader of the ElastiCities Research Cluster.

Cities have always been living spaces, created and developed by and for humans, that is, by and for bodies and souls. The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said about the relationship between the body and the soul: “just as general good condition of the body is compounded of the partial excellences, so also is the excellence of the soul qua end” (Eudemian Ethics, 1219b29-21a4). He meant that several parts of the body must work excellently to ensure overall well-being.

Just as Mother Earth is a particle of the universe that has its own rights and one might call its “partial excellences”, cities around the world themselves are living microcosms that play a certain role in planetary well-being. They are core elements of Mother Earth like any living beings are, since they are part of and form the Earth’s ecosystem. However, human-dominated ecosystems like cities are unstable, very heterogenous and complexly hybrid, as they are made of natural and technological elements managed through urban design and planning as well as city leadership. Like living organisms (plants and animals), humans who have created these cities can be producers, consumers or decomposers (recycling of matter).

Looking at the current threats in Malaysia such as a decrease in biodiversity (due to deforestation), climate change (in particular natural disasters resulting from it), increasing environmental issues such as air and water pollution, and a low rate of recycling (31.52 per cent in 2021), it is now necessary for all its beings to balance their doings. Harmony is the key to liveability ― not just for humans, but for all. The so-called “Anthropocene Epoch” becomes almost obscene. Humans have such a great effect on their environment, their cities, and the planet as a whole that this has led to the current global crisis. Our own wrongdoings threaten life itself because, instead of being “decomposers” on top of producers and consumers, we have essentially become destroyers and wasters: what remains from human activity is not reintegrated into the life cycle.

So, let’s go back to Aristotle’s philosophy and reflect on it. Cities with their populations and built environments, have their own soul (made of minds), and a body (made of matters). Thus, cities must strive for moral and physical excellence: the former is related to notions such as ethics and intellect; the latter to habitus (ingrained habits) and praxis (embodiment of customs). These are intertwined. So the main question is not how we should do to be good, but how we should be to do good.

What way and pathway do we want to follow to be in accord with the flow of Nature? During the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many city dwellers have tasted the bitterness of confinement, being trapped in condos. Some dreamt of those havens of peace with green landscapes, the wind gently swaying the branches of trees, and the soothing shade of rain trees. By being forced to slow down our movements and actions, we have somehow simply left space in ourselves for self-reflection and given ourselves more time to be present. While we are historically reaching a point of no return, we have reconnected our minds with nature and what seems to be our true nature: being. Will we have the spleen to be true to ourselves when all but concrete jungles are gone; when animals and plants are mere images on screens, being entirely replaced by robots and Artificial Intelligence (AIs)? The health of the planet primarily lies in our minds, and then in our hands.

In this context, the ancient philosophical adage “exercise your body to have a healthy mind” (mens sana in corpore sano) needs to be revisited as it is not the way to achieve a ‘[good] general condition’ [of the planet]. The relationship between body and mind/soul has to be questioned when it comes to planetary health, as humans, by overexploiting the earth’s resources, and creating overperformance-based living systems, have exhausted the planet and, unfortunately, its ability to recover. What should really be “exercised” to be healthy is our minds, and also perhaps consciousness, on an almost spiritual level. Let us strive to regenerate the failing parts of mankind and energise the pulse of the cities we live in. By searching and working together with an open mind, we, the human particles of planetary health, can find solutions that will lead not just to technological progress, which we tend to rely on too much, but more importantly to behavioural changes which, in turn, will lead to a more sustainable environment. 

Researchers can play a central role in this new approach. They can dedicate themselves to cultivating, at the heart of cosmopolitan and universalist research, new civic values, vision and mission which will be essential for improving and balancing the being and the doing, and thus the living condition of the planet and its cities.

Future Cities Research Institute (FCRI) was established as a platform to bring leading academics from Sunway University and Lancaster University together, and focus on finding workable solutions to some of the world’s most challenging problems. The research themes under FCRI include ‘Sustainable Cities’ which focuses on how to improve the lives of those living in cities today and how to reduce the impact they have on the areas around them; and ‘Digital Cities’ which explore new ways of exploiting technology in the cities of tomorrow and understand the possible social impact. FCRI works to develop an innovative and agile portfolio of research, responding to the intractable challenges facing urban environments, and examining new areas of inquiry that may include the design for healthy living, people-based infrastructures, night-time urban environments and urban food security.

ElastiCities is a cluster which aims to humanise cities for greater prosperity and which focuses on well-being and communities.

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