Carlos Faerrón Guzmán

Planetary Health: Carlos Faerron and the « big questions » for prosperous futures 

Carlos Faerron Guzman lives most of the year in Costa Rica. He is Associate Director of Planetary Health Alliance, T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, Director of Global Health Programs and Associate Professor at the University of Maryland Graduate School, to name a few of his roles.

His hobbies are « simple »: as there are wine lovers, Carlos is a coffee lover: he studies it, travels to coffee growing areas and has worked in them. Also soccer has given a different meaning to his life, he plays it and travels to watch it.

He was a very young doctor in the clinic of a small indigenous community when the « big questions » began to concern him, when he saw that « many of the things he saw there were a late representation of something that could have been prevented ».

That frustration was channeled into a deep and meteoric career dedicated to recovering the narrative of reconnection with nature, to focusing education on affectivity and not only on the cognitive, and to achieving « the great transition » towards Planetary Health where, he says, Forest Bathing « emphasizes that much-needed reconnection with what we were ».

An Indigenous Community and Planetary Health

« Growing up in Costa Rica we were told a lot in Civic Education about the creation of the National Parks system as one of the emblematic legislations of Costa Rica, which in Central and Latin America was a pioneer in that sense. In school we had a very close relationship with farm animals. It was quite a nice place to learn and run through small woods and play with insects. We learned which ones to play with and which ones not to play with, sometimes not very pleasantly.

« But my professional career intersected with the environment about 20 years later, already graduated from the University of Costa Rica School of Medicine, when I spent some time doing community medicine in an indigenous territory where the relationship with nature was completely different.

« Near that same community there was a Tropical Biology research station where they received a lot of researchers, doctoral students in different areas of Natural Sciences and I began to frequent and have conversations with ecologists, biologists, conservationists and my concern was to try to do something together. First it was a course, and I moved from the Health area to the Education area with them.

« There began my academic career, in that intersection between health and nature that at the same time intertwined interculturality and Human Rights. That interdisciplinary approach was my entry into this field that would become Planetary Health. »

« I had just come out very tired of the hospital environment, I was burned out and had decided that a hospital career was not for me. I focused my energies on something new and not on frustration. I started to unwind in university and professional networks until I reached the Planetary Health Alliance.

« In 2015, when the Sustainable Development Goals were launched, I was already working on an initiative with Lebanon to develop a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Development and Global Health, as the term Planetary Health was not consolidated. »

« Then I learned about The Lancet report on Planetary Health and Planetary Health Alliance at Harvard University, where I already had a relationship. »

« Affective » education and Forest Bathing

« At the I Global Summit Science, Nature and Health we are going to talk about how to understand health in the Anthropocene. There are transitions or transformations that we have to make, « the great transition« , where we rethink the economic, social, environmental systems, and where I am most involved is in education because I have a great interest in this affective part of learning that we often forget.

« We have made education very technical and we have focused it on the development of theoretical content and knowledge. However, we forget that there is an affective and even spiritual part of understanding who you are in the world and the impact you want to have.

« Our systems have separated us from understanding the interconnectedness between humans and nature, that interdependence that exists between natural systems and social systems. We have forgotten, and on purpose many systems are seeking to separate them: language, economic systems, what is worth and what is not worth, what we say and do not say, how we think… This is related to that disconnection and has led us in part to forget its affective part but also to learn in a different way. That affectivity with the natural system is what I want to develop ».

« Forest Bathing is one of the ways. Disconnection changes absolutely everything. Our systems adapt quickly but in those adaptations we lose certain things – like circularity – and that can make us sick. I feel that Humanity is getting to that point.

« Forest Bathing is a bit of that reconnection, of that pause, of that need to go back to what we were, and not this accelerated change we have lived through. In that interconnection there is a historical memory in our cells that activates and says ‘here is something I remember‘ and I can heal. What I say may sound esoteric but it is not: there is a field of science that is dedicated to studying these things.

« We have been creatures of narratives and mythologies: you have to generate those new narratives of reconnection and Forest Bathing emphasizes that, but also backs it up with science and it’s a good combination. »

The « big questions »

« What drives me are the big questions we have to ask ourselves as a civilization in order to have prosperous futures. My career started downstream and I’m looking to get to the source of the river with those ‘big questions’. Going upstream to find the causes of why things eventually happen in an unfortunate way. »

« Since I was working at the clinic in this small indigenous community (San Vito de Coto Brus), part of my frustration that I was later able to transfer to another kind of energy was that many of the things that came to the clinic were a late representation of something that could have been prevented.

« A communicable disease, a pneumonia or a parasite or other things that could mark someone for life, like an early or teenage pregnancy, which was an issue that was quite prevalent, and you could work from prevention and education, and not sitting in the clinic waiting for them to show up.

« That was the first step, moving from an individual clinical approach to a public health approach, much more preventive. The vocation for education is an issue that has always called to me and I envisioned myself within a grand theory of societal change.

« I teach to my students the 5 whys. See a phenomenon and ask that phenomenon 5 times why, always going backwards, in order to understand the structural factors that lead to this phenomenon, and think of complementary and joint and convergent strategies along the way. »


Ph: Courtesy Carlos Faerron Guzman

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