The Precipice of Fear, AKA how you know you’re doing your most important work

For the past three years, the Istanbul airport has been the gateway to many fears. It was through here where I first flew when moving to Tanzania in 2015. It was where I passed through again eight months later, headed for the same destination but unsure of whether I was making the right choice to return.

In December 2017, it was where I disembarked as a bundle of jetlagged nerves and anxious energy, preparing to deliver my first workshop for the UN Alliance of Civilizations. More recently, Istanbul is where I transited en route to Tel Aviv, where I had little guess of what to expect from Israel and Palestine.

An airplane flies over a green landscape
Not Istanbul, or anywhere I’m going on this trip. Needed to illustrate the travel element somehow - plus this shot does illustrate just one way humans have changed the Earth for our benefit. Check out those fields!

This airport is at the intersection of three continents and beyond. That’s made clear in just a moment of people watching. Around me, young women in hijabs take selfies, a 20-something guy naps slumped over on his backpack, a Chinese tour group ushers themselves onto the moving sidewalk.

To me, this airport is also a place that makes me pause, question my motives, and try hard to escape the place that is my own crushing expectations. It’s a fun mental journey, often enjoyed over free Turkish delights.

That’s where I’m at in this moment — minus the Turkish delights, which are alarmingly no longer on free sample. It’s July 4, 2018, 11 p.m. local time. By all intents and purposes, the trip is off to a good start. My flight from Valencia was smooth, and I managed to remove nearly all of the tomato sauce I dripped onto my tank top mid-flight. Around that same time there occurred a minor panic attack, an accumulation of days, weeks, months of wondering if I could do this thing I’m flying to do. Can I produce something important, respectful, entertaining — touching, even? Or will I allow my heart to overrun my head, my insecurities to muddle the task at hand. Imposter syndrome is real, and lately, it’s been my shadow.

I value meaningful work. I think that’s the same with everyone, but it could be that I live in a bubble of passionate people. This work that I’m about to do — this work that has once again brought me to the precipice of my scariest place — has the potential to be my most meaningful work to date.

As some of you may have read on Facebook, I started a new project a few months ago. Here’s the Coles Notes version: over the next year, I’ll be travelling to various corners of the Earth, documenting how peoples’ health is being impacted by man made environmental change. We are talking all the heavy hitters: climate change-induced disasters and droughts, deforestation, air pollution, over consumption, loss of biodiversity… sadly, the list goes on.

You don’t need to be an expert to understand that humans are gobbling through the world’s resources at an alarming rate. As for all this talk about the human population one day sustaining itself on another planet’s resources? Well I am firmly Team Pro Staying On Earth. We made this mess, and now we have to clean it up.

Are you feeling cheerful yet?

If not, let’s talk about how that cleaning up piece happens. I’m not one to dwell on disaster and despair, though that pair of gloomy characters does deserve a seat at the table (watch: Chris Jordan’s video on the importance of grief down below). I believe in the power of solutions, and that while these solutions can happen at a government level, they ultimately need to consider the complex layers of real life. You know, the values and needs that are central to the people the solutions are meant to serve. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure you can’t call them solutions.

This project is to create a series of case studies that feature something called planetary health solutions. Planetary health solutions are all about addressing the many layers that make up the root cause of a problem. And guess what? It doesn’t usually involve only addressing Silo A, B, or C. You’ve got to get the whole alphabet involved and then some.

I mentioned the phrase “corners of the Earth.” I use this language to illustrate a point: that the people who are most at risk of experiencing the effects of environmental change are those living at the periphery of most peoples’ world views. The Senegal River Basin, Fiji and other small island developing states, Borneo, the Guatemalan highlands, East Sudan. The people who are consuming the least are the first and hardest hit. This is unfair. That is why planetary health is also a tool for social justice. People are being affected unequally, and everything is connected to everything else. We need to understand how and why.

I’ll be right there learning with you. I’ve been talking to a lot of smart people lately, and they’ve all got something to say about planetary health. I can’t pretend to be an expert, and hope I have the courage and intellect to bring the complicated to clarity, all while telling a good story.

That is why at 1:25 a.m. I will board a plane for Southeast Asia where, after a short visit to Bangkok to have a visa processed, I’ll continue on to Borneo, one of Indonesia’s most well known islands. I’ll be spending three weeks in a town called Sukadana at the edge of Gunung Palung National Park. I can’t wait to share more about the organization whose work I’m profiling. Here’s a hint: their work relates to illegal logging — but it’s not happening for the reasons you think.

There is such a fear, excitement, and privilege in leaving behind what has grown to be familiar. And as I seem to have managed before, I hope to channel these emotions — as well as empathy and a lot of hard work — into creating something that can educate and enlighten. I am fortunate to get to be the eyes documenting this shifting world, and the ways in which we are trying to save it.

Right now those eyes are red and tired, staring determined through this Gateway of Fear.

Next up: a personal take on planetary health

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Background: These case studies will be created for a group called the Planetary Health Alliance, based out of Harvard University. The main audience is undergraduate and graduate students studying planetary health. You can learn more about the Planetary Health Alliance on their website. You’ll also soon see some of my photos on their Instagram account, and on mine, @hilarydufftz.


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