Professor Irus Braverman, who has written extensively about our fellow creatures and the world we share with them, continues that exploration with her new edited volume More-than-One Health: Humans, Animals, and the Environment Post-COVID (Routledge, 2022).
The book grew out of a Baldy Center virtual workshop held in April 2021 and takes a critical approach to the “One Health” movement, which understands human health to be intertwined with the welfare of animals, plants, and the environment. In particular, the book highlights the structural biases and power dynamics that the philosophy entails, and calls on scholars to “decolonize” its assumptions.
In her introduction, Braverman unpacks One Health’s anthropocentric focus, and argues that insights from the social sciences, literature and Indigenous narratives can remedy deficits in the approach. Drawing on subjects as diverse as Inuit sled dogs in the Arctic, rock hyraxes in Jerusalem, black-faced spoonbills in Taiwan, and street dogs in India, the volume calls for a more transparent, plural and just understanding of global health and our shared responsibility for building it.
Braverman expanded on some of these ideas in the Q&A below.
You write that COVID-19 brought the One Health concept “to the forefront of the global health agenda.” Do you think the pandemic sensitized the wider public—those who don’t think about these issues professionally—to the interdependence of humans, animals, plants and the environment?
Totally. The fact that the pandemic likely originated from bats brought attention to how related we all are. But beyond the interconnection of human and more-than-human lives, the pandemic also highlighted the violence humans have been inflicting on ecosystems and how the fragmentation of such ecosystems and the human encroachment upon them have resulted in increased and stressful contact between humans and wildlife. The wildlife vets I interviewed for the One Health project many months before the start of the pandemic were already cautioning that such intensifying contact zones could end up in a pandemic scenario—and are still at the forefront of the global governance of health. I will also say that while international health regimes jumped on the One Health bandwagon during the height of COVID, it looks like they are now shifting toward more preparedness and less prevention, which frustrates many of the One Health experts I have been speaking with.
The title of your book reflects a critical approach to One Health, incorporating insights from the social sciences and Indigenous worldviews. What one critical tool used by scholars do you find especially insightful in this critique?
Other recent books by Braverman:
In this collection, I was hoping to bring critical attention to how social scientists and humanities scholars have not been sufficiently involved in important discussions about how health should be defined and how it ought to look in our rapidly changing world. The blackboxing of scientific jargon, and of legal and political jargons as well, has led to many undemocratic decision-making processes. This is something I have been concerned about in myriad contexts, and in the context of the global governance of health in particular.
Another set of critical tools I found useful for examining One Health is from the field of Science and Technology Studies, or STS. This scholarship exposes some of the Western assumptions at the heart of the health sciences and the current desire to create a unified (neo)liberal governance of the world. Drawing on important insights in STS, some of my contributors highlight the problematic premises and divisions underlying One Health and the ways in which it has promoted biased colonial agendas over those of developing countries and marginalized communities.
You interview two leading thinkers in this area: Chris H. Walzer, executive director of health at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and John H. Amuasi, executive director of the African Research Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases. Why did you choose them to interview?
That’s always an interesting question, especially for a legal ethnographer. I was in touch with Chris Walzer for many years. I met him way back when I was researching for my book Wild Life: The Institution of Nature, which explored the interface of wild and captive life. He had brilliant insights then and we continued to be in touch over the years. When I was writing my book on zoo veterinarians, I contacted him again and we spent many hours discussing the interface of human-animal care. His insights and ability to think outside the traditional disciplinary silos was refreshing. So when I organized the conference that led to this collection and looked for health experts who were immersed in the ecological sciences, it was a no-brainer that Chris should be in the room. And he did not disappoint, as his provocative stance during the conference really contributed to a lively discussion, even though this was all virtual because of COVID. Chris’ organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Chris himself, were at the forefront of the recent changes to the One Health discourse that pushed it toward its current eco-health trajectory.
I believe it was Chris who told me about John Amuasi’s important work on the Lancet Commission for One Health and about his work on a One Health treaty, which I found intriguing. I reached out to John and we had a few conversations. His voice was important for the collection because he works on neglected tropical diseases, which are not sufficiently highlighted in the One Health discourse, and he brings insights from his very rich professional experience in Ghana. The original plan was for John Amuasi and Chris Walzer to each write their own contribution to this collection, but they were so busy with COVID-related research that we decided it would be best if we proceeded through an interview format. I hope the result is a less formal and more approachable text for the reader.
One criticism of the One Health movement is that it tends to replicate existing worldwide power dynamics. Is this a First World/developing world tension, or do you see those power dynamics differently?
One of the problems with One Health that we identified in the collection is the tensions between the developed and developing worlds. Another is between scientific and non-scientific discourses, and then a third is between anthropocentric narratives vs. those that decenter humans and engage more-than-human perspectives. Some of the contributors also highlight how the current governance of One Health problematically focuses more on adaptation and less on prevention, and more on zoonotic versus non-communicative diseases. Finally, there is a tendency in current health regimes toward a one-world governance that flattens local distinctions and promotes a unified approach toward health. The collection discusses these various binaries and their colonial origin, and the ways that moving forward we might want to challenge some of these assumptions so we don’t replicate the same colonial regime under the guise of progress.
You’re heading to South Africa for three months as a residential fellow at the prestigious Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. Congratulations. Can you tell us more about what that will entail?
This collection is the second of three books I have been working on in the last several years and involved a long process. It started from building a transdisciplinary board of scholars who together organized a conference three or four years ago, moved through identifying and recruiting diverse voices for this collection, and then there was the long editorial process of publication and production. I am currently finalizing the proofs for my third and final book project, Settling Nature: The Conservation Regime in Palestine-Israel, which is tied to the One Health project in multiple ways. Last year I decided to take a few long breaths and consider where I am going next. It is my hope that immersing myself in a top-notch intellectual community from all corners of the world and from multiple disciplines will allow me to reshuffle the cards and see what comes up next for me.