Planetary Health or Human Extinction? The choice is ours



Distinguished lecture

A respected physician who has spent two decades interacting with communities living on the frontline of climate change, has warned humans are staring down the barrel of a ‘climate crisis gun’ but there is still time for action.

Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Pro-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt’s Malaysia Campus*, made the comments during the University’s latest instalment of The Principal and Vice-Chancellor's Distinguished Lecture series.

In the public talk, Dr Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood, spoke about planetary health and the real risk posed to human survival.

She warned: “We now live in the age of the Anthropocene – where humanity is the most powerful force shaping the future of the Earth.

“It is our human activities and the choices that we make that are damaging the natural environment in ways that we see most clearly in the unfolding climate crisis. It is these choices and their now irrefutable impacts which in turn dramatically impact our individual and collective health. To put it simply and perhaps crudely, the choices we are making are, quite literally, driving us to extinction.”

Dr Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood added that unless humanity radically changes the way it chooses to approach the crises so that it fully understands the unbreakable relationship between health of humans and health of the planet, it will be stuck in a dangerous feedback loop. One where ever increasing numbers of people are exposed to ever more serious and consequential disasters that threaten their health, burden global finances, and further disrupt natural systems.

She added: “We, in seats of learning, universities such as this one, need to be on the sharp end of finding long-term solutions and what I have learned over the last few years is that finding those solutions is made less complicated when examined through the lens of planetary health.”

As the Pro Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Malaysia, Dr Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood says she will keep calling for educational institutions to wake up and realise it is our moral duty to equip our staff and students with knowledge of planetary health. 

“We need to lead in building new leaders with conscience, values and courage. I cannot emphasise enough just how important it is that we catch young minds at the earliest age possible,” she said.

“Children and youths are far more in touch with the climate crisis and, in many cases, they are the ones influencing their parents and adults to rethink their behaviours. Just look at Greta Thunberg and the impact that she has had globally.”  

The Vice-Chancellor's Distinguished Lectures are an opportunity to welcome speakers of the highest calibre from the worlds of industry, business and academia -  including our own global campuses - to share their experiences, thoughts and ideas for the future.

Dr Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood lecture, entitled Planetary Health or Human Extinction? is available to watch below. 

*Tan Sri Dr Jemilah took up her position on 1 September 2021, running until end of December 2023.


Craig McManamon