Health Insurance for the Planet


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

An individual has health insurance so that in case of illness or bodily injury he can have insurance benefits. The main concern here is individual security. As individual is not blessed with infinite life without any disease or problem – health insurance in this case guarantees his security. The primary motive behind this security is the idea that individual life is fragile, subject to various vagaries – whether rising from nature or manmade– individual can secure his losses by availing health insurance. Forget health insurance, we have insurance for our vehicles, houses, perhaps any conceivable thing which can be insured.

Individual lives in a geographic location. Space and time are a priori in human existence. Stretching space in our imagination we can think of our globe – the planet earth – or other planets in the solar system, but space is something which is beyond imagination and spreads across solar systems, galaxies, milk ways and other entities in the universe. My point in narrating all these space structures is to emphasize that among the wide variety of space structures only planet earth has the elements for life survival. Science tells us that – at present we do not know whether other space structures have elements for life survival.

Here I am trying to make an analogy between individual and our planet. In this analogy I am inspired by the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, who argued passionately during her lecture at University Massachusetts Boston and during her radio interview last month that we must think about the health of our planet as we think about health of the individual. Individual life is fragile, so is life of the planet. The analogy may seem metaphorical but is not without its utility. We are concerned about individual and human security and think about means to provide for them but we do not give importance to the surroundings in which individual lives. We do not give importance to the security of our planet. Individual security largely veers around the conduct of the individual. The security of the planet too veers around the conduct of the individual. As individual life can not be sustained without regulations, the same thing can be argued about the planet though in a different way. If individual has health insurance then the planet must have health insurance.

The argument has a lot of relevance. Earth does not possess infinite resources. The earth has its limit in terms of resources. The more we use non-renewable resources, the less we have of them. Coal is the mineral that takes thousands of years to take shape. But within that time space, we have thousands of human generations come and pass away and exhaust resources of the earth. Hence, the question is not only economic but also ethical. It is ethical because we can not extract resources of the earth as we wish, without thinking about the health of our planet. The greedy use of resources not only deforms the earth, but also cripples its capacities for future generations. Mahatma Gandhi cautioned us, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” The rush for economic development has contributed to depletion of resources of the earth, and also polluted our atmosphere. It may not be prudent to argue against economic development, but it certainly makes sense to argue for a prudent use of non-renewable resources earth has for us. How to do this belongs to the realm of actions by individuals and particularly to the states they belong to.

It is not the issue to be settled between the developed and the developing countries. Such a formulation does not help. It is about individuals and about future generations. Figueres rightly pointed out individual must rise above narrow confines of state and region, and think global. Individual needs to broaden his thinking not as a national citizen but as a global citizen. Similarly, the nations – the agglomeration of individuals – must think in terms of members of a single family of human society. They have to think this way, because there is no alternative way. The problems created in some parts of the world are not confined to that part of the world. The diseases inflicted on the body of earth are not/can not be confined to a particular nation or group of nations. The impact of the rise of the sea level will be global – it will affect all low lying areas in the world. Maldives, which perhaps did not contribute, or contributed a paltry sum, to global warming will submerge under water. The rapid deforestation and its impact on rain pattern will impact countries across the globe. The thinning of Arctic ice or the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas will have devastating impacts transcending national boundaries. Nations have perhaps realized this and the impending catastrophe out of this. We have lot of dialogues, deliberations, and summits about how to address these issues. The optimistic and dynamic leaders like Figueres believe that we must have to work within existing parameters, within existing rigidities, to craft policies to address the issues plaguing the earth.

Earth, hence, needs a health insurance. Who will be, in this case, the provider? The answer is – the individuals and groups of individuals. I use here the word group in a broad sense, implying small groups of organizations to larger collective entities of state or supranational bodies. But, the starting point must be individual. I remember a movement in India which worked on the idea that every individual in the country in her/his life time would plant at least one sapling. An individual may argue that such a step is trivial – how would one sapling planted by him help prevent climate degradation. But this argument is wrong – it is the individual who enjoys the fruits of trees (literally as well as metaphorically) planted by his predecessors. And if every individual plants a tree, one billion people of India can plant at least one billion trees. Tree is an example. When Figueres argued that every individual must think as a global citizen, the message goes to every individual – the individual in the countryside, to city dwelling educated and professional individuals, and their leaders – who are also individuals. There needs to be a fundamental change in the mind of individuals about the earth. We call the earth Mother Earth, but we seldom think about this mother. Individual must cultivate, or be led to cultivate, empathy for the planet. A leaf from Gandhi’s life. When an inmate of his Ashram snapped a small branch of a tree in a careless move, Gandhi was angry and rebuked him saying as you have life as a human being, the tree has also life.

The question is political, economic as well as ethical. In fact all these dimensions reinforce each other. Nations need to cooperate with each other irrespective of their wealth and cultivate in their citizens empathy for the planet. It is time that we must seriously think about health insurance for our planet and think creatively how to provide this insurance. The cost is individual, and national, commitment to a healthy practice and the benefit is security for us and our future generations.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and an Indian commentator. His areas of interests include India-Russia relations, conflict and peace, and strategic aspects of Eurasian politics.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 May 2013.

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