To me, Leonardo da Vinci is the greatest example of a Renaissance Man, a polymath with expertise in a wide variety of subject matter; a humanist (a person who values human beings and the autonomous, free-thinking self), supportive of critical thinking; and an intensely curious man who eschewed dogma of all kinds, whether it be in religion, art, law, or superstition. Leonardo worked in various fields including science, math, music, literature, anatomy (who hasn’t seen da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”), geology, astronomy, botany, history, paleontology, and, as one of the greatest artists of his time, painting and sculpture. Born low but free within the feudal system of the Middle Ages, Leonardo followed his bliss to become one of the world’s greatest thinkers and doers, a man who pulled the world along with him by sheer force of curiosity and sense of self. He saw the world not how it was, but how it could be, and was always dreaming up ways to improve upon the human condition.
Leonardo would have had more than a few things in common with Dr. Christiaan Morssink, a jack of all trades, a bridger of disciplines and an eradicator of siloed thinking. Christiaan recently was awarded the Global Philadelphia Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He has several roles: Executive Director of United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia (UNA-GP) [http://una-gp.org] (past president from 2008-2012); Secretary of the Global Philadelphia Association [https://globalphiladelphia.org/about/executive-committee]; the President and Co-Founder of the Global Water Alliance (GWA) (formerly the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative, or PGWI) [https://www.globalwateralliance.net]; on the board of the former Project for Nuclear Awareness [http://www.pnausa.org]; member of the advisory board of the Fairmont Water Works Interpretive Center [fairmountwaterworks.org]; and all around polymath. He holds degrees in cultural anthropology and non-Western sociology, from the University of Amsterdam, a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) from John Hopkins University, and a Ph.D. in Health and Policy and Administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health; in his early career he was a street corner worker and a part-time a journalist, and in Baltimore was a home improvement contractor, while awaiting his “green card”.
In his own words, Dr. Morssink’s “interests are many and flow from the understanding of public health as an action-oriented domain of the world’s political economy; they include the effects of the built environment on health, elimination of health disparities, hunger and urban farming, and the campaign to ban and clear landmines and cluster bombs in communities around the world.”
Today’s world is much bigger than the one Leonardo inhabited and its problems of a grander nature. Nobody can be Leonardo anymore. He was a man of his times. Those who nowadays move society forward with Leonardo’s vision and zeal need another label to capture our times. With over 30 years of public health experience, here and abroad — practicing, teaching, advising, and bridging understanding — Dr. Morssink is one of the standard-bearers of this new age of understanding, perhaps not a Renaissance man, but a Global Man.
The Globy Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Global Philadelphia Association [https://globalphiladelphia.org/globy-awards-recipients] is meant to “recognize globally-active, business, local civic, and community leaders who have distinguished themselves through the extraordinary work they have done in Greater Philadelphia.”
Christiaan is a founding member of the Global Philadelphia Association, but his accomplishments don’t stop there. His long-time colleague, Stan Laskowski, Vice President, Co-Founder, and Past President (2006 – 2013) of the Global Water Alliance, can’t contain his admiration when he speaks about his friend. “Christiaan has an amazing social conscience. He has been involved in so many different issues — global water, nuclear disarmament, and women’s rights are some examples. No job is too large or too small for Christiaan to take charge of, and he is an inspiration to so many people. As GWA President, he tries to set an example for conserving water by usually drinking beer and wine instead. We have not wanted to disappoint him by pointing out that he really should consider the entire water life cycle of these products!”
Anyone who knows Christiaan, as almost everyone calls him, knows that he always has much to add to any conversation whether it’s water, human and civil rights and abuses, public health initiatives, or beer. His many decades of work on these and other issues makes him a true pioneer for change.
Christiaan also manages the blog for the Global Water Alliance of which I am a regular contributor. Given the high standards in which the community, the GWA and the world at large holds Christiaan, and the even higher standards to which he holds himself accountable, the time seemed right to get answers to a few questions, provided he could sit long enough to answer them!
You’ve been an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching a variety of courses in the Public Health Program; you held various hospital and administrative positions since the 1970’s as well as positions in research and consulting in various aspects of public health, supported several causes, and maintained memberships in both national and international societies; you were a guest lecturer at various colleges, organized a host of meetings generally concerning water and water management, written a couple dozen peer-reviewed articles, and contributed to two text books. What motivates you to consistently move toward social justice and a greater world view? What tires you? And what do you do to refresh your soul when you feel the world is not listening and the burdens are all just too heavy?
Social justice is easy. I grew up in an extended family where solidarity and class consciousness where part of every breakfast, lunch and dinner. Where politics of social democrats were debated versus the politics of communism. Born in Holland shortly after the war, my family knew of the betrayers, those who made false consciousness a cornerstone to hide anti-Semitism, religious fanaticism, imperialism, racism. In school, the teachers taught working together, being a sportsman, being humble; there is always someone smarter, stronger, faster. In the villages in the fifties, there wasn’t much and sharing was socially acceptable. We all had second hand clothes, we all lived in public or subsidized housing. Solidarity was being a team; a club of one is not a club. Growing up in the sixties, that way of thinking around solidarity against social, economic, and political oppression and exploitation translated into support for political independence, for feminism, for religious and linguistic liberty, for equality in the affairs of humanity, where class consciousness gets interwoven with identity and solidarity around variables other than class. That solidarity and equal opportunity got me into the University of Amsterdam in the sixties; That decision (I was the first in my whole extended family who finished high school) to enroll at the University of Amsterdam was enabled by a governmental decision, just a year or so earlier, to give all who qualified tuition, grants, and interest free loans. They democratized higher education. I just lucked out.
I started being interested in international issues while in high school, although learning about world religions came earlier, in elementary school. It was in Amsterdam where the full force of globalized thinking was really rolling out inside me: bartending in the international student club; debating the exploitation systems in the coffee, sugar and cacao trade, becoming angry about Vietnam, and Angola, and Mozambique, and South Africa, and admiring the likes of Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Eldridge Cleaver, Miriam Makeba.
It is in that likeness of these struggles and movements that one can see the global nature of the larger systems. Each local struggle is better informed when we know of the struggles elsewhere. It is not good when jobs disappear, but worse when they are taken up by people who should not be exploited themselves. And I am not being dogmatic here, but speaking more in practical moral terms, like no child labor, work weeks of 40 hours, with consciousness for the work conditions and the environmental impact. So, my concept of solidarity should always be universal, and must be measured at that level; my actions can be local, but my perspective must be global, to make sense.
Many have noted your sense of humor and unflappable nature. What serves you better, or do the two work together?
Unflappable? Me? Now, that my wife finds humorous. I have a tendency to flame up and be highly aggressive, but growing old, I have learned to first take in any situation with a strong focus on observation and less reactivity. Humor is a dangerous thing to use in multicultural settings or across cultures and misunderstandings are almost guaranteed. Yet humor is also a great way to bring some relaxation in these often uncomfortable first conversations. The art of playing with words and expressions is the easiest. “why do I need to hit the road? It only hurts my hand” is one such remark.
The canals in Amsterdam were constructed in the 17th century for development of protection and consist of approximately 100 kilometers and 1,500 bridges forming concentric circles around the city. They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and have brought the Dutch more than a modicum of fame. Which came first, being Dutch, or your love of water, and can you even separate the two?
I don’t know about the love of water. Water just is. I love what water brings: life, cleanliness, refreshment, awe, beer, wine, health. I also hate what water brings: mudslides, destructions, death, mildew, diseases. I do agree that it is the omnipresence of water in the lived environment of Holland that makes Dutch people acutely aware that water needs to be managed in order to survive and make life “happy.” And that it matters for all, regardless of class. Therefore, polder-mentality — a piece of low-lying land like wetlands turned into uplands and protected by dikes and dams — as the cultural component of polder economy, is something that the Dutch can’t explain; it just is. Just as I can never fully understand the relationship of Eskimo’s with snow, Dutch life is completely informed by managing water and can never be fully understood by others. We will have empathy and can grow into it, so fusions worldwide can and will happen, but as a unique identity, the enculturation of water is personalized and on that level is not transferable.
Amsterdam is a beautiful city, one I don’t know that I would have left. How did you end up in the United States?
Leaving Amsterdam was not hard. There are many great places. Paramaribo is one of them. Developing roots is much harder. I often thought of living on a boat or in a home with wheels, admiring Rousseau as closed the gates of Geneva behind him. I migrated to Suriname because my first wife was from there and it was a country where a decent life could be built. I became a citizen, had a local salary and worked hard. No big deal. Work to promote better labor conditions, help get health care insurance off the ground, assure health care for all, work on good access to education, drink local beers and rum, and try to learn to enjoy the good things in life. Suriname was great. Then the military took over. My marriage went kaput and I drifted for a while. I needed to move eventually, after the military transformed from enlightened power-holders to a murderous clique. I got out by way of exporting Surinamese products to the USA. In the U.S., I married my current wife. She was in academia, had a full career and had no ears for my subtle suggestions to try living in the Caribbean. I have thus been confined to living in the U.S., being the supporter of my wife’s career and enjoying our collaboration on public health issues, especially the education on aspects of global importance. Her interest is in “minority and inequity” issues and I have profited from our realization that minority and inequity issues are to be found worldwide, are between and within nations and that global perspective can be informative for any locally-oriented politician and policy maker. We both have profited from and contributed to the ways UN organizations like WHO, FAO, UNESCO and now UN WATER have pushed data and science driven global policy initiatives.
Just looking at your work, it seems you’ve been all over the globe. How has international travel inspired your efforts and assessment of the human condition? Obviously, some countries offer a better quality of life, human and civil rights, access to clean air and clean water, a healthy, abundant food supply, etc., but does one country stand out above the others for quality of life themes and if so, which one.
Traveling abroad, living among “others”, experiencing the impact of environment and weather on the social structuration of communities, having to communicate without understanding, all that makes you aware of the fundamentals. You also become aware of the power dynamics in societies. Where you see too much police, too many military, you sense much more unease in society, whether in Spain during Franco, or in Brazil when the military ruled politics, or in Cameroon, where several police forces are “keeping law and order.” I was just in New Zealand and saw police at the airport. That’s it. Nowhere else.
Poverty and inequality are observable everywhere but are handled in each society with a national mindset that makes them more or less pronounced as markers for the quality of life. I like the impact universal health care can have on society, as well as access to education, food and infrastructural features like electricity, safe water, and roads. They level the playing field for all citizens, while not mowing flat the aspirations and merit capacity of the individual.
Of all the causes in which you’ve become involved, which is your most heart-felt?
Making students into global citizens. Radically transforming the classroom experience with the modern tools available. And doing it globally. Specifically, in terms of heart-felt, I am strongly beholden to the breastfeeding movement in the world. Nothing helps the fundamentals of a healthy life as much as a complete breastfeeding regimen and getting a good growth curve for each kid.
I’ve read that as our political leaders become more outspokenly divisive, relying on fake news and alternative facts to bolster arguments, that the rest of the world’s leaders are following this example and simply denying what had previously been well-agreed upon facts and information. How can ordinary citizens of any country break the logjam of divisiveness that seems to be sweeping the world like an emotional plague? What tools might you suggest to reverse this trend.
Politics, like religion, is not beholden to truth and science, nor to the rule of law. Science is used, data are used, or abused as they fit, serving the ultimate game of grabbing and staying in power. And ordinary citizens are not “rational men”, they also have an emotional and social side. They can be manipulated, and they manipulate around values, norms, identity, whatever. Many historians, like Jan Romein, a Dutch historian and literary scholar, argue that we develop in waves, not linearly. Having said that, the tools at hand to work through this logjam can be found at the level of globalized education, multi linguistics, proper class-consciousness, international NGOs, multinational companies and boardrooms, professional organizations (which may need to replace the “calcified” forms of the traditional trade unions).
In your bio, you use the phrase “public health as an action-oriented domain of the world’s political economy.” What does that mean for us as a community and for the world at large and what actions do you see us taking to improve our lives?
Immanuel Wallerstein’s World System Theory captures rather well how the global dynamics in politics and economics are evolving. I like to think of global markets as clusters in which people operate in such a World System. Transportation is such a cluster, or Hospitality. Health Care is an international market as well. Public Health is a market in the world system, and will focus on issues that “make the public healthy” Different clusters have different power levels, and they compete with each other for ‘space, recognition, budgets, etc.” Public health has little power, yet great impact. Working on communicable diseases, providing healthy work and living environments, including access to safe water and proper hygiene, will be the best actions to improve the quality and equity of our lives.
Do you think United States with its support of the individual as its ideal fails to teach its residents about community service and giving back? How does it measure up to your native country?
Individualism as a starting point is just fine as long as it stays in the realm of understanding that it is the village that makes you an individual. I hate the disregard for the communal efforts that make the growth of an individual possible. My life would be in the bottom of the barrel, if not for my head master in my public school, the government support of education for all and at all three echelons. I admire Olympic athletes, but never tell me that they did it on “their own”. Giving back is even more weird. Giving back is not even a question. As I like to say, I don’t might paying taxes, even a lot, but I do mind how taxes get spent. It should not be about charity, it should be about belonging, belonging to the community. I will never give a dime to a panhandler, but I pay gladly those taxes that provide good and professional services to the “wretched of the earth” as Franz Fanon [http://amzn.to/2oHpQw3] so aptly labels the poor, the refugees, and the underclass. It is in that realm that the USA fails as a nation and as a collective of individuals.
What do you think of requiring a one-year tenure for every graduating high school student to work in a non-profit organization such as the peace corps, a government organization, a humanitarian aid group, or some similar organization before going off to college or starting the next phase of life?
We have postponed growing up among the latest generations, and I am not sure that graduating from high school is the right moment. The concept appeals to me as a communal “rite du passage” but it should have benefits for the mass of individuals as well as the world population served. And the work should be in the context of sustainability, improving quality of life overall and go way beyond charity and holding hands. I also would like to make the requirement adaptable to each person’s circumstances, including such considerations as parenting, breaks between jobs, early retirement, etc. I myself think in terms of a ‘professional sabbatical’, others may want to do “pro bono” work, that is structurally organized, like the health care professionals who work in/for Medicin Sans Frontiere.
What is SPIN farming?
Small Plot Intensive Farming. One of the methods to bring urban and subsistence farming into the realm of commercial, economically viable, small scale agriculture that can compete with industrial agriculture, is environmentally sustainable, has potential to assist the poor with becoming less poor and making the food supply healthier and more local.
Despite the current world political climate, why do you think collaboration is still the key to success and how do we sell people that are so divided on the concept of working together (short of an alien invasion)?
In most places we don’t have to sell people this message. Most people are acutely aware that collaboration is necessary to succeed and survive. Innovation labs are nothing but centers of collaboration, in which the cubicle walls are removed. I don’t know of any researcher who works alone, any teacher who works in a silo, any politician who doesn’t seek support from colleagues. That there is strife between components in a system is fine, but nobody can survive or win that strive without collaboration. More importantly, it is how one handles that strife that is relevant. Success in the eradication of polio or measles is much more relevant than winning a battle or a war, or seeing a competitor falling apart. Keeping human life possible by adhering to good policies as in the Sustainable Development Goals is going to be the key for all collaborations. Hiccups as with the current administration in the US (and Australia e.g.) are temporary setbacks. If these hiccups are kept up, I will die knowing that my grandchildren will not have their own to spoil and tell stories to. Such is the absolute necessity for global collaboration.
In your work with Global Philadelphia, much like a famous Philadelphia son, Benjamin Franklin, you espouse a world view and thinking of daily problems through a global lens. How can you teach people, especially those with very little experience outside of their native city, to think globally?
For the most deaf among them, I like to start with asking them to check the labels of the clothing, labels of the products that they use, the origin of their food, the ownership of the banks that hold their mortgages, student loans or car leases. Then I will ask them to identify where in the world American soldiers and Airforce personnel and Navy are stationed and who in their family was involved. From there I would traverse into the spread of US consumer companies abroad. AND SO ON. Always link the personal to the global.
Speaking of global, how much ground has the U.S. lost in the last year on the international stage?
A lot, but easy to restore if the world thinks that this was a weird hiccup, like the OPEC muscle flexing in the seventies. If the whole thing becomes structural and congress is prolonging the stalemate and inaction, I am afraid that the era of American hegemony is going to be over fast, really fast. I think that China has been preparing for that demise, but even they will be caught off guard with the speed of the downfall that comes with a myopic “America first.” Empires come and go, with ever faster cycles. Let’s hope that the power games between nations can be replaced with policy games in the UN.
And finally, if you were in charge, what one thing would you do now to make the world a happier, less stressful, more verdant place?
Request all nations to make 50% of all political and policy agencies be “manned” by women.
Amen to that! Thank you, Christiaan for your candidness, and your time, energy, and devotion to making the world a more socially responsible, equitable, and greener place.
P.J. Lazos is an environmental attorney practicing in Philadelphia, and the author of “Oil and Water,” an environmental murder mystery about oil spills and green technology. Having traveled extensively, she values her carefree access to clean, potable water and envisions a world where everyone has that same daily experience