Planetary Health: Live Long and Prosper!
We live in a fantastic time in human history. Everything is at our fingertips so quickly. We can do almost anything we want without restrictions. We can make money from our phones. We have access to healthcare unlike ever before. We live longer, have options to get healthier faster, and can be proactive about caring for our health like never before. But it begs the question – are we robbing peter to pay paul? Are we taking from future generations for development gains right now? A lot of people would say yes.
One of the things I’ve tried to really hit home on this podcast is the fact that human health and planetary health are inextricably linked.
Like a seesaw, if you take too much for one side, the other is left high and dry – unbalanced. Some studies see health and sustainability as a duality. Meaning that people shape structure, but structure determines what we do. As humans, we define the structures for sustainability, but sustainability determines our health outcomes. It has to be balanced because good health is required for sustainable development.
What is Planetary Health?
One definition of planetary health is
“a solutions-oriented, transdisciplinary field and social movement focused on analyzing and addressing the impacts of human disruptions to Earth’s natural systems on human health and all life on Earth.”
It recognizes how the systems we built have caused waves of impact, how that wave impacts all of us, and how we can use collaboration and research across all fields to improve it.
Another straightforward definition is,
“Planetary health is a concept that encourages evidence-based policies to promote human health and prosperity while preserving the environment that allows us to thrive.”
Human Health + Planetary Health
Our health, and how we choose to achieve that level of healthiness, has been far removed from sustainability in many conversations – when we shouldn’t be able to talk about one without the other.
Human Health is in the center of it all. The UN’s 3rd Sustainable Development goal is for Good Health and well-being. We must have good health and well-being for the stable, sustainable world we want to live in. If you think about the three pillars of sustainability as a Venn diagram, environmental, social, and economic, at the center where all three meet (the goal we are trying to reach) is healthy and sustainable communities. They have to go together.
So to seriously be sustainable – we need to take care of our health and recognize the effects that not doing so or doing so unsustainably has led to poor planetary health.
So let’s point out a few examples where we can see how we are linked from planetary shifts that we have made.
Climate change is one of the most recognized threats to human health and is something that is partially human-induced. Extreme temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns, higher infectious disease risks, and the social fallout from climate destruction.
Besides the direct risks to human health like heat stroke, drought, reduced food yields, and impacts from serious weather events – these big things affect our daily life. Think about when it’s consistently hotter outside – we don’t get as good of sleep, stay inside more often, get less exercise, and may be more cranky. These underlying effects of climate change affect our human health in more ways than one.
Another change many people are starting to recognize is global pollution and chemical contamination.
Industrial emissions, smoke from wildfires, and water pollution lead to a host of respiratory issues, illnesses, and other diseases. Unsustainable practices like Deforestation, sewage dumping, agricultural farming, and more lead to water pollution. Human behaviors that affects the earth and ourselves.
And we see chemicals permeate our lives and bodies – quite literally in the form of plastics we surround ourselves with daily.
And another significant shift is biodiversity loss. One study gives illustrative examples of pollinator loss and fisheries.
Pollinators are critical for our global food production, and “at least 87 major food crops, and up to 40% of the world’s supply of some micronutrients, such as vitamin A, depend on pollination by insects.” But they are declining in many parts of the world due to “habitat loss, pesticide use, and parasitic infestation.”
Fish are a significant source of health for many people. Research shows that “Fisheries depletion has emerged as a global problem, with about 90% of fisheries now at or beyond maximum sustainable levels of exploitation.”
Other shifts such as Land Use, Urbanization, Food systems, and more all impact human health as well. But if you stop to think about it, how many of these problems are linked and exacerbate the others?
And it starts with us. We were the ones who created the structure we live in today. We see the adverse effects on our physical and mental health.
Influencing the availability of clean air, water, food, and physical activity; affecting nutrition through contamination and availability of agricultural land; and exposing people to new diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is a clear relationship between environmental risk factors and noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes. And it affects those with high levels of risk even more – specifically falling disproportionately on impoverished areas.
All of this impacts our mental health – just think about how the Covid 19 pandemic has affected you, for example. Something we will talk about more this month.
What you can do
I know that was a lot of negatives, but this should also give you hope. We can make better decisions – choosing to live a healthy lifestyle and demanding new structures that promote a positive feedback loop to planetary health.
So for you, this might mean incorporating products with little waste and chemicals into your daily life, developing healthier, sustainable food habits (and maybe even growing your own), driving less, and joining in on our community more. If you’re looking for ideas, I would start back at Episode 65 – Soil Health, The Planet, and You! We started our journey for adopting sustainable habits this year – which uncoincidentally links the tremendous benefits for our health and well-being and the planet on each topic we discuss.
This might also mean joining organizations that align with the needs in your community, such as joining efforts to reduce infant mortality rates, strengthen prevention and treatment of substance abuse, access to mental health care, improving roadways to be safer, or it could be protecting people’s rights by voting.
Small changes to our lifestyle add up to make a big difference.
The UN summarizes the actions you can take by saying, “You can start by promoting and protecting your health and the health of those around you by making well-informed choices, practicing safe sex, and vaccinating your children. You can raise awareness in your community about the importance of good health, healthy lifestyles, and people’s right to quality healthcare services, especially for the most vulnerable such as women and children. You can also hold your government, local leaders, and other decision-makers accountable to their commitments to improve people’s access to health and health care.”
Something to grow on
We need to start thinking forward – toward our future and what we want it to look like instead of just how we can get what we want in the short run. Howard Frumkin says, “we are no more conscious of our extravagance than fish are conscious of water.” We’ve got to slow down our consumption and start planning for the future – so we can make sure we can pay Paul back!
We need to think about planetary health so we can live long and prosper, and we need to do so urgently. In this lifetime, we’ve seen such a massive shift in every part of the world. Think about technology and the internet – how we started just over 20 years ago with big box computers with dial-up, and now we carry high-tech computers in our pockets.
Our world will continue to shift like this, to grow and evolve. We’ve just got to change our thinking. We need to couple our health goals with planetary goals because what we decide to do for ourselves is linked to outcomes for the planet – which will then turn back and influence our health outcomes. We can either choose to influence it positively or negatively.
Activist Bobby McLeod said this better,
“When the earth is sick and polluted, human health is impossible… To heal ourselves, we must heal our planet, and to heal our planet, we must heal ourselves.”
That’s exactly what we’re going to talk about more this month.
So take care of yourselves extra well this week, and reach out if you need any additional resources.
Until next time, thank you for joining me, neighbor.
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