Sustaining the environment–and ourselves
In the field of planetary health, human health and the planet’s welfare are linked: taking care of one looks after the other. Here’s how the concept of planetary health is evolving and how everyday ecological choices can have a direct impact on health, both in the short and long term.
In 2015, the term was introduced by The Rockefeller Foundation—Lancet Commission on planetary health. The Executive Summary observed that humans are healthier than at any time in history. Life expectancy has gone up and poverty and child mortality are down. Unfortunately, these advances were made through the exploitation of natural resources.
Planetary health is a new trans-disciplinary field created to address these issues with sectors including health, environment, agriculture, and trade and it’s a field that’s grown rapidly since it’s inception.
As the United Nations explains it: “… Planetary Health recognizes that human health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked, and that our civilization depends on human health, flourishing natural systems, and the wise stewardship of natural resources.”
Planetary health is now the focus of many new journals, degree programs, courses, institutes, and natural and multilateral initiatives.
The Planetary Health Alliance is the central group in the field made up of universities, non-governmental organizations, research institutes and government entities from over 64 countries around the world.
Between 2019 and 2021, they developed an educational framework, as a means of understanding the interconnectedness of environmental, social, and health crises. According to the study’s lead author Carlos A. Faerron Guzman, the framework is a response to gaps in planetary health higher education, providing a greater understanding of challenges we are encountering and how to solve them.
For instance, instead of the classic understanding where man dominates nature which is at the service of humanity, planetary health involves understanding we are part of nature and we are dependent on one another, says Guzman.
And that’s just the start when it comes to understanding how the health of humans and the planet are intertwined. Themes like equity and social justice are emphasized as well.
“It’s vital to understand that the changes in the earth’s natural systems are not impacting populations around the world equally,” says Guzman. The ones faring best, both in terms of environment and health, tend to be the ones with more economic power, he continues.
There are numerous ways you can go about bolstering your health while boosting the health of our precious planet.
Health benefits of being vegetarian include lower incidence of type 2 diabetes, obesity, coronary heart diseases, and greater life expectancy. Animal-derived foods—especially meat and dairy from ruminants—are resource intense and more taxing on the environment, compared to the production of most plant-based foods.
Nature exposure is known for its positive physiological and psychological benefits. Recently becoming popular, Guided Nature and Forest Therapy Walks can involve activities including water gazing, tree befriending and expressions of gratitude.
You can also be a part of protecting and restoring natural spaces, which, among other things, reduce air pollution and absorb carbon, by joining in on conservation activities, beach cleans, tree planting, or litter picking.
In a recent study, consuming less was linked to higher personal well-being and lower psychological distress, whereas buying “green” was not found to improve consumer well-being. To tap into this sense of well being, repair and re-use things you already own, buy second-hand, or download Olio, an app designed to help users share surplus food and household items.
Caring for the planet can also involve tuning in to the world around us. For instance, it’s imperative to look at causes and consequences through the lens of equity and social justice. This means we work toward solutions that do not require one population to carry the burden alone.
In addition, Guzman encourages readers to look into the natural environment surrounding them and observe the changes occurring there. For instance, trace your food back to where it came from, or think of how people used to eat and how that food chain has changed and think about how climate change impacts you and your neighbour.
Globally, two thirds of babies use milk formula. The mass production of milk formula comes at the cost of plastic waste and the degradation of land and waterways—and human health. Recommendations such as paid maternity leave and the WHO / UNICEF Baby-Friendly Initiative, a global effort to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding, can help.
In the Finnish city of Lahti, meditating on the forest floor can be just what the doctor ordered. As the country’s pioneering green city, Lahti has been the first to implement the concept of planetary health as a part of healthcare. This summer, five locals tried a two-month health plan that brought significant changes to their carbon footprint and overall health.
The plan prescribed activities including barefoot forest walks, creating wildflower meadows in their backyards, and replacing dairy spreads and cheese by foraging wild herbs from local nature. When the summer was over, on average, the participants saw a 17 percent decrease in their carbon footprint, a 16 percent increase in their overall well-being and a 36 percent drop in their exhaustion scores.