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How curing the planet's ills protects human health

Jennifer Collins
December 15, 2020

Earth has been diagnosed with many health problems. Scientist and doctor Samuel Myers says looking after the planet will protect human health.

A photo of the earth from space. The continent of South America is in view.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/NASA

In a year that has seen wildfires rage in many parts of the world, mega-storms hit others and a novel virus spill over from animals to humans affecting people across the planet, scientists are drawing an ever-clearer link between the importance of a healthy environment and humans. 

A new book, "Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves", looks at the environmental problems the planet is facing and tries to envision ways out. Samuel Myers, a medical doctor and research scientist in planetary health at Harvard University, co-edited the book. 

Also the director of the Planetary Health Alliance, an international network of organizations seeking to address global environmental change and its health impacts, Myers spoke to DW about how human activity is destabilizing the environment. And harming our health in the process. 

DW: What is meant by planetary health? 

Samuel Myers: It stems from this recognition that these conversations about the natural environment and global health are no longer separate. They're two sides of the same coin, because the life support systems underneath us are starting to crumble as a result of the scale of our own activities.

The message that climate change is threatening health  is starting to get through to people. But it's important to expand that frame because if you make a misdiagnosis, then you're going to have a mistreatment. If you diagnose the problem as entirely one of climate change, then your treatment is pretty much restricted to energy systems and the need to decarbonize the energy economy. 

A photo of Samuel Myers in a rust-colored sweater
Samuel Myers is director of the Planetary Health Alliance and is researching the intersection between the planet health and human health Image: Harvard University Center for the Environment

There's absolutely no question that we must do that. But we could do that and still be in a crisis. The actual diagnosis is the scale of human activities.

The size of our global consumption pattern now exceeds our planet's capacity to absorb our waste or provide the resources we're using sustainably. That's affecting the quality and quantity of food we produce, air and water quality, exposure to extreme weather events, exposure to infectious disease, episodes like the pandemic, even the habitability of some of the places we live. 

What does taking a planetary health approach to dealing with environment and climate breakdown mean? 

You cannot safeguard human health without taking into consideration our impacts on our planet's natural systems. 

Across the board, there are lots of solutions, but really it requires what a lot of us are calling the "great transition" or "great turning" — a course correction to do everything differently so as to minimize our ecological footprint.

A woman in a red sari harvests organic crops 
Organic farming and better land management practices are part of the treatment for Earth's health problemsImage: DW/M. Rahman

We know a huge amount of what we need to do, whether you're looking at renewable energy or food production and the huge opportunities to be much more efficient in how we produce and consume food, manufacture, build and design our cities to minimize our ecological footprint. 

In many instances, there are huge benefits associated with doing things differently. If we can eat more vegetable-based diets, it's much healthier for us. If we can transition to renewable energy, our air gets a lot cleaner. A lot of the different kinds of changes either have health or economic benefits. 

It's not a story of deprivation, but it's a story of transition. 

We have technological fixes on one hand, but on the other hand, what you're talking about is a fundamental reshuffling of how we do things. And that seems like such a huge undertaking to create that change...

It is a huge undertaking. We have to acknowledge that. But it's also an exciting opportunity. Imagine a world 100 years from now where your grandchildren are living in a place where the human population has stabilized and is starting to come down, just as part of the normal demographic transition related to educating girls and economic opportunities for women and access to family planning for couples who want it. And where we have a zero-carbon energy economy and where we're producing food and manufactured goods more efficiently, and every passing decade is bringing more breathing room for the rest of the biosphere.  

A factory spewing smoke into the air 
Climate change is just one of the many health problems facing the planet, says Myers Image: Imago-Images/Action Pictures/P. Schatz
An SOS sign made out of trees in a forest
The scale of human consumption and activity is causing ecological destruction, including clearing of vast swaths of forest Image: picture-alliance/Cover Images/E. Zacharevic

How do we get there? 

We provide a lot of examples in the book. One of the case studies is the story of the sewage treatment facility in Santiago de Chile, the capital city of Chile. In 1998, 98% of the city's sewage was untreated. It was just raw sewage going into the river. And now 100% is fully treated and using these bio-factories that are reclaiming energy and biogas from the sewage such that this facility has a zero-carbon footprint. They're releasing fresh water into the river and recapturing nitrogen and phosphate for fertilizer for surrounding farms. 

It's a lovely example of taking something that was literally of no value and hugely polluting and turning it into a resource. And the company itself is running a 25% profit from doing it, so it's very scalable. 

Technology and innovation are going to be necessary, but they're certainly not sufficient. There's a sort of a spiritual awakening that I think is part of it and a recognition that there's something very broken in our relationship to nature that needs to be reasserted. It's very alive in most indigenous traditions and knowledge systems and most faith traditions. Many of us feel a sense of reverence toward the natural world, but it's lost its authority to guide our decisions. 

Giving legal rights to nature 

What are the challenges humans face if we want to take a planetary health approach? 

There's a wonderful scholar of movement-building and social activism here at Harvard named Marshall Ganz. He talks about problems as either knowledge or power problems. Both exist in planetary health. 

We simply don't understand the implications of completely transforming all our natural systems at the fastest rate in the history of our species. We've been adapted for a million years to live under relatively steady biophysical conditions. And now suddenly, sort of like the monkey and the rocket ship, we're pushing buttons and flipping levers and changing things really fast with no real understanding of the implications of those changing conditions. 

Power problems are also hugely present. It's the exploitative, extractive industries, like mining or drilling fossil fuels, timbering, that we know aren't good for our natural systems. In many instances, the science is well established that we're disrupting our climate system, for example, and that that's not good for us. And the reason those activities continue is not a knowledge problem. The reason those continue is because somebody is making a lot of money. 

A green economy

Do you think the pandemic has any lessons for us? 

I think one of the most important is the ability for people all over the world to have this very rapid global collective behavior change in response to an exaggerated threat. We've never seen anything like this before in human history where almost all the people on the planet have changed the way they live over a very short period in response to a threat. 

I think it's been a shock. And I think in this in this moment of shock, there's a maybe an openness to the idea of a course correction that we really ought to be taking advantage of.

This interview was conducted by Jennifer Collins and has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.