The World Health Organization recently reported that 99% of humans breathe in dangerous levels of air pollution.
This means that the breath you are taking right now could harm your body, damage cells, build up in your organs, buy you time.
Each year, more than 8.7 million people die prematurely due to air pollution. The vast majority of these deaths are preventable, due to the global reliance on fossil fuels and industrial processes that contaminate the air, water and soil.
The fact that people continue to die from polluted air shows the deep disconnect at the heart of modern human society, where air pollution continues to be allowed because it generates financial profit. This overriding value has led to the climate and biodiversity we find ourselves stuck in, but it has also led to the emergence of an interdisciplinary field that seeks to stop and even reverse the ongoing catastrophe: planetary health.
Planetary health practitioners and advocates seek to radically transform the status quo by elevating Indigenous perspectives on the environment that emphasize the interconnectedness of all life. In this framework, it is understood that evil leads to more evil in a vicious circle, but also that the reverse is true – flourishing is also expansive.
Planetary health is a big picture, overarching field that invites all fields of study that intersect with the climate and biodiversity crisis, people involved in food security and access to water, to those working on pressing issues of racial justice.
The field has grown in prominence in recent years as the health effects of environmental decline become increasingly devastating.
This year’s World Health Day is dedicated to promoting planetary health and calling for immediate climate action to usher in an era of environmental conservation and restoration.
“Are we able to reimagine a world where clean air, water and food are accessible to all? the World Health Organization is asking people as part of its World Health Day efforts. “Where economies are focused on health and well-being?” Where cities are livable and where people are in control of their health and that of the planet? »
3 things to know about planetary health
- Already, more than 13 million deaths a year can be attributed to climate impacts.
- Environmental pollution is one of the biggest killers of people in the world.
- Climate action and environmental conservation are ultimately public health interventions.
Just as the different systems of the human body combine to form a holistic whole, so do the different systems of planet Earth.
As you may recall from early science lessons, these systems are the geosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. Each of them has been seriously impacted by human activities in ways that jeopardize human health.
The geosphere has been so heavily altered by human waste and pollution that a new era in the rock record has emerged, which archaeologists have termed the Anthropocene (the prefix “anthropo” referring to human activity). Various industrial activities, from hydraulic fracturing and construction to industrial agriculture and plastic production, have severely degraded and polluted more than 75% of the planet’s surface.
As these trends worsen, groundwater supplies become polluted and soil fertility declines, making it more difficult to grow food. Additionally, as the land turns to desert, human habitats are eroded and communities are increasingly exposed to extreme storms and natural disasters like landslides and wildfires.
The biodiversity that makes up the biosphere has also suffered extreme losses. Over the past 50 years, for example, wildlife species have declined by 68% globally. More than a million plant and animal species are at risk of disappearing in the years to come.
Biodiversity enables our global food system, with insects pollinating the majority of the world’s crops, and plants forming the basis of our diet. As human activities increasingly disrupt wildlife, infectious diseases like COVID-19 are becoming more common.
Few systems have been as affected as the cryosphere, which refers to the planet’s vast stores of rapidly melting ice. Between 1994 and 2017, Earth lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice, and the rate of melting has only accelerated since then. All the water expected to enter the ocean this century could raise sea levels by several feet, displacing billions of people, while disrupting fragile ecosystems in the polar regions and beyond.
Closely related to the cryosphere is the hydrosphere, the planet’s waterways, which have been overexploited and polluted by countries around the world. Only a third of the world’s rivers remain free-flowing, with the rest dammed or otherwise disturbed. Although the earth still has an abundance of water, chronic misuse and abuse will leave 3.6 billion people without safe access to it by 2050.
The system most linked to the climate crisis is the atmosphere, the sky above you. In addition to being saturated with particulates, the atmosphere has become thicker and thicker with greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat on the earth’s surface. There are currently 420 carbon dioxide particles per million particles in the atmosphere, the highest concentration in millions of years.
The very term “greenhouse gas” refers to the “greenhouse” effect seen in greenhouses, where temperatures rise much higher than the surrounding area. As the entire planet experiences this warming effect, all of Earth’s other systems are disrupted, with increasingly disastrous results.
For example, warming temperatures have reorganized global rainfall patterns, inundating some regions with floods of biblical proportions, while depriving other regions of moisture. Likewise, warming temperatures make it more difficult to obtain water (hydrosphere), melt remaining ice caps (cryosphere), dry out the soil (geosphere), and kill animal and plant life (biosphere).
These impacts have cascading effects on public health and disproportionately impact the world’s poorest and most marginalized communities who lack the wealth to adapt. Already, more than 13 million people die each year from the effects of climate – and these are just deaths that can be clearly attributed. Many more deaths are likely to be linked to food and water shortages and extreme levels of pollution – problems that will only get worse in the years to come if we don’t act.
But the actions to stop this crisis are well known and readily available.
As the planet heals, so does human health.
But transforming the planet into a source of continued health will require transformative actions in human society and the development of new value systems, according to the Planetary Health Alliance and Indigenous leaders around the world.
Above all, the fossil fuels that warm the planet must be phased out and replaced with alternative sources of clean energy, while countries also strive to increase the energy efficiency of infrastructure around the world. If countries can halve their emissions by 2030, then the path to preventing temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels remains viable, and the worst aspects of the climate crisis may be avoided.
The health benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels would be immediate in the form of cleaner air and water and less deadly heat waves.
The second major way to advance planetary health is to conserve and restore wildlife, protecting 50% of the world’s terrestrial and marine environments from excessive human exploitation. According to the World Health Organization, robust biodiversity provides humanity with food, clean water, clean air and medicine, and protects human communities from natural disasters that would otherwise cause damage.
The vast majority of humanity will be living in cities by mid-century, and planetary health advocates are calling for turning urban centers into wildlife refuges, full of green space, food production and recreational opportunities. Many of the world’s largest cities are sites of extreme pollution due to an overreliance on gas-powered cars and little regulation of factories. By replacing cars with buses, bikes, trains and ride-sharing electric vehicles, cities can become healthier environments that lessen asthma rather than make it worse.
Another way to improve human and planetary health is to transform food systems. Currently, the main modes of food production in the world – factory farms, industrial agriculture, ocean trawling – deplete and degrade wildlife and natural resources. These practices are driven by the search for short-term gains, with little attention paid to long-term resilience, and have no place in the future.
By adopting regenerative forms of agriculture, countries can produce more food, while caring for the planet’s forests, grasslands and water bodies. By creating global marine regulations, fish populations can rebound and thrive again. And by adopting plant-based diets, the very damaging factory farm model can be phased out.
In fact, scientists have even created a “planetary health” diet that, if widely adopted, would reduce stress on the planet, while generating enough calories to feed all humans.
The planet is remarkably resilient and can heal if humanity becomes a partner rather than an enemy. All human health and well-being comes from the Earth, from the oxygen we inhale to the nutrients we consume, from the water we drink to the medicines we ingest. And we all have a role to play in championing the vision of planetary health.
“The moment we face demands more than rapid innovation in our technologies and practices,” said Sam Meyers, director of the Planetary Health Alliance. “Beneath the ecological crisis we have created and the global health crisis it is precipitating, lies a spiritual crisis.”
He added, “We will need to weave a new fabric, with threads of Indigenous knowledge, world religious traditions, literature and the arts, that reaffirms our spiritual connection to the natural world. Our story of human exception, extraction, domination and scarcity, and ultimately extinction, will have to give way to new stories and values of interdependence, equity, abundance, regeneration and rebirth. .