The World Health Organization recently reported that 99% of people breathe in harmful air pollution.
That means the breath you’re taking in right now could harm your body, damaging cells, building up in your organs and shortening your life.
Every year, more than 8.7 million people die prematurely from air pollution. The vast majority of these deaths are preventable due to the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and industrial processes that pollute air, water and soil.
The fact that people continue to die from polluted air demonstrates the profound disconnect at the heart of modern human society, where air pollution continues to be allowed because the processes that cause it generate financial gain. This overarching value has led to the climate and biodiversity we are stuck in, but also to the emergence of an interdisciplinary field trying to halt and even reverse the unfolding catastrophe: planetary health.
Practitioners and advocates of planetary health strive to radically change the status quo by elevating indigenous perspectives on the environment that emphasize the interconnectedness of all life. Within this framework, it’s understood that damage leads to more damage in a vicious cycle, but the opposite is also true – flourishing is also expansive.
Planetary health is a broad, inclusive field that invites all areas of study that intersect with the climate and biodiversity crises, from people working on food security and access to water to people working on pressing issues of racial justice.
The area has grown in importance in recent years as the health effects of environmental degradation become increasingly devastating.
This year’s World Health Day is dedicated to promoting planetary health and calls for immediate climate action to usher in an era of environmental protection and environmental restoration.
“Are we capable of reimagining a world where clean air, water and food are available to all?” the World Health Organization is asking people as part of its World Health Day efforts. “Where the economy is focused on health and well-being? Where cities are livable and people are in control of their health and the health of the planet?”
3 things to know about the health of the planet
- Already, more than 13 million deaths a year can be attributed to climate impacts.
- Environmental pollution is one of the leading causes of human deaths worldwide.
- Climate protection and environmental protection are ultimately public health interventions.
Just as the various systems of the human body unite into a holistic whole, so do the various systems of planet earth.
As you may recall from early science class, these systems are the geosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. Every single one of them has been severely affected by human activities in a way that endangers human health.
The geosphere has been so profoundly altered by human debris and pollution that a new era in the rock record has emerged, which archaeologists have dubbed the Anthropocene (the prefix “anthropo” refers to human activities). Various industrial activities, from fracking to construction and industrial agriculture to plastics production, have severely damaged and polluted more than 75% of the Earth’s surface.
As these trends intensify, groundwater supplies become polluted and soil fertility decreases, making it difficult to grow food. As land turns to desert, human habitats are eroding and communities are becoming more vulnerable to extreme storms and natural disasters such as landslides and wildfires.
The biodiversity that makes up the biosphere has also suffered extreme losses. In the last 50 years, wild species have declined by 68% worldwide. More than 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction in the coming years.
Biodiversity enables our global food system, with insects pollinating much of the world’s crops and plants forming the basis of our diet. As human activities disrupt more and more wildlife, infectious diseases like COVID-19 are becoming more prevalent.
Few systems have been as affected as the cryosphere, which refers to the planet’s vast and rapidly melting ice supplies. Between 1994 and 2017, Earth lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice, and the rate of melting has only accelerated since then. All of the water projected to enter the ocean this century could raise sea levels by several feet, displacing billions of people while disrupting delicate ecosystems in the polar regions and beyond.
Closely related to the cryosphere is the hydrosphere, the planet’s waterways that have been overexploited and polluted by countries worldwide. Only a third of the world’s rivers are still free-flowing, the rest are dammed or otherwise disturbed. Although the earth still has plenty of water, chronic misuse and abuse will mean that 3.6 billion people will not have safe access to it by 2050.
The system most closely linked to the climate crisis is the atmosphere, the sky above you. Not only has the atmosphere become saturated with particulate matter, but it has also become increasingly thick with emissions of greenhouse gases that trap heat on Earth’s surface. There are currently 420 carbon dioxide particles per million particles in the atmosphere, the highest concentration in millions of years.
The term “greenhouse gas” itself refers to the “greenhouse” effect observed 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 being disrupted, with increasingly catastrophic results.
For example, warming temperatures have rearranged global rain patterns, inundating some areas with flooding of biblical proportions while depriving other areas of all moisture. Similarly, rising temperatures make it more difficult to obtain water (hydrosphere), melt the remaining ice caps (cryosphere), dry out the soil (geosphere), and kill animal and plant life (biosphere).
These impacts have cascading public health implications and disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and most marginalized communities, who lack the wealth to adapt. More than 13 million people are already dying every year as a result of climate change – and these are just deaths that can be clearly assigned. It’s likely that many more deaths are due to food and water shortages and extreme pollution – problems that will only get worse in the years to come if we don’t act.
But the measures to end this crisis are known and readily available.
When the planet heals, so does human health.
But turning the planet into a source of continuous health requires transformative action across human society and the development of new value systems, according to the Planetary Health Alliance and Indigenous leaders around the world.
First and foremost, the fossil fuels that heat the planet must be phased out and replaced with alternative sources of clean energy, while countries also work to increase energy efficiency in infrastructure around the world. If countries manage to halve emissions by 2030, the path of keeping temperatures no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels remains a viable one, and the worst aspects of the climate crisis can be avoided.
The health benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels would be immediate in the form of cleaner air and water and fewer deadly heat waves.
The second important way to promote the health of the planet is the conservation and restoration of wildlife, which protects 50% of the world’s terrestrial and marine environments from overexploitation by humans. 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 harm.
The vast majority of humanity will live in cities by mid-century, and proponents of planetary health are calling for urban centers to be turned into havens for wildlife, teeming with green spaces, food production, and recreational opportunities. Many of the world’s largest cities are places of extreme pollution due to over-reliance on gas-powered cars and little regulation of factories. By replacing cars with buses, bikes, trains and electric ridesharing, cities can become healthier environments that relieve asthma instead of igniting it.
Another way to improve the health of people and planet is by transforming food systems. Currently, the world’s most important modes of food production—factory farming, industrial agriculture, trawling—are depleting and degrading wildlife and natural resources. These practices are guided by the pursuit of short-term gains with little regard for long-term resilience and have no place in the future.
By adopting regenerative forms of agriculture, countries can produce more food while healing the planet’s forests, grasslands, and water bodies. Creating global ocean regulations allows fish populations to recover and thrive again. And by adopting a plant-based diet, the extremely harmful factory farming model can be abolished.
In fact, scientists have even developed a “Planetary Health” diet that, if widely adopted, would reduce stress on the planet while producing enough calories to feed everyone.
The planet is remarkably resilient and capable of healing when humanity becomes a partner rather than an enemy. All human health and well-being comes from the earth, from the oxygen we breathe to the nutrients we ingest, to the water we drink to the medicines we take. And we all have a role to play in advocating for the vision of planetary health.
“The moment we are facing requires more than rapid innovation in our technologies and practices,” said Sam Meyers, the director of the Planetary Health Alliance. “Behind the ecological crisis we have created and the global health crisis it is creating is a spiritual crisis.”
He added: “We must weave a new fabric, with threads of indigenous knowledge, the world’s belief traditions, literature and art, that affirms our spiritual connection to the natural world. Our history of human exceptionalism, exploitation, domination and scarcity and ultimately extinction must give way to new histories and values of interdependence, justice, abundance, regeneration and renaissance.”