What is Planetary Health?

Planetary health is a recent term that is premised on the notion that human wellbeing in the long term is dependent on the wellbeing of the earth including living and nonliving systems.

Formally, planetary health has been defined as “the health of human civilization and the natural systems on which it depends”. Interdisciplinary field whose principal aim is to characterize and quantify the impacts of human-mediated disruptions of the earth resources and systems on human health.

What is Planetary Health about?

The history and definition of planetary health

The concept of planetary health has revolutionized the traditional understanding of human health, which focuses predominantly on endemic characteristics of the human population without considering the impact and interdependence on the surrounding natural ecosystems.

Planetary health is concerned with ensuring that civilization is sustained while ensuring that inequitable, inefficient, and unsustainable resource consumption is mitigated to prevent further destruction to the planet and human health. It goes beyond public health, and considers environmental health at its core, examining upstream economic, political, and social systems; as such, it is a multidisciplinary field.

Planetary health is ultimately the emerging threat to both human and natural systems that support and maintain human populations. The concept can be traced back as early as 1993, however, its importance and prevalence have recently been enhanced.

… the achievement of the highest attainable standard of health, wellbeing, and equity worldwide through judicious attention to the human systems—political, economic, and social—that shape the future of humanity and the Earth’s natural systems that define the safe environmental limits within which humanity can flourish. Put simply, planetary health is the health of human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends.” 

Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on Planetary Health

The term itself first appeared in a 2014 commentary in The Lancet, which preceded the collaboration between The Lancet and the Rockefeller Foundation, culminating in the launch of The Rockefeller Foundation - Lancet Commission on Planetary Health in 2015. Following this, a consortium of government entities, non-governmental organizations, universities, research institutes, and other partners, found the Planetary Health Alliance at Harvard. Based on this concept, The Lancet Planetary Health was debuted in 2017. It is an Open Access online-only journal dedicated to the field of planetary health.

What does planetary health look like in action?

Planetary health affects several aspects of the world, looking at societies, civilizations, and the ecosystems that they are dependent on. It is a form of alternative solution provision that allows for the possibility of a more resilient future, while also examining the political, social, and economic systems that government is affected.

An example of planetary health in action is in the case of polluted water, soil, and air. In 2012, the World Health Organisation estimated that exposure to these polluted mediums contributed to 8.9 million deaths worldwide; office 8.4 million occurred in low and middle-income countries. Even though environmental pollution is widespread, it is routinely neglected in national policies and international development.

Successful control strategies that are rolled out in high-income countries include reducing exposure to pollutants at their source – for example, removing lead from gasoline, banning asbestos, and designing and implementing strategies to prevent the pollution of water and air. These strategies have been deemed cost-effective; with the removal of lead from gasoline returning ~ 200 billion to the USD economy yearly since 1980.

Healthy Earth

Image Credit: elenabsl/Shutterstock.com

The principles of planetary health

The Lancet commissions report outlined overarching principles that define planetary health. Of these principles, there is an emphasis on stewardship, a concept which is becoming increasingly relevant as a consequence of human activity such as energy generation and food production that have produced an adverse effect on the systems.

This has given rise to the concept of the Anthropocene, which describes the most recent period in history what human activity has culminated in the production of a significant impact on the planet's climate and ecosystems.

Planetary health is becoming increasingly significant as patterns of overconsumption have culminated in widespread climate change, which affects several aspects of human health and the planet’s condition.

A group of earth systems and environmental scientists from the Stockholm resilient center proposed the notion of nine planetary boundaries. Within each, humans can develop across generations. In a 2015 update to these principles, it was noted that the planetary bounds, namely climate change biogeochemical flows, land-system change, and biosphere, had already been exceeded.

To assess this, the report outlined the need for transformative actions; one notable area was the need to improve the governance necessary to aid social, environmental, and economic policy integration as well as the application of interdisciplinary research.

In a report assessing the planetary boundary framework, the authors concluded that transgression of these planetary boundaries has created a risk of destabilizing the earth system. The authors note that the boundary framework cannot dictate how societies should control their development and outline the need for mindful political decisions that consider human elements comment such as equity and equality, which are not discussed in the boundary framework. It cites the planetary boundary framework as a means of contributing to decision-makers to ensure that societal development occurs in a sustainable and long-lasting way.

References:

  • Steffen W, Richardson K, Rockström J, et al. (2015) Sustainability. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science. doi:10.1126/science.
  • Horton R, Beaglehole R, Bonita R, et al. (2014) From public to planetary health: a manifesto. Lancet. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60409-8.
  • Horton R, Lo S. (2015) Planetary health: a new science for exceptional action. Lancet. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)61038-8.
  • United Nations Climate Change. Planetary Health. Available at: https://unfccc.int/climate-action/un-global-climate-action-awards/planetary-health. Last accessed November 2021.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Hidaya Aliouche

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Hidaya Aliouche

Hidaya is a science communications enthusiast who has recently graduated and is embarking on a career in the science and medical copywriting. She has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from The University of Manchester. She is passionate about writing and is particularly interested in microbiology, immunology, and biochemistry.

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