Our Planet, Our Health; Importance of Understanding Planetary Health

Thought LeadersDr. Sam MyersDirectorPlanetary Health Alliance

In this interview, we speak to Dr. Sam Myers, director of the Planetary Health Alliance, about the importance of raising awareness surrounding planetary health and the actions that need to be taken to ensure a healthier planet for the future. 

Please, could you introduce yourself and tell us about your role at Planetary Health Alliance (PHA)?

My name is Sam Myers. I am a principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. I am trained as an internal medicine physician and I am also the director of the Planetary Health Alliance.

The Planetary Health Alliance is helping to advance Planetary Health research, education, and policy. Please can you tell us more about why PHA was founded and your core missions and values?

The PHA was founded at the time when we released the Rockefeller-Lancet Commission report on Planetary Health called ‘Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene’. The Rockefeller Foundation had brought together this commission to explore the question of how anthropogenic environmental changes that human beings are driving across our planet's natural systems are affecting our own health and wellbeing.

I was part of that commission and felt that we were about to release a report that told the world that our destruction of nature was creating a clear and urgent threat to our own health, but we ought to also be saying what we were going to do about it.

And so I proposed that what we needed was a really robust, vibrant, global field that was taking on these challenges and that we should create an alliance of organizations committed to building that field together. The Rockefeller Foundation agreed with this idea and funded the Planetary Health Alliance and we started in January of 2016.

Currently, humanity's carbon footprint is huge and it is causing direct consequences for our health. What is meant by the term Planetary Health and why is it important to raise awareness surrounding it?

Well, the first thing to say is that it goes well beyond our carbon footprint. One of the things we say a lot is that it is not just climate change; it is everything change. Yes, we are disrupting the climate system, but we are also driving the sixth mass extinction of life on earth with this huge increase in biodiversity loss, we are transforming landscapes and land-use. We are polluting the air, water, and soil. We are driving scarcity of resources like freshwater and arable land.

There are lots of ways that our collective activities are transforming environmental conditions across the planet. All of those different kinds of global environmental change are interacting with each other in complex ways that affect the core conditions for human health. That is where you see the health effects because we are changing: the quality and quantity of food that we produce; the quality of air that we breathe; the quality of water we have access to; our exposure to infectious diseases; our exposure to extreme weather events; and even the habitability of some of the places that we live.

As a result, we are seeing effects across global nutrition, infectious disease, non-communicable diseases like heart disease, strokes, and diabetes; and big impacts on mental health, displacement, and conflict. Across every dimension of health, we are now seeing impacts.

I think it is a key point that it is not just our carbon footprint, it is not just climate change. There are so many more things that are happening. Obviously, climate change does play a big role, but it is not only climate change that is defining the predicament we are in.

The distinction matters because if we get the diagnosis wrong, we get the treatment wrong. And the diagnosis of climate change would suggest that the treatment is renewable energy. We just need to decarbonize our energy economy. And we are starting to do that which is fantastic.

But, in fact, that will not get us out of the challenges that we face around the health effects of global environmental change. Not only do we need to address the energy sector, but we also need to do more. The diagnosis is not climate change. The diagnosis is the size of our collective ecological footprint and the Earth crisis; we are really degrading all of our natural systems. Therefore, the treatment is a deep, rapid, structural shift in how we live on the planet to reduce that ecological footprint and allow us to protect and regenerate nature's life support systems.

And that means change across food systems, energy systems, circular economy, manufacturing, the built environment - all the ways that we are living. All of which are tangible and possible, and we have lots of solutions at hand, but it is not enough to only think about the energy system.

The Promise of Planetary Health

Your members consist of universities, charities, and research institutions globally. How important is this global collaboration to PHA? What advantages do having these varied members have in furthering our understanding of planetary health?

It is a far-flung consortium, and some of our members are working very closely with us in some of our key initiatives, whereas others are working more independently. But essentially, all the 300 members of the alliance have signalled a commitment to growing this field of planetary health globally.

Whether that is working closely together on particular initiatives or working within their domains, there are whole universities that are restructuring themselves around planetary health as an overarching concept; there are agencies within governments that are working to address specific kinds of planetary health problems. We have many groups that are engaged in regional efforts and regional hubs are popping up around the world, including in the Caribbean, East Africa, Europe, and South Asia.

It is a federation of lots of different organizations that have different kinds of engagements and levels of involvement. Some of them are much more research-focused, and some are much more education-focused. Others are about movement building and activism. So it is a really diverse group of organizations that are part of the alliance.

Collaboration is very important in the PHA. And the collaboration does not stop with the members of the alliance. We are also collaborating and partnering with all kinds of organizations that are not formal members of the alliance, like the World Health Organization with whom we are collaborating on this upcoming World Health Day next week on April 7th. The theme is ‘Our planet, our health’.

We are also working with the UNDP, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the World Wildlife Foundation. We are working with many other groups that we can partner with in terms of communications efforts or specific initiatives. So a lot of what we do is in collaboration.

Every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) celebrates World Health Day on the 7th of April. The theme for this year is ‘Our planet, our health’. What does this message mean to you? Why is it important to help raise awareness surrounding the impacts that our changing planet has on our health?

I do not think you can overstate the symbolic importance of the World Health Organization choosing this theme. And it is not just this particular theme and WHO, it is the World Federation of Public Health Associations and World Health Week. This is the federation of all the major public health associations in the world. They are increasingly embracing planetary health.

The World Health Organization itself just released the Geneva Charter on Health Promotion and Well-being in December last year. That is really a very strong statement of planetary health with emphasis on the idea that we cannot safeguard human health without protecting natural systems.

When the leading global organization that has been tasked with safeguarding human health makes the statement that we can no longer effectively do our jobs, we can no longer promote global human health without addressing the crumbling natural life support systems that we depend on, it symbolizes a shift in the global conversation.

The importance of this shift cannot be overstated. What used to be a series of discreet and disconnected conversations about particular environmental problems: the climate conversation, the oceans conversation, the biodiversity conversation, the pollution conversation, all of which have been environmental conversations attended by environmental groups, and environmental ministries, are now morphing into a single global conversation about the size of humanity's ecological footprint and about whether or not we can safeguard a liveable future for humanity. That is a huge shift.

What has been an environmental conversation is turning into a human survival conversation. And I think that moment is extremely important. It has crystallized in WHO releasing this Geneva Charter and then declaring ‘Our planet, our health’ as the theme for World Health Day.

The WHO has said that for this year they are focusing global attention on the actions needed to ‘keep humans and the planet healthy’ and ‘create societies focused on well-being’. What actions do you believe are needed to achieve these and what more can governments and policymakers be doing to ensure these are actioned?

I do not want to gloss over the importance of the statement itself before we move into the actions. Because, as I said, I think that that statement embodies a recognition that these environmental issues are now human survival issues. Just that recognition broadens the constituency of people that are committed to addressing these environmental challenges enormously which breathes new life and power into efforts to address these challenges.

And we are seeing that. We saw it at COP26. We are seeing physicians, public health workers, and nurses showing up at meetings on biodiversity and climate change. We are seeing indigenous people associations and faith groups getting involved. Because all of these groups see this as central to our survival as a species.

The private sector is also becoming much more engaged in these conversations arguing that “we cannot do business when the natural systems are crumbling underneath us”. And so they are coming together in groups like Business for Nature, asking for enlightened policy and regulatory environments that allow businesses to do the right thing.

To answer your question, I think as you broaden that constituency, you start to have the critical mass for the kind of deep, rapid, structural shifts in how we live that I was talking about. We call that the great transition; others call it the Great Turning. But whatever you call it, it is a fundamental shift in how we are living and it goes across every system.

So then you ask, well, how do you achieve that? Well, how do we create a renewable energy transition as fast as possible? There are a million different policy levers that we could discuss from putting a price on carbon, to addressing fossil fuel subsidies, to encouraging renewable energy penetration, to rebuilding our grid and infrastructure work that needs to be done.

Similarly, in food systems, how do we stimulate the protein revolution that is taking place, and the proliferation of plant-based meat companies, cell-based meat, or protein fermentation, all of which decouple protein production from animal livestock, which has an enormous ecological footprint globally and is very destructive. How do you stimulate that protein revolution to take place more quickly than it is?

This is also the case for precision agriculture. How do we make sure that the incredible advances in precision agriculture, which reduce the ecological footprint of food production, are transferred to lower-income countries so that they can leapfrog some of the more wasteful technologies?

Every place we look - built environment, food systems, circular economy, and manufacturing - there are opportunities for enlightened policy-making, there are opportunities for consumer groups to demand of the private sector that they embrace the correct practices, and there are opportunities for research and education. As we said, in the beginning, it is going to take all of us in every domain to push that great transition through as quickly as possible.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn more about our planet and what they can do to protect it for future generations?

Learning about our planet is what every person within the education system is doing from kindergarten through university, at some level. But in terms of these particular issues of the connectedness of human health and well-being, planetary processes, and our planet's biophysical conditions, we welcome everybody to come to the Planetary Health Alliance website where we have a lot of information. I also just edited a book for the field: Planetary Health, Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves.

There are videos from the last four years of Planetary Health annual meetings where we have brought people together. We have sessions, for example, on the protein revolution that I was just talking about that involve CEOs of those companies; there are sessions on research and educational developments, movement building and activism, and raising up the voices of artists and Indigenous peoples.

We have had many rich discussions. Those videos are available on our YouTube chanel, and we put out a newsletter every month. You can sign up for it for free. We have our annual meeting coming up in November at Harvard and there will be a virtual component to that so that people can register and attend virtually, as well as in person. There are lots of ways to engage with the Planetary Health community.

Changing Planet

Image Credit: DOERS/Shutterstock.com

You also focus a lot on education on your site. How important is education to making this global change? And why should we make sure to focus on educating these younger generations on the importance of our changing planet as well?

I have children in high school and they are at the same high school that I went to 35 years ago. And I am struck that they are getting the same science education that I got, that they have to take physics in ninth grade, and then they have to take chemistry, and then they take biology. There is no conversation at all about how those things are all connected to each other, or about how they relate to any of the major challenges that we are facing as a global society.

I think it is actually a disservice that we are giving 19th-century siloed science education to kids in the 21st century. And it is not fair, because they are moving into a world where the complexity of systems thinking is becoming increasingly important.  Human activities are driving the Anthropocene and changing environmental conditions, which are then affecting all sorts of human and societal outcomes which are much more complex than a physics class.

I think there is a real value in teaching systems thinking and a planetary health framework all the way from elementary school up through university. It prepares kids or young adults for the world that we are going to be moving into. It is also really important to have that literacy in the global public to understand the moment that we are in because otherwise, we cannot begin to address that moment.

My favorite classes to teach are the ones focused on undergraduates who have not decided what they are going to do yet. This basic foundational information is important no matter what they choose to do. It is a way for us to understand this historical moment that we are living in, which is really unlike any other moment that we have ever lived through as a species.

Are you involved in any exciting upcoming projects? If so, what are they?

There are so many different things that we are doing. I mean, as I mentioned, we have the fifth Planetary Health annual meeting coming up at the beginning of November at Harvard. We are putting a lot of energy right now into planning that meeting.

Next week, we are doing things around World Health Day and World Health Week. We have the head of Health Promotion from the World Health Organization speaking with Paul Polman, who used to run Unilever and is a leading voice from the private sector on sustainability issues. We also have somebody from the well-being economies community. They are all talking about the issue of, if WHO is coming to this conclusion that we need well-being economies to safeguard health, what does this mean? And then how does the private sector engage with that?

We are working on a paper about the importance of planetary health as a framework for the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and are really interested in whether we can get the United Nations system to really think about planetary health as a unifying framework that brings all the different SDGs in to focus as part of a cohesive whole.

We are building an educational platform right now that will bring together all the materials, our new textbook, our case studies, the syllabi, and multimedia resources that are being used all around the world, and allow educators anywhere in the world to access all of those materials so that they can build planetary health educational courses.

We are very engaged in the development of regional hubs in planetary health, which I think is a really exciting new movement. We are doing a lot of work with dozens of different European agencies, organizations, and institutes to help them come together as a planetary health hub in Europe. But we are also doing that work in East Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean.

And we are continuing ongoing work including with our Planetary Health Campus Ambassadors and our clinician networks. There is so much going on, it is a little hard to keep up with it all!

Since starting your career in planetary health, what has been your proudest achievement?

That is not something I think a whole lot about. I am most proud of the company I keep. I am extraordinarily privileged to work with an exceptional group of people from the core staff of the PHA to our Advisory Board and Steering Committee to our campus ambassadors, fellows, and partners. It is an amazing group of extraordinarily bright, dedicated, impatient, humble, energetic, and mission-driven people from all over the world, and I am proud to be part of it. And I am proud of the impatience of our community. We don’t have a lot of time to get ourselves on a different trajectory and the activism and movement building that is taking place within the planetary health field will be critical to making that transition.

Planet Health

Image Credit: Proxima Studio/Shutterstock.com

Are you hopeful that with continued engagement, awareness, and change, we will see more people helping to protect and regenerate the earth's natural systems? What benefits would this have for the planet of tomorrow?

I am not certain, but I am hopeful. I think there is evidence right in front of our eyes that more and more people are getting engaged. I think we have reached an inflection point and we are seeing a rapid proliferation of these frameworks and the ideas of planetary health in the community and globally. There is evidence of commitment to addressing really important parts of the Earth crisis that we face and the human health crisis that it is creating.

What the future is going to look like depends on what we collectively decide to do. That is one of the really fascinating things. We just wrote the first textbook for the field of planetary health last year. And when I started writing it, I thought that I was trying to sort out whether we could solve this set of problems. We organized the book around the environmental challenges we face and then systematically outlined the health implications of those changing environmental conditions through each dimension of health.

That was the diagnosis side. Then the whole second half of the book is focused on solutions, going through every sector. What I discovered in the process of putting this book together was that the question is not whether we can get ourselves out of this mess and build a much brighter, hopeful future. The question is, will we?

The solutions, by and large, are there. It is really a question of whether we can develop the collective political will to engage with these solutions to overcome entrenched special interests and chart the course that we need to be on.

It is very hard to answer that question about what the future holds because it depends on whether or not we actually develop that collective political will. However, I will say that I think the environmental community has done a poor job of telling the aspirational story. I think we have been guilty of a lot of catastrophism and a lot of apocalyptic predictions.

In fact, it is easy to imagine that, a hundred years from now, our grandchildren or their children are living in a world where the human population has stabilized and is actually falling as part of the regular demographic transition; where we have moved to a zero-carbon energy economy; where we are producing the food that we need with dramatically reduced ecological inputs; where we have embraced circular manufacturing, producing much less waste; and where we are living in cities that have been designed to optimize our physical and mental health whilst minimizing our ecological footprints.

In that world, there is much more room for the rest of the biosphere with every passing decade. It is a world that I would love for my great-grandchildren to live in. However, I can imagine the apocalyptic version as well. It really comes down to what we decide to do this generation.

We just produced a 10-minute video that we call The Promise of Planetary Health (see video above), and it follows that arc. It ends exactly that way. We know what to do. Will we do it?

Where can readers find more information? 

About Dr. Sam Myers

Samuel Myers, MD, MPH studies the human health impacts of accelerating disruptions to Earth’s natural systems, a field recently dubbed Planetary Health.  He is a Principal Research Scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and is the founding Director of the Planetary Health Alliance (www.planetaryhealthalliance.org).  Sam received his BA from Harvard College, MD from Yale University School of Medicine, and MPH from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. He performed his internal medicine residency at UCSF and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine.

Sam’s current work spans several areas of planetary health including 1) the global nutritional impacts of rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere; 2) the health impacts of land management decisions in SE Asia associated with biomass burning and particulate air pollution 3) the global consequences of fisheries decline for human nutrition and health; 4) the global impact of animal pollinator declines on human nutrition today and in the future; and 5) the impact of climate shocks on human nutrition as mediated through global food trade.  As the Director of the Planetary Health Alliance, Sam oversees a multi-institutional effort (over 300 organizations in over 60 countries) focused on understanding and quantifying the human health impacts of disrupting Earth’s natural systems and translating that understanding into resource management decisions globally.

Dr. Myers serves as a Commissioner on the Lancet-Rockefeller Foundation Commission on Planetary Health and a member of the Lead Expert Group of the Global Panel on Agriculture, Food Systems, and Nutrition. He was the inaugural recipient of the Arrell Global Food Innovation Award in 2018. He has also been awarded the Prince Albert II of Monaco—Institut Pasteur Award for research at the interface of global environmental change and human health. He is the co-editor with Howard Frumkin of Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves.

Emily Henderson

Written by

Emily Henderson

During her time at AZoNetwork, Emily has interviewed over 300 leading experts in all areas of science and healthcare including the World Health Organization and the United Nations. She loves being at the forefront of exciting new research and sharing science stories with thought leaders all over the world.

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