The world faces a silent civilizational dilemma. Our wasteful economic model’s dependence on unrelenting material growth and consumption is degrading our Earth’s natural systems posing an existential risk to human life. With less than one billion of us at the beginning of industrial age, our planet is now straining to support a ten-fold increase in global population.
Dr. Nicole de Paula is the CEO of the Bangkok-based think tank Global Health Asia Institute (GHAI) and founder of Resilient Nomads, a social enterprise enhancing environmental and health literacy experimentally in Krabi, southern Thailand’s west coast.
Action-oriented, entrepreneurial, and resilient, her mission is to promote research and inform the linkages of health and wellbeing with sustainable development, environmental conservation, and social equity. As a member of the Commission for Education and Communication (CEC) of the IUCN-The International Union for Conservation of Nature (2017-2020), she advocates for greater recognition of the links between nature conservation and human health, so-called “planetary health.”
In parallel to her work at GHAI, she is a team leader and writer for the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB), a publication tracking sustainable development in real time mostly at the United Nations since 1992.
The impacts on planetary health and resources are significant
The combined growth in human numbers and per capita consumption is eroding Earth’s natural capital at an alarming rate. This includes our planet’s stocks of productive soil, clean air and water, as well as genetic resources upon which ecological functions including sustainable production of food and medicines depend. All are products of natural processes dependent on maintaining the integrity of Earth’s land, freshwater and marine ecosystems that comprise the natural capital upon which civilization depends.
Besides a relatively long history of ecosystem degradation taking place on a global scale, we only now realize the significance of its effects on communities’ health, wellbeing, human security and adaptive potential. For example, while the contribution of urban and industrial pollution to chronic disease, including cancers, have been well-documented, the role of unprecedented toxic chemicals used in our farms are increasingly suspected to be contributing to obesity, diabetes, some metabolic syndromes and the exploding incidences of autism and other neuro-behavioral disorders, among many other clinical conditions.
The shift to processed and ultra-processed food, which hardly even qualifies as food anymore, and our increasing separation from nature (including our natural microbial communities constituting our gut microbiome) are contributing to increasing chronic ailments and vulnerability to infectious diseases.
There is an urgent need for new thinking
Humanity thus faces a paradox. Despite modern biomedicine, technology and industrial development having brought incalculable benefits and improvements in health and wellbeing worldwide, especially in the last century, we seem to have reached a point of diminishing returns as we are losing sight of our fundamental interdependence — in fact, inseparability — with nature.
This has become widely apparent to many health and sustainability experts worldwide. This recently has been confirmed by the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on planetary health, which stressed the urgent need for new thinking that gives “judicious attention” to how human social systems and the Earth’s natural systems combined “define the safe environmental limits within which humanity can flourish” as captured by the idea of “planetary health.”
Human health and well-being must be our focus
As put by Howard Fumkin, head Our Planet, Our Health programme at Wellcome Trust, this new thinking puts human health and well-being at the center of things while it also embeds us firmly in the larger planetary health context. This inevitably requires changing how we build our cities, access and use energy and design our communities, which must be “grounded in the realities of what creates satisfying life for people and helps them thrive.”
Health and environmental sciences remain poorly integrated and thus their policies inadequately aligned.
I believe that the emerging field of Planetary Health represents a breakthrough in this regard. It offers a framework and approaches needed to put civilization on a sustainable path by overcoming the siloed disciplinary perspectives and myopic development perspectives that have prevented us from finding solutions in the face of real world complexity and uncertainty. Neither complexity nor uncertainty will disappear. Planetary Health recognizes the urgent need for interdisciplinarity as a complement to disciplinary knowledge and problem-solving methods.
Moreover, it encourages transdisciplinarity—the “real world” collaborative problem-solving approach first championed by legendary development psychologist Jean Piaget.
Innovative and integrated solutions are needed for Planetary Health
I represent the action-oriented think tank Global Health Asia Institute, a member of Planetary Health Alliance, which uniquely specializes in employing interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to address some of the most critical problems both at the community and global levels. This involves partnering with local agencies and people on the ground, as well as international agencies, notably the World Health Organization, to come up with innovative and integrated solutions for intractable problems. Examples include vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue and zika in the face of a changing climate. Another key area for us is how to redesign agriculture intensification and food production in a way that maintains healthier agro-ecosystems as a basis for healthier rural communities to supply safer, more nutritional food for urban citizens.
Projects that Global Health Asia Institute has been engaged in the last two years address these challenges mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia demonstrating the power of Planetary Health thinking. Remarkable advances in terms of introducing these new approaches have been achieved. This includes the design and implementation of the first transdisciplinary-based malaria and dengue prevention and control initiative of the World Health Organization.
We need to enlarge our understanding about the meaning of health
Overall, we first need to reshape our conversations about human health to enlarge our understanding about the meaning of health in this larger, planetary context. Second, ensure that our public policies and businesses perceive development holistically. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a universal roadmap commitment made by all nations to precisely do that. Without the need to reinvent the wheel, these goals give us a good enough plan until 2030 acknowledging the synergies between human health, environmental conservation, gender policies, education, decarbonization, and partnerships both for the people and the planet.
I urge all business leaders to join this movement to improve models of collaboration with governments and local communities that go beyond the human health to also reach ecosystem and animal health, housing, construction, energy, education. Inaction can be costly, as the impact of such efforts can be sometimes diminished or eroded by fragmentation, duplication and poor coordination. Preventive policies enabling clean energy and transport, healthier air, healthy, nutritious chemical-free food and green areas are essential steps towards a healthier planet for both present and future generations.