The ecological paradox of modern life on planet Earth.
By Marlene Cimons
People who live in developed nations are, by many measures, healthier than ever before. Yet the planet has borne an onslaught of environmental insults — climate change chief among them — unlike any in human history. This alone threatens everyone’s well-being, a conundrum that scientists call the “ecological paradox.” They believe humans are forfeiting the health of future generations in order to reap economic gains now.
“We may be living longer, but we are doing it in a way that will rob our children of their health, well-being and long lives,” said Gina McCarthy, who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama Administration. “We need to be looking at how human interference in Earth’s natural systems is playing out, and how humans are changing them. We also must find different solutions, not the traditional ones.”
This means society must begin to focus more on the health of forthcoming generations, a process that will require “a game-changing shift in thinking,” said Susanne Sokolow, a senior research scientist at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Biotechnology has advanced medicine and helped to provide lifesaving diagnostics and treatments, with immediate health benefits, but the future pipeline of new drugs, new antibiotics, and new diagnostics may not provide the panacea that we hope for if the natural ecosystems, on which our lives and livelihoods depend, disappear.”
In recent years, this realization has led to the emergence of a new and growing field, that of planetary health, a discipline that has prompted a global effort to turn what was earlier an academic curiosity into a serious scrutiny of the array of environmental consequences on the worldwide burden of disease.
“It used to be only gee-whiz interesting only to geeky people like me,” said Samuel Myers, senior research scientist in the department of environmental health at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. “But now we know that with ecology, everything is connected to everything. What’s happened in recent years has been a recognition that the human impact on all our planet’s natural systems — climate change, changes in land cover, fisheries, fresh water systems, pollution, air and water quality — all of these transformations are now at a magnitude that threaten global health in a way that is no longer just interesting but deeply urgent.”
The biggest worry is over the fate of the world’s food supply resulting from a changing climate, land degradation, water scarcity and the loss of pollinators, Myers said. “We are completely remaking the conditions that underpin our whole food production system,” he said. “We are doing that at the exact same time we need to increase global food production to keep up with demand.”
Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency physician and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, agreed. “Only about 30 percent of overall health is determined by actual healthcare, and the rest by what happens outside healthcare structures,” she said.
“We need to be talking about things humans care about — food, clean water, and shelter — instead of about polar bears,” she added. “I live in Canada’s subarctic — closer to the polar bears than most people — and it’s unlikely I would change my behavior on their behalf. But I’d move mountains if it meant that I could contribute to my kids having a steady food supply in the year 2040.”
Myers directs the Planetary Health Alliance, an international coalition of more than 70 universities, non-government and governmental organizations, research institutes and others working to address planetary health issues through education, projects, communication and efforts to influence policy. “We see the Alliance as the connective tissue for this growing field,” he said. “We are trying to be the center of gravity to help everybody find each other. We want to connect the research community, and bring science to policy. This isn’t about academic curiosity but an applied field.”Share This