By most metrics, human health is better today than at any time in human history. Over the past several decades, life expectancy has soared from 48 to 70 years (1955-2012). In 1955 there were 21 million deaths in children under the age of five; by 1997 that number was more than halved to 10 million. These advances have occurred coincident with a vast degradation of nature’s ecological systems, again on a scale never seen in human history. Numerous global assessments from the GEO 4, to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, to the IPCC reports have warned that accelerating change to the structure and function of Earth’s natural systems represents a significant threat to global human health. And yet, global health has mainly improved as these changes have accelerated.
How is this possible?
The explanation is straightforward and sobering: we have been mortgaging the health of future generations in order to realize economic and development gains in the present. By mining nature’s resources at an unsustainable rate, global societies can flourish in the short term, but face significant health impacts from the degradation of nature’s life support systems over the longer term. The global health impacts of accelerating climatic disruption, land degradation, growing water scarcity, fisheries degradation, biodiversity loss, and pollution threaten the global health gains of the last several decades and are likely to represent the dominant global health threats of the next century.
It is striking that many assessments of future challenges for global health entirely overlook the potential for significant environmental changes to disrupt and potentially reverse the marked progress that has characterized recent human history.
Now is the time to transform the discipline of public health into one that integrates knowledge of the underpinning earth systems with understanding of the determinants of health and develops evidence-based, integrated policy solutions that address environmental sustainability together with human health and development goals.
The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health has thus recognized an urgent need to support the growth of an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of accelerating global environmental change and human health—the field of planetary health. The Commission’s Report recommends that we “expand trans-disciplinary research activities and capacity substantially and as a matter of urgency” in order to “address significant gaps in knowledge through research including the links between health and environmental change.
To achieve the goals outlined in the Commission Report will require educating the next generation of planetary health scholars, supporting their research efforts, and helping to forge a cohesive community of practice. It will also require focused efforts to improve the funding environment for research in this field and for proactive outreach to global health and environmental leaders so as to move this science into policy and action—leading to more robust, rational policy and resource management decisions that incorporate both important environmental and human health outcomes.
We proposed to address this need through the formation of the Planetary Health Alliance—a next generation of the Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages (HEAL) effort that the Rockefeller Foundation has been supporting since 2009. The Alliance, a consortium comprised of academic, nongovernmental, and governmental partners, will support the growth of a robust field of planetary health across the United States and globally by working across the three intersecting domains of research, education, and policy. Read more about our approach.