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Arid soils as a result of drought in Mauritania in 2012, when the Sahel was gripped by a food crisis.  (Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam/flickr/cc)

Human Exploitation of Nature Has Driven Planetary Health to the Edge

New report says 'we have been mortgaging the health of future generations'

Andrea Germanos

To put it bluntly, humanity has been trashing the planet like never before. And unless immediate changes take place, the prognosis for global health and the natural systems on which civilization depends is bleak.

So finds a new report from The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health, written by 15 leading academics and policymakers.

Entitled Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch (pdf), the report from the international team outlines how a new, integrated view of what prosperity means can safeguard the environment, foster equitable consumption, and offer a better outlook for human well-being.

Part of the problem thus far, the researchers write, is that nature and economy have been divorced. "We have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present," the study states. Instead, seeing the interconnectedness of nature and human civilization can benefit both, they write, adding that "there is a growing awareness that humanity's historical patterns of development cannot be a guide for the future."

Dr. Judith Rodin, President of The Rockefeller Foundation, explains the gravity of the situation: "The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Planetary Health Commission has issued a dire warning: Human action is undermining the resilience of the earth's natural systems, and in so doing we are compromising our own resilience, along with our health and, frankly, our future."

Professor Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK, and chair of the report added: "We are on the verge of triggering irreversible, global effects, ranging from ocean acidification to biodiversity loss."

"These environmental changes—which include, but extend far beyond climate change—threaten the gains in health that have been achieved over recent decades and increase the risks to health arising from major challenges as diverse as under-nutrition and food insecurity, freshwater shortages, emerging infectious diseases, and extreme weather events," Haines stated.

To achieve planetary health—meaning taking into consideration both the health of human civilization the natural systems on which it depends—requires shift-change in several ares, but solutions are possible, the report states.  Changes that help both human health and the environment can take the form of reduced air pollution, wetland and magrove protection, more green speaces in urban areas, and more fruit- and vegetable-centered diets. 

The report's executive summary concludes: "Humanity can be stewarded successfully through the 21st century by addressing the unacceptable inequities in health and wealth within the environmental limits of the Earth, but this will require the generation of new knowledge, implementation of wise policies, decisive action, and inspirational leadership."

Released in conjunction with the Commission report are two studies from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that illustrate specific health impacts from climate change. One study focused on how pollinator loss could lead to declines in crops that help prevent non-communicable diseases; the other looked at how rising CO2 levels lower levels of zinc—key for maternal and child health—in foods, thereby threatening as many as 180 million people with zinc deficiency by around 2050.

Samuel Myers, senior research scientist in the Harvard Chan School's Department of Environmental Health, senior author of the pollinator study and lead author of the zinc study, stated: "Whether we're talking about land use, deforestation, degradation of global fisheries, disruption of the climate system, biodiversity loss, appropriation of fresh water, changes to aquatic systems—all of the changes are profound and they're accelerating, and they represent a significant challenge to global health."


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