Traditionally, we’ve thought of health as living longer — fighting diseases that cut our lives short and reducing infant mortality rates.
Focusing on these things has helped humanity accomplish tremendous things. Life expectancy in developed countries has almost doubled since 1840.
But thinking of health just in terms of human lifespan is incomplete, according to a new report published by a commission organised by the Rockefeller Foundation and The Lancet. When we talk about health, we also need to take into account the environment surrounding us.
They call this concept “planetary health.”
We need to redefine health and talk about people and the planet together because, according to the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet commission, we’ve been operating as if we can keep on improving health forever and living longer without simultaneously considering the changes occurring in our surrounding environment. That’s short-sighted and probably wrong.
And if we look at those environmental changes, we might currently be headed towards a crisis.
Why we need to redefine health
The improvements we’ve made to human health and lifespan around the world are impressive, but they have come at a cost.
“We may have mortgaged the future in order to sustain our current level of health and development,” explained Sir Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the chair of the commission that wrote the report.
Haines, speaking at a discussion releasing the report on July 16, said that “most concepts of health … just assume any benefit to health is good and it can be sustained indefinitely.” Planetary health, meanwhile, says “we need to pay attention to these natural systems on which our human health and development is founded.”
As we’ve improved our lives up to this point, we’ve simultaneously changed the world, taxing its resources. Population and life expectancy have boomed and poverty has fallen, especially in the past 50 years, the report shows.
Yet at the same time, energy use has skyrocketed, along with tropical forest loss, water use, fertiliser use, fishing capture, ocean acidification, and carbon dioxide emissions. This has led to extreme water shortages, higher temperatures, and biodiversity loss.
The world is still growing, and as economic situations improve, each person on the planet consumes more of its resources. We don’t want poverty rates to rise or life expectancy to fall, but at some point, this strain on resources will become unmanageable unless we take steps to address it. By 2040, the world will need to produce 50% more food than it does now.
Urbanisation and globalization have also exposed humanity to new disease threats. Polluted air can lead to respiratory ailments and airborne diseases spread more easily in densely populated areas. As wild environments are destroyed, people are exposed to more and more animal diseases that could potentially jump species — like Ebola and HIV both did.
These changes threaten to reverse some of our greatest achievements in health over the past century and could mean that future generations don’t just have to deal with a changing climate — we could also be headed for food and water shortages and new infectious diseases, along with extreme weather events.
Without doing anything, we’d essentially be “betting that the inherent ingenuity of the human species will be enough to transcend the problems,” said Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet.
But that’s a bet with disastrous consequences if we’re wrong.
As part of creating this new interdisciplinary health concept, the report outlines some of the potential ways to address the environmental challenges we face.
Up to 30% of agricultural land right now produces food that’s wasted, so cutting food waste could significantly help ensure we don’t deforest more land — while still providing enough to feed the world. Technological innovations like genetic modification could help improve plant productivity.
Economic incentives to produce more sustainable energy (instead of subsidizing fossil fuels, as we do now) could make a significant difference.
But perhaps most importantly, governments and businesses need to better value the environmental and planetary resources that we have.
As Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, explained: “We are in a symbiotic relationship with our planet, and we must start to value that in very real ways.”
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