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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Planetary Health

Air Date: Week of

Planetary Health delves into the intersection of environmental change and human health. (Image: Courtesy of Island Press)

A healthier planet also means a healthier society. That's the basis of a 2020 book drilling down on the intersection of environmental change and human health. Physician Sam Myers co-edited Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves with Howard Frumkin. He joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss his book and to explain how saving the planet can also save human lives.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

Human health is an integral part of any discussion about our changing planet and with the pandemic, it is more relevant than ever. Scientists say that our impacts on the environment increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, for example, brings us closer to animals that might have zoonotic diseases like Covid 19. And our agricultural system relies on large livestock farms that could serve as reservoirs for viruses. Physician Sam Myers studies the intersection of environmental change and human health. As part of our LOE Book Club live event series, I spoke to him about his new book Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves, co-edited with Dr. Howard Frumkin. Sam is the director of the Planetary Health Alliance and also a principal research scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
Welcome to Living on Earth, Sam!

MYERS: It's such a pleasure to be here with you, Steve. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Our pleasure. So Sam, the book we're talking about, it's named Planetary Health. This is the name of a brand new field of study and consideration that you've been involved with since the very beginning. So please tell me, what is planetary health? And how did you get involved in this field?

MYERS: Yeah, well, so you're right. Planetary health is a very new, very interdisciplinary field that I think has really emerged out of this moment that we globally find ourselves in. And it's a field that's focused on understanding the human health implications of our own disruption and transformation of most of our planet's natural systems. So it's about how global environmental changes actually come back to threaten our own health and well being.

Environmental change can impact the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19, but also non-infectious diseases like diabetes. (Photo: Trinity Care Foundation, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: And I suppose if biologist E. O. Wilson were with us at this moment, he'd say, well, what do you expect we we all evolved from this particular ecosystem? And you would say?

MYERS: Yeah, I would say that we've evolved over four million years in close conjunction with a set of actually relatively stable biophysical conditions and that now we are changing those biophysical conditions really across the board at the fastest rates in the history of our species. And so it isn't that surprising that those biophysical changes are translating into some pretty significant threats for human health across just about every dimension of health.

CURWOOD: So now, let's zoom in for a moment to one of the sections of this book. And I have to say you have many, many fascinating, interesting sections. And, it's a shame that we don't have five or six hours to go through everything that you have in this. But let's look at one section. You have a chapter on mental health on a changing planet. For a lot of people, this isn't such an obvious topic. But please tell us why you and Howie Frumkin thought this was important to include.

MYERS: Yeah, I think that mental health is one of the, you know, really understudied and under emphasized, but maybe one of the most important areas where accelerating environmental change is threatening our health. And, you know, there's a very large sort of well established body of evidence around the mental health effects of big disasters, we know that these fires across the West Coast are going to have an enormous mental health toll. We know that the big hurricanes have, you know, huge mental health effects in terms of depression, anxiety, job loss suicidality, and we know that those impacts are actually very robust and long lasting. So if you go back to Katrina victims, 10 years, 15 years later, you're still seeing mental health effects in those populations. But there's this whole realm of much more subtle mental health effects that people are starting to call eco anxiety or ecological grief. And, you know, it sort of begs the question, what is the burden that we carry with us of knowing that our own actions collectively are sort of systematically dismantling natural systems? What's the mental health burden people experienced when we learned that about two thirds of the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes that used to inhabit the planet have been pushed off the planet by our own, you know, activities, and there's a whole area of research now starting to try to understand what those burdens are that may be almost invisible, but could still be very significant.

CURWOOD: So Doctor, I know you're very early in this process, but what treatments have you come across that are going to help with this intense pressure on our mental health?

MYERS: We talk about that very specifically in the mental health chapter that, you know, collective action, movement, building, social organizing, coming together to take action is not only necessary, it's also therapeutic. You know, Chris Jordan, who is a producer and an artist and did this amazing film Albatross about the challenge of plastics in our oceans, talks about how grief is the other side of love. And I think that's true. I think that if we love something, and it's in distress, then we grieve for it. And so I think the first step is to acknowledge that things are really challenging and that it's extraordinary that almost every single person in this country right now tonight, as we speak, is experiencing in some form or another some kind of ecological associated threat. But then we need to move from acknowledging the grief to coming together to take collective action. And I think that's why some of the movement building that's been going on over the last couple of years is so exciting. Whether we're talking about, you know, the climate strike movement and Greta Thunberg, or we're talking about the Extinction Rebellion, or we're talking about the birth strike movement, or, you know, any number of other kinds of social movements that not only are they the only way to address big power problems, where people actually have to hold governments and industries accountable to take the right actions, but they also bring us together, which is itself a therapy, I think, against the kind of ecological despair that I'm talking about.

Carbon dioxide has been shown to affect the levels of iron, zinc and protein in staple food crops. (Photo: Ellenm1, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

CURWOOD: Sam, let's talk about another section of your book. And this, of course, actually a couple of sections on disease. In one section, you detail infectious diseases, I'm thinking of malaria, along with non infectious diseases: cancer, diabetes, heart disease. Tell us please about the correlation between environmental change and the risk of disease.

MYERS: Well, it's a huge topic, it's really kind of the first half of our book. And, you know, it's people tend to gravitate in their heads toward infectious diseases, we think about the hot zone, we obviously are all thinking about COVID now. We think about Ebola. And certainly, all kinds of biophysical change is associated with big changes in infectious disease exposures. But in a lot of ways, it's the non infectious diseases that are likely to drive the largest global burdens of disease. And so yeah, for example, the non communicable diseases. A big report came out a couple of years ago about global pollution of air, water and soil, showing that about 9 million excess deaths a year are attributable to pollution. And those deaths are non communicable diseases, their heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, some kinds of cancers, you know, the mental health effects that we just talked about, you know, and then there's this huge category of nutritional diseases, which is where I do a lot of my own research, where we're seeing biophysical changes associated with changes not only in the quantity of food that we can produce, but also even the quality.

CURWOOD: Yeah, Sam, let's drill down, in fact, on some of the research that you're doing on nutrition, it's now a number of years ago that we first noticed here on Living on Earth, the work that you were doing, showing that as carbon dioxide levels went up that this was bad news for a number of commodity crops. So talk in some detail about your research here in this area of nutrition during these times, please.

MYERS: So I wear two hats, I direct the Planetary Health Alliance, and then I'm also a research scientist. And so with my research, I'm engaged in a bunch of research projects, and most of which really look at how changing biophysical conditions affect nutritional outcomes around the world. And so one example is the work you were talking about where with a team of people all over the world, we're looking at this question of how rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere might affect the nutritional quality of staple food crops that we depend on for our nutrients. And what we found a while ago was that when you grow crops at carbon dioxide levels that we expect to reach by the middle of this century, they lose a lot of their iron and zinc and protein, really essential nutrients for human health. And so we spent several years after that initial finding, then modeling the diet of populations in 152 countries around the world to understand how these nutrient changes would actually alter the total sort of intake of those nutrients for people around the world. And whether it would push them into deficiencies of those nutrients, which are very serious public health problems. And what we found was on the order of 150 to 200 million people would be likely to be pushed into new risk of deficiencies like zinc and protein as well as you know, the billion or so people who already aren't getting enough those nutrients in their diets. And so that's just one small example of how, in a way that was almost impossible to anticipate, which is another theme in Planetary Health, right? These surprises and these unintended consequences, but who would have thought if we were sitting around 20 years ago, having a beer that, you know, adding carbon dioxide would make our food less nutritious. But, you know, that's one impact of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and yet it potentially affects hundreds of millions of people.

Sam Myers is the director of the Planetary Health Alliance and a principal research scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. (Photo: Sam Myers)

CURWOOD: So what about solutions? Then let's just drill down for a moment on the question of solutions in this food and nutrition area. What things do you want to point to?

MYERS: Well, I mean, I think there are you know, there are solutions that we could point to around these specific questions like CO2, but that's really a tiny little piece of the big picture, you know, big picture is that our food system is probably more responsible for our transformation of the global environment than anything else. We use 40% of the terrestrial land surface for crop lands and pasture about half the accessible freshwater mostly to irrigate our crops, we're fishing out, you know, 90% of monitored fisheries so that there's a huge ecological footprint to our food system. And then the flip side is that environmental change is creating these enormous headwinds in producing food right when we need to roughly double food production in order to keep up with demand. And so we have this sort of, eye of a needle that we have to thread between destroying the biosphere by expanding agricultural production and still feeding 10 billion people. And, you know, that's where the, we really need to think about solutions. And we're starting to see that we're seeing you know, precision agriculture really taking off in the use of robotics to be much more efficient in how we use agricultural inputs, we're seeing new things like impossible burger or protein fermentation, the production of synthetic milk, or eggs that actually has a much, much, much smaller ecological footprint and is presumably considerably healthier for us to consume. Ther’e all of these innovations that are taking place, they're also our old tried and true methods from agro ecology, that are being shown through research to be much more effective, you know, more profitable with much lower ecological footprints. So when you start to look at this whole sort of huge menu of solutions that can be drawn from and you see similar things across energy systems and urban design. That's what I mean about this sort of rich terrain of solutions.

CURWOOD: So we just need the willingness, huh Sam?

MYERS: So I really think it's a matter of political will, yeah.

CURWOOD: I mean, I think probably an interesting example is bacon. I think many people will see bacon is, you know, really not very healthy. And yet, if you put it out, especially around the campfire, it'll disappear in a moment. How do we change?

MYERS: Well, I think we are changing. I mean, I think that the COVID pandemic has taught us that we're capable of actually changing in profound ways very quickly, which we didn't even know about ourselves. I think we have to start by the diagnosis, we have to start by recognizing that we're in really an extraordinary moment in human history. It's an inflection point, we cannot continue on our current trajectory, you know, our global house is on fire. And so we have to, we have to be motivated by the fact that we can't stay on this course. And then I think it's more than policy. I think it's it's more than what governments can do. I think that ultimately people and this goes back to your question about mental health, people need to come together to take collective action to organize and to hold their governments, you know, accountable and insist that stimulus packages are spent, you know, towards Green New Deals or, you know, other kinds of investments in infrastructure that could, that's going to take us in the right direction. At the end of the day, I think, you know, there's a spiritual sort of cultural dimension to this, we need to tell ourselves some different kinds of stories about our relationship to nature. And, you know, underlying all of these sort of ecological and public health crises, there's, I think, a spiritual crisis, where we've kind of lost our way and we've lost our sense of connectedness to the natural world.

Solastalgia describes the emotional distress caused by environmental change. (Photo: pandrii000, PxHere, Public Domain)

And I think we need to move from stories of sort of exploitation and dominance, which underlies so much of our action to stories of, you know, regeneration and reciprocity and codependence with natural systems. And so, you know, there's a role for our artists and our spiritual leaders in kind of getting us back on track on that level as well.

CURWOOD: Again, Sam, thanks so much for taking the time and congratulations for two years of hard work that I think people are going to use for many years going forward as a resource.

MYERS: Thank you, Steve. It's a great pleasure to be with you, I really appreciate it.



More on Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves

More on Sam Myers

LOE’s previous coverage with Sam Myers on how CO2 affects nutrients in food


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