It's Not Just Climate Change: A Funder Looks to the Bigger Picture of a Healthy Planet

One of the common threads in human health research is an increasing drive toward an integrated understanding of the whole system: how the body's various parts work together, our interdependence with the billions of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies, mutability of gene expression, psychological and social factors.

And taken in another context, our health and well-being is also a product of our place in a larger ecology of plants, animals, weather, water—well, the whole planet.

As we've reported from many angles, several organizations are looking at ways to support the health of the planet, or to study the connection between the environment and human health.

Now, this big-picture context is getting a few more big names, including Harvard University and the Wildlife Conservation Society, with other partners. The groups recently announced the launch of the Planetary Health Alliance, an effort to improve understanding of the complex relationships between environmental change and human health around the globe.

The alliance is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, and follows its publication last summer of a research report, with the Lancet Commission, about planetary healththe connection between environmental degradation and human health. The report outlines ways to advance public health through better stewardship of the environmental.

"(T)here is growing evidence that the planet’s capacity to sustain the growing human population is declining," the Rockefeller Foundation says. "The degradation of our air, water, and land has resulted in a significant loss in biodiversity. As a result, disease patterns are changing and new diseases are emerging."

Much of the discussion about the planet's health these days centers around topics like climate change, but there are many issues in play, says Harvard in its press release about the alliance. "Climate change is only one of many types of environmental change effecting Earth’s life support systemsin fact, there is now a serious risk that the dramatic gains to public health made since the 1950s could plateau or even reverse as a result of human degradation of a myriad of natural systems."

Dr. Samuel Myers, senior research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, will serve as director of the Planetary Health Alliance, alongside Harvard Chan School research scientist Dr. Christopher Golden, who will be associate director. The alliance will be based at Harvard University and will involve the Harvard University Center for the Environment and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

As we see in contexts including the economy and the environment, people are great at ignoring warnings and warning signs, like rising global temperatures and species die-offs. But the Planetary Health Alliance says the ramifications of climate change and other factors can't be considered as problems for people in some distant future: They're happening already, and they're going to continue.

“The human transformation of most of Earth’s natural systems represents a clear and present danger to global health," says Myers. "There’s an enormous amount that can be done to address these threats... we are already seeing suffering due to global environmental change. How much suffering happens is up to us.”

The new organization says strategies to study and ultimately manage planetary change and its effect on human health will span many disciplines. The Planetary Health Alliance intends to grow into a consortium of universities, NGOs,  governmental entities, and other partners. It will be interesting to see what array of funders are drawn to this work.