June 20, 2017, by sustainablenottingham

From sustainable development to planetary health; rethinking the relationship between health and the environment

Dr Linda East reflects on the relationship between health and the environment

As a lecturer in the School of Health Sciences, I have long been interested in health and sustainable development (SD).  However, I had become increasingly uncomfortable with quoting the usual definition of SD in my lectures, that ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’  This definition of SD comes from the 1987 Brundtland Report, Our Common Future.[i]  The problem is that the natural environment has deteriorated over the last 30 years as my generation has continued to gobble up the earth’s resources in a very unsustainable way (I’m 55). This is a situation I am acutely aware of as I lecture to those very ‘future generations’ that the Brundtland Report envisaged.  Don’t we need something a little more urgent?

For me, the answer came in the 2015 Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission report on planetary health.[ii]  This report has launched a new way of thinking about the relationship between health and the environment, presenting a compelling framework that has revitalised research and teaching in this field.  In April 2017, I was delighted to represent the University of Nottingham at the inaugural meeting of the Planetary Heath Alliance.  The blog post is an attempt to share something of this experience with staff and student colleagues.

The concept of planetary heath sounds somewhat overwhelming, even grandiose, at first.  However, since the first ‘blue marble’ photo of our planet was taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972, the idea of our planet as ‘home’ has become part of our human consciousness.  Can anyone gaze at the blue marble and not be moved?[iii]

‘blue marble’ photo of our planet taken by Apollo 17

When we see our planet as a whole, our perspective changes.  When we realise the true extent of the pressure human activity is placing on the planet, we get a wake-up call.  Earth scientists argue that we are entering a new geological era.  For the last 12,000 years, we have lived in the Holocene, an era of stable climate that has enabled the development of agriculture and the flourishing of human civilisation and culture.  However, the last 60 years or so have seen a huge transformation in how humans relate to the natural world.  Startling graphics depict a Great Acceleration, with exponential growth in human-mediated indicators from CO2 emissions to water and energy use.  Scientists are arguing that we have entered the Anthropocene, a new geological era where the sheer scale of human activity is threatening the stability of the Holocene.

In 2009, Rockström et al proposed a framework for understanding planetary boundaries, describing nine key processes that determine our planet’s stability that we breach at our peril.[iv]  Although the framework has been contested, it offers a powerful visual for reflecting on the health of our planet.  Thinking of planetary health in this way bridges the gap between human and environment: if the health of the planet fails, then so will we. When the concept of natural planetary boundaries that should not be exceeded is combined with a social foundation below which we should not fall, then we have the doughnut economics approach, an emerging paradigm for 21st century change.[v]

Promoting sustainable development through education, research and the management of our physical environment is a significant strand of UoN strategy, as articulated in the Sustainability Strategy 2015-2020.  We draw reputational capital from our success in the Green Metric world rankings and other award-winning initiatives. However, the size and diversity of our organisation creates challenges when we seek to narrate our achievements and aspirations in this complex field.  Could the planetary health framework offer a more integrated and inspiring approach to describing where we are and determining where we are heading?

[i] World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[ii] Whitmee S., Haynes A. Beyrer C. at al (2015) Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health. The Lancet 386 (10007): 1973-2028.

[iii] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17.jpg

[iv] Rockström J., Steffen W., Noone K. et al (2009) Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity.  Ecology and Society 14 (2): 32. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/

[v] Raworth K. (2017) Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist.  London: Penguin Random House.

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