Healthy Planet, Healthy Lives

September 11, 2020

I was recently asked to speak in Ghana to a gathering of leaders from across West Africa about human health and the environment. I had to do it virtually of course – great for my time and carbon emissions but I did miss the interaction and learning I get from chatting with participants.

It hardly needs be said how apt a topic this is for our current time. It’s so obvious but somehow we keep forgetting this basic fact:

Human life depends on the health of the environment

If the health of the environment is damaged, this has direct and indirect impacts on the health of human beings and also on our levels of wellbeing and happiness.

It can be easy to think that the ‘environment’ is something ‘out there’, away from and disconnected to human beings. But, the way God has created the world is that human beings are deeply connected to, and in ongoing interdependent relationship with, the wider creation around us. Our actions affect the world around us, which, in turn can have drastic impacts on human health.

As part of my talk I asked people to ‘chat’ about the problems they see around them in their contexts. The answers probably won’t be much of a surprise:

  • Huge deforestation
  • Intensive & polluting agricultural practices
  • Animal poaching and trafficking
  • Dirty energy from diesel generators and overall no clean energy
  • The impact of mining
  • Air pollution
  • Overwhelmed by plastic
  • Overfishing and pollution in the seas…..

I looked at five particular areas in which the health of the environment impacts human health.

1 – Air pollution

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 90% of people worldwide breathe polluted air, and around 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air. To put that in perspective, breathing polluted air contributes to 1 in 8 of all deaths.

One study shockingly claims that there are more deaths every year from air pollution than tobacco smoking.

2 – Water disasters, quality and variability

The global water cycle is intensifying due to climate change, with wetter regions generally becoming wetter and drier regions becoming even drier. According to UNESCO, an estimated 3.6 billion people (nearly half the global population) live in areas that are potentially water-scarce at least one month per year, and this population could increase to some 4.8–5.7 billion by 2050.

The flip side of water scarcity is flooding. UNESCO forecasts that by 2050 nearly 20% of the world’s population will be at risk from flooding. Increasingly variable rainfall patterns are likely to affect the supply of fresh water. A lack of safe water can compromise hygiene and increase the risk of diarrhoeal disease, which, according to the WHO, kills over 500 000 children aged under 5 years, every year.

3 – Availability of nutritious food

When the biodiversity of land and soil degrades, this has a direct impact on the ability to produce nutritious food for people. The UN has stated that over half of the land used for agriculture is moderately or severely affected by soil degradation.

The UN has reported that 23 hectares per minute (!) are lost due to drought and desertification, amounting to 12 million hectares of land each year. That equates to 20 million tons of grain that could have been grown. That’s a lot of food that could have fed a lot of people!

4 – Climatic variation

Human actions have intensified climatic variations, causing droughts and extreme heat.

Extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people. In the heat wave of summer 2003 in Europe for example, more than 70 000 excess deaths were recorded. Globally, the number of reported weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60000 deaths, mainly in countries in the Global South.

Sadly, the WHO currently expects that from 2030, there will be 38 000 additional annual deaths due to heat exposure in elderly people.

5 – Patterns of infection (especially zoonotic diseases)

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has argued what I’ve been saying: that this Covid-19 pandemic is not a ‘natural disaster’, but rather is the result of human activity.

Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)

IPBES has reported that more than 70% of all emerging diseases affecting people having originated in wildlife and domesticated animals, and that animal-to-human diseases already cause an estimated 700,000 deaths each year.

UNEP have observed: “The illegal trade in wildlife continues to pose a serious threat to ecosystems and wildlife populations. Not only threatening species survival, the illegal trade in live animals also exposes humans to zoonotic diseases associated with the traded species.”

Climatic conditions strongly affect water-borne diseases and diseases transmitted through insects, snails or other cold-blooded animals. The WHO projects that changes in climate are likely to lengthen the transmission seasons of important vector-borne diseases and to alter their geographic range.

The picture isn’t pretty. BUT, if we are the problem then we can be the solution too. Alongside this dark and gloomy picture are many signs of hope – where people are living and acting differently. 

We have learnt so much through this year about how our health depends on the health of the wider natural world. Let’s continue making the changes in our own lives to establish a better relationship with nature, and let’s keep pushing our government to act in the right way too.

I hope this blog brings sharply into focus what lies in the balance as we interact with the wider creation, and I hope it encourages you to keep taking action to look after the glorious gift of God’s wonderful, yet wounded world. 

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  • Reply Guy Rowland October 24, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    Dear Ruth,
    I found myself very encouraged by the interview of Prince William and Sir David Attenborough on the Today programme recently. I expect you will either have seen it or have heard about it. You will probably also have seen the following 3 1/2 min interview with Sir David; also very encouraging.


    I don’t know if you have the time to read the rest of this; your time is precious. The nub of the question I sincerely seek an answer to as a Christian, who is also a minor climate activist, is this. We all still need to be reconciled with the God OF creation as well as WITH his creation, if our eternal destiny is to be fulfilled. (Thank God, therefore, for Jesus Christ.)

    Christians, me included, need to be able to articulate to those who are not yet Christians why these two are related together. Here is a 12min very reasonable interview with Dr Clifford Hill which gives a partial answer.


    He rightly make the fundamental point that humans have rebelled against their Creator. No surprise, therefore, that they sin against each other and disrupt the ecosystem of creation. No surprise either that they lose their moral compass and society begins to collapse, as Clifford Hill also suggests.

    The big question he does NOT answer in the video is this. How can we, in following the Lord, as I believe you and I are in relation to the climate crisis, point to Jesus Christ as the Answer to the crisis? It would be nice if we could simply point to the Good News of Jesus. But Jesus seems superfluous to a world that thinks it can autonomously resolve its own problems. As Dr Hill says, the Good News of Jesus only makes sense if we realise our need for repentance, turning away from rebellion against the Creator in this case. How should the Church fulfil its prophetic role of interpreting this crisis to the world, in a way that draws them to their unknown God? Surely we have an opportunity here for the extension of God’s Kingdom – as well as the solution to this crisis?

    I thank God for calling you to the role he has given you.
    Yours in Christ,
    Guy Rowland

    • Reply Ruth January 19, 2021 at 9:33 am

      Dear Guy, I’m so sorry I haven’t replied before – I don’t check my messages here very often and have only just seen this from you.
      It’s a really great question you ask and I think you’ve been getting to some good answers already! For me, it comes down to a full understanding of the gospel of Jesus which draws together our relationships with God, other people and the wider creation into an integrated whole. I think the Christian faith has something to offer in its unabashed appreciation of sin and the reality of humanity that we can be wonderfully amazing but also terribly destructive, and it’s only in Jesus that we can see that resolved. On a practical level, being involved in caring for the world can be a really good witness and my experience with Eco Church is that churches that get involved with the scheme almost always end up getting more involved with their communities. I also think we have a role to play in offering resources around lament – something that we need so much today.
      Have you read my Saying Yes to Life? You might find that helpful. And the Introduction to Just Living explores more fully what I understand by a holistic gospel.
      Thanks again for being in touch and every best wishes,

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