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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