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What is on this Guide

The Planetary Health resources at VU Library Guide points to relevant information available through VU Library, open access content, and links to VU research. Content is organised by themes aligned to Planetary Health Alliance resource areas and Victoria University priorities. 

This Library Guide contains information relevant to students and staff, and there is useful content for those from research as well as learning & teaching areas. It provides a beginning to the exploration of Planetary Health.

Planetary Health

The Promise of Planetary Health is presented by the Planetary Health Alliance in cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund and the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

Planetary Health - An Introduction

by Jeannie Rea, Associate Professor & Course Chari, Graduate Certificate in Planetary Health

“Sophisticated technology, intended to advantage humankind, sometimes has had unforeseen adverse effects on human health…[environmental degradation] threatens human and planetary health. The latter must also be added to the consideration of biological and sociocultural influences on health throughout the human life span.”

Jonas Salk,1980 (in Logan et al, 2018)

The term planetary health has been used in health and environmental sustainability discourse since at least the 1980s acknowledging both the intersect between human health and the natural environment, and the impact of human activity upon the environment. In just the last few years Planetary Health has emerged as a distinct field of transdisciplinary academic endeavour with education and research developing around the world. 

'Planetary health’  was popularised in environmental activism, and was often used by those arguing for a holistic approach arguing that human health and that of the biosphere cannot be uncoupled. Susan Prescott et al (2018a) noted that back in 1980, that Friends of the Earth “expanded the World Health Organisation (WHO) person centric definition of health quoting the statement, ‘Friends of the Earth therefore believes that health is a state of complete physical, mental, social and ecological wellbeing not merely the absence of disease – that personal health involves planetary health.’ ”

The One Health, EcoHealth and Global Health discourse/disciplines/approaches/concepts all respond to these challenges, Prescott et al argue, and they note that there are lively debates about which approach best encompasses the field along with the focus now upon Planetary Health. (Prescott, 2018a)

Environmentalists and prominent scientists including Salk spoke to intersect between human and planetary health forty years ago and the first UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed nearly three decades ago, while warnings about global warming go back to the 1970s. And even longer as a recently unearthed article in the Courier Mail from 1950which wrote of the how the climate in Sydney was becoming hotter and this warming had been consistent  for a century. (Ribeiro, 2020)

“We must see ourselves as part of the ecosystem. Where we were once a product of evolution, we are now part of the process," argued Salk.(quoted by Logan et al, 2018). This was a significant and underrated statement in situating humans within the natural system. It is arguably distinguished from much of the discourse still today which continues to privilege people above and beyond the natural systems. And this is another area of debate coming out of different philosophical discourses as well as ways of knowing and being on planet earth.

The work of Will Steffen and many others has alerted us the need for urgent action to retard and even reverse the rapidity of change to natural systems made by humans, and the consequences for humanity and all living things, in what we now understand as the Anthropocene Age.

This situation is novel in its speed, its global scale and its threat to the resilience of the Earth System. The advent of the Anthropence, the time interval in which human activities now rival global geophysical processes, suggests that we need to fundamentally alter our relationship with the planet we inhabit. (Steffen et al, 2011) 

Lancet Commission

Planetary Health as a contemporary academic and research endeavour has its origins in re-assessment of the focus of Public and Global Health, and owes much to the 2015 Report of The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on planetary health,  Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch, which said that Planetary health refers to the “health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends.”(Whitmore et al, 2015)

Sarah Whitmore et al (2015) declared that:

The concept of planetary health is based on the understanding that human health and human civilisation depend on flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship of those natural systems. However, natural systems are being degraded to an extent unprecedented in human history.

Andy Haines explained that the Lancet Commission sought to articulate a concept of planetary health that started from the premise that, “Human health is intrinsically linked to natural systems… ultimately all human society and progress are dependent upon natural systems.” (Haines, 2016)

The Lancet Commission has had significant impact upon health scientists and medical practitioners, and has influenced increasingly vocal critique of the economic growth paradigm, as indicated in this editorial in the Medical Journal of Australia, titled ‘Planetary health: what it is and what should doctors do?’, which argued:

In short it can be argued that we have all been mortgaging the health and wellbeing of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present… Success will require… focusing on quality of life and improved human health…not increase in gross domestic product together with respect for the natural environment. (Capon et al, 2018)

Haines (2017) also wrote for the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene:

…despite the many challenges, solutions lie within reach. They should be based on the redefinition of prosperity to focus away solely from the growth of GDP towards the enhancement of the quality of life and the delivery of improved health for all, with respect for the integrity of natural system.

The significance of medical doctors criticising dominant economic policy is both in the broader disillusionment with the hegemonic growth = development = human prosperity construct, and increasing preparedness of scholars and practitioners to step beyond their disciplinary fields.

The cross disciplinary nature of Planetary Health is indeed a major reason for its’ appeal in an environment where siloed disciplinary explanations are insufficient along with the capability of finding solutions.

The Canmore Declaration, statement of principles for planetary health was developed at 7th inVIVO conference, which is an international research cooperative originating from the World Universities Network founded in 2012. The Declaration stated that there is an “interdependence of personal, public and planetary health”; and that, “Planetary health is not a new discipline, it is an extension of a concept understood by our ancestors, and remains the vocation of multiple disciplines’. (Prescott et al, 2018b)

In articulating planetary health ethics, Alexander Foster et al (2019) argue:

Planetary health is a transdisciplinary approach that aims to advance the understanding of the links between human-driven changes to the planet and their consequences, and to develop appropriate solutions to the challenges identified.

The Lancet Commission criticised “a historical scarcity of transdisciplinary research and funding” as a critical challenge. (Whitmore et al, 2015)

The SDGs

The failure of governments and good governance in recognising and responding to threats with timely implementation of policy and in pooling resources was also pointed to as a major challenge. (Whitmore et al, 2015)  It is no accident that the Lancet Commission was in 2015, as this was also the end of the 15 years of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While credited with helping in drawing millions out of extreme poverty, the failure of the MDGs to reach the targets was substantively attributed to the failure of international leaders, governments and agencies to work collaboratively with a common focus. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were endorsed by all UN member states in 2016 with targets to be reached by 2030. (See SDGs capsule by Helen Widdop-Quinton)

In 2015 UNDP Administrator (and former New Zealand Prime Minister) Helen Clark focused upon the role and responsibility of good governance in declaring:

The United Nations Development Program recognises planetary health as critical to achieving sustainable development across the economic , social and environmental spheres…this ethos underpins our Strategic Plan for 2014-17. ..

Implementing the Commission’s comprehensive action framework to safeguard planetary and human health requires strengthening resilience and governance capacity. This objective is reflected in the proposed SDGs. (Clark, 2015)

The Paris Agreement

The other critical event of 2015 was the signing by over 190 parties of the first universal, legally binding global climate change agreement, at the 21st meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The Paris Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change. (UNFCC)

This tide of global recognition at the United Nations and related agencies level of the intersect between human health and natural systems also prompted academic and research institutions to act.

Planetary Health Alliance

The Planetary Health Alliance (PHA), founded in this moment has grown to almost 200 members including universities, research institutes, NGOS and government agencies. The PHAs mission is to support “the rapid growth of a robust, interdisciplinary field of planetary health. (PHA website)

Victoria University has applied for membership, joining a number of other Australian universities, supporting the contention of the recent essay in The Conversation, “Climate change is the most important mission for universities in the 21st century.” (Rickards & Pitesch, 2020)

The PHA declares:

We are now in a new geological era, the Anthropocene, characterized by humanity’s dramatic impact on Earth’s natural systems. And though the average global citizen’s health has improved over the past century, the health of our planet has sharply declined—putting historically recent, and fragile, public health gains at risk.

We are faced not only with climate change, but also with declining biodiversity, shortages of arable land and freshwater, pollution, and changing biogeochemical flows. (PHA website)

The PHA speaks to the ‘global citizen’, as the Lancet Commission wrote of ‘human health and human civilisation’, and uses these notions of citizenship and civilisation in seeking to be inclusive, these terms are highly contentious and contested. What does being a global citizen mean when the reality is that for millions the lack of citizenship of nation states leaves them on the move, prosecuted and persecuted. And when ‘civilisation’ is a construction and judgement of colonisation and post coloniality.

Prescott et al (2018a) noted:

However, for many Indigenous peoples and colonized groups globally, the word “civilization” has been brandished as a means to invade their spaces, destroy their connectivity to nature and ancestral protection of biodiversity, and threaten their existence, culture, and territorial sovereignty.

Tony Birch in the 2016 article ‘Climate change, mining and traditional Indigenous knowledge in Australia’ points to the impacts of climate change on Indigenous peoples in Australia, and around the world, and also to the depth of knowledge within Indigenous communities. He notes that:

Non-Indigenous society must respect this knowledge and facilitate alliances with Indigenous communities based on a greater recognition of traditional knowledge systems.

And Birch further warns that, “until this happens serious climate action in Australia will continue to be piece-meal, fragmented and subject to unsustainable political whims…’ (Birch, 2016)

From global to local

Much of the above discussion is about the global level of response, but what is critical is the local where the intersections make it real. For people of eastern Australia last summer’s bushfires (that started just over a year ago) where we watched fires burn hotter than thought possible and where the smoke circulated the world, prompted many to speak out on climate change including rural fire authority leaders. Questions about land ‘management’ and responsibilities including to biodiversity became part of ordinary conversations. Aboriginal leaders noted sagely that it took this crisis for their land and fire management practices to start being appraised for the lessons they could offer. 

Now we continue deal with the coronavirus pandemic in our own neighbourhoods, but know our experiences are different depending upon our circumstances – and we watch aghast at what is happening in other parts if the world. Thinking globally and acting locally has never been so clear. A place-based approach to planetary health speaks to acting within our local context – but also sharing learning with communities globally.

(July 2020)

Essay references

Birch, T. (2016). Climate change, mining and traditional Indigenous knowledge in Australia. Social Inclusion, 4(1), 92-101.

Capon, A. G., Talley, N. J., & Horton, R. C. (2018). Planetary health: What it is and what should doctors do. Medical Journal of Australia, 208(7), 296-297.

Clark, H. (2015, July 15). Governance for planetary health and sustainable development. Lancet, 286(10007), E39-E41.

Foster, A., Cole, J., Farlow, A., & Petrikova, I. (2019). Planetary health ethics: Beyond first principles. Challenges, 10(1), Article 14.

Haines, A. (2017, September). Addressing challenges to human health in the Anthropocene epoch: An overview of the findings of the Rockefeller/Lancet Commission on Planetary Health. International Health, 9(5), 269-274.

Logan, A. C., Prescott, S. L., Haahtela, T., & Katz, D. L. (2018). The importance of the exposome and allostatic load in the planetary health paradigm. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 37, Article 15.

Planetary Health Alliance. (n.d.). Planetary health.

Prescott, S. L., & Logan, A. C. (2018). Larger than life: Injecting hope into the planetary health paradigm. Challenges, 9(1), Article 13.

Prescott, S. L., Logan, A. C., Albrecht, G., Campbell, D. E., Crane, J., Cunsolo, A., Holloway, J. W., Kozyrskyj, A. L., Lowry, C. A., Penders, J., Redvers, N., Renz, H., Stokholm, J., Svanes, C., & Wegienka, G. (2018). The Canmore Declaration: Statement of principles for planetary health. Challenges, 9(2), Article 31.

Ribeiro, C. (2020, June 28). Beyond Google: My afternoon trawling Trove for the first mentions of climate change. The Guardian: Australia Edition.

Rickards, L .,& Pitesch, T. (2020, June 4). Climate change is the most important mission for universities in the 21st century. The Conversation.

Rockefeller Foundation. (2016, January 26). Andrew Haines: Commission on Planetary Health [video]. YouTube.

Steffen, W., Persson, A., Deutsch, L., Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Richardson, K., Crumley, C., Crutzen, P., Folke, C., Gordon, L., Monline, M., Ramanathan, V., Rockstrom, J., Scheffer, M., Schellnhuber, H. J., & Svedin, U. (2011). The Anthropocene: From global change to planetary stewardship.  Ambio, 40(7), 739-761.

United Nations Climate Change (n.d.). The Paris Agreement. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Whitmee, S., Haines, A., Beyrer, C., Boltz, F., Capon, A. G., Ferreira de Souza Dias, B., Ezeh, A., Frumkin, H., Gong, P., Head, P., Horton, R., Mace, G. M., Marten, R., Myers, S. S., Nishtar, S., Osofsky, S. A., Pattanayak, S. K., Pongsiri, M. J., Romanelli, C., Soucat, A., Vega, J., & Yach, D. (2015). Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: Report of the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on planetary health, Lancet, 386(10007), 1973-2028.