Human well-being and the state of the rest of nature are intimately linked. This is known as planetary health. It is an approach that recognises the interdependence of human well-being and the state of the environment.
Planetary health is also a solutions-oriented, interdisciplinary field that focuses on analysing and addressing the impacts of human-induced disruptions on the planet’s natural systems, human health and all life on Earth (Planetary Health Alliance).
Experience and current research have increased our understanding of nature’s importance for human well-being in ways that we did not previously understand.
Multifactorial chronic diseases and disorders, such as asthma and allergies, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, neurological diseases and mental disorders have a major impact on public health. Urbanisation, lifestyles and the environment have changed over the decades, making our microbiome more homogeneous and affecting our immunoregulation.
Studies (in Finnish) show that biodiversity can enrich the human microbiome, strengthen immune balance and even protect against disease. Various experiments have reinforced nature contact, for example by introducing forest-based vegetation into day-care centre playgrounds, which has had a positive impact on children’s immune responses.
The impact of green walls in office spaces has been found to have had a positive effect on employees’ skin microbiome and immune balance after just two weeks.
Promoting planetary health is therefore a huge opportunity to prevent chronic diseases and to focus attention on sustainable and supportive measures both within and outside the health sector, for instance in terms of recommendations on lifestyle, diet and exercise.
At the same time, human activity is destroying nature. It is estimated that up to one million species are at risk of becoming extinct over the next few decades and the over-consumption of natural resources is endangering human well-being, health, economy and security. Now, at the latest, it is time to take corrective action.
The disconnection from nature has not improved human well-being
Climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution are undermining human health. Humans cannot thrive if soils, water bodies, animals and plants suffer and species become extinct or their habitats become too small.
Nature’s reduced carrying capacity is reflected in nutrition, food and disease resistance.
Human disconnection from nature has not improved well-being. Today we can see that the chemical technical food production that increased in the 1980s has reached the end of the road. Agriculture and forestry must take account of pollinators and soil organisms so that the land can continue to provide food and shelter for humans. Otherwise there will be no resilience to the effects of climate change, for example.
Humans need a healthy natural environment that sustains ecosystem services that are vital to us, such as food and shelter, as well as cultural services and non-material well-being. We must therefore support and prioritise nature-based solutions at different levels of society: in residential and workplace environments, in natural forests and rural areas. They provide simultaneous benefits for health, nature and the economy, and investments in nature-based solutions are profitable in the long run.
For example, a recent Finnish study (PDF) found that spending time in nature reduces the need for blood pressure and asthma medications among Helsinki residents.
In past decades, land has been covered with asphalt remorselessly. In construction, earth moving and soil sealing diminish and even destroy valuable ecosystem services. These include the absorption of floodwaters and the assimilation of plants that provide oxygenated air and sustains the activity of micro-organisms.
In built environments, it is important to have some open and uncontaminated ground to enable people to have a beneficial contact with soil.
Recent studies highlight the importance of green natural environments, and water bodies and recreational areas for well-being and mental health. Urban planning can encourage people to exercise and use green spaces and recreational areas, and to provide opportunities for contact with nature, such as through allotment gardening.
Cross-sectoral dialogue is needed
In December, Sitra invited representatives of research, administration and companies from different sectors to discuss the promotion of planetary health (in Finnish), especially from the perspectives of social sustainability and the fair data economy.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals formed the framework of the debate. The cornerstone of sustainable development is a healthy environment that enables human well-being within the limits of the planet’s carrying capacity. The thematic priorities were health, nature and food.
“We need integrated prevention of chronic diseases, the climate crisis and biodiversity loss,” said Professor Emeritus Tari Haahtela at the event.
This means that the nature’s health is seen as a part of human health, enabling human access to a vibrant natural environment. Land use and activities that strengthen nature and the climate are seen as part of public health.
Lead researcher Jari Lyytimäki stressed that in order to identify trends and guide sustainability solutions, we need new measurable indicators and monitoring of ecological reconstruction.
“New indicators can raise awareness of new phenomena and alternative approaches and bring them into decision-making,” explained Lyytimäki.
Planetary health can be promoted by using data that identifies local conditions in particular. Data can also be used to identify significant risk factors, prepare forecasts and models and monitor trends.
Weight of the past or new hope?
Biodiversity loss, climate change and the over-consumption of natural resources are pushing societies towards sustainability work.
There are many brakes even though it is known that we cannot base our prosperity on a fossil economy, for example. Protecting the achieved standard of living and entrenching habits in policy proposals, innovation funding and consumer behaviour are all obstacles to change, new innovations and the use of new technologies.
At the same time, there is an ongoing process of people becoming more and more alienated from nature but also more aware of global environmental risks and sustainability thinking. Solutions require change in daily life, linked to nature rather than isolated from it.
After the Covid-19 pandemic, we can see that people have become aware of zoonotic infectious diseases and the challenges and threats posed by climate change.
Resilience, or the ability to survive crises, has become a topic of debate in Finland, Europe and globally so that we can better prepare for new pandemics and health threats in the future.
What are the steps towards planetary health?
Nature has much to offer to us. We cannot control nature, but we can learn to live together with different natural phenomena and create our well-being in harmony with nature’s services. This requires a viable natural environment, supported by our actions.
It is positive to see that health is increasingly viewed in a holistic way and that there is a growing understanding of the importance of the environment for health, as Sitra’s report on Megatrends highlights. At the European level, a new directorate called One Health has been established in the Commission’s directorate-general for health, and the interdependence of the health of the environment, animals and humans is also highlighted in the EU’s new Global Health Strategy.
A holistic understanding of health can be better used to prevent disease. We need to shift from treatment to a broader approach of supporting and maintaining health and encouraging lifestyle changes. Chronic diseases can in part be prevented by the same means as the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Prevention will also generate significant savings in health care expenditure.
According to estimates (in Finnish), Finland has saved EUR 1.2 billion on allergy and asthma-related costs in 10 years by changing its healthcare strategy, including more attention to prevention.
Concrete measures, experimentation and the spread of best practices are needed in order to address the wider health and sustainability dimension in a wide range of sectors, including healthcare, social welfare, environment, agriculture, urban planning, transport, energy and industry.
A more holistic understanding of nature is being rebuilt. Practical experience, for instance in agriculture, has shown that arable land becomes exhausted if we do not take biodiversity and crop rotation into account in food production. Ecological reconstruction is therefore a path of hope for the future. A concrete step is to implement the UN’s nature goals agreed in December in Montreal. A tangible connection with nature will helps us value and respect it.
We need decision-making that respects nature and solutions that work in practice and whose economic impact can be spread equitably in society.
People should also be empowered to create well-being for nature through their behaviour as consumers and everyday decisions, which will ultimately drive change towards a healthier tomorrow at both the individual and societal levels.
We simply can no longer afford to over-consume natural resources and retain the tunnel vision that ignores interdependences – neither in Finland nor elsewhere.