Planetary health: a new discipline for a better future

Planetary health: better outcomes for people and the environment

I started this blog a couple of years ago because I was feeling overwhelmed about the declining health of the planet. Hardly a day went by without devastating news about large and small environmental catastrophes. 

At the same time, I saw in-action and climate denial in politics and much of mainstream business. I had reached a point when I could not sit back and watch anymore. I needed to do more than avoiding plastic and eating a more climate-conscious diet. And I wanted to understand what ideas and solutions could help us turn things around for the better. 

That’s why I decided to interview people who were making a positive difference in big and small ways. It’s been a huge learning curve so far. I wrapped my head around how waves could be leveraged for energy generation. And I brushed up on my high school knowledge of photosynthesis as a key concept in regenerative farming.

The experience exceeded my expectations. Not just intellectually, but because of the people I had the pleasure to get to know. There were heartfelt and generous conversations about the trials, setbacks, and triumphs of working in this space. It gave me a sense of connection that I had long been missing.

From bushfires and a pandemic to planetary health

Then unprecedented bushfires raged through Australia. The event struck yet another blow to biodiversity and critically endangered species. The fires were still burning when life as we know it came to a standstill due to COVID-19.

It was hard to avoid the doom scrolling. Many articles ascertained that this was only a foretaste of what is still ahead of us: More fires. More floods. More diseases.

If anything, though, the pandemic only reinforced that I wanted to do more. And for that, I felt like I still needed to learn more.

Coincidentally, it was in one of the doom scrolling articles that I first read about the emerging academic field of planetary health. It is a transdisciplinary approach that focuses on the interrelationship between the health of the planet, ecosystems, humans, and other living beings.

Ideas Scientists Thinkers
The Great Barrier Reef is under threat from coral bleaching

Coral bleaching is jeopardising our reefs – government action on climate change can save them

Coral reefs are an important part of a healthy global ecosystem. They function as nurseries for many fish and provide important coastal protection for low-lying islands.

An estimated 400 million people in developing countries depend on coral reefs for protection and income. According to a report by Deloitte Access Economics, tourism at the Great Barrier Reef alone is a $6.4 billion a year industry, providing 64,000 jobs.

But the future of our coral reefs is at risk. Back-to-back coral bleaching events caused by a warming climate are jeopardising their survival.

Marine biologist Professor Terry Hughes has dedicated his career to studying coral reefs. I recently had the chance to talk to him about his research on the linkages between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people and the role of governance.

The poster child of climate change

“In the context of climate change, coral reefs are often called the canary in the coalmine,” says Terry. “ I am not sure if this analogy is accurate or that coral reefs are more vulnerable than other ecosystems.”

Professor Terry Hughes
Professor Terry Hughes

“In Australia, we are currently dealing with burning rainforests, so one could argue that many other ecosystems are equally at risk. But coral reefs are very photogenic and iconic, so with their increasing degradation, they have become the poster child for the impact of climate change on biodiversity.”

The other issue with the canary metaphor is that it suggests that we’re still in the early stages of understanding and responding to the impact of climate change on the natural environment.

Scientists Thinkers
Sustainable cities start with communities

Why sustainable urban development requires major philosophical shifts

Bustling streets, tons of creative energy and the promise of new opportunities. Large cities have always drawn people like magnets. The world’s modern metropolises still lure with the promise of excitement and possibility. Yet, mega cities also represent one of the biggest challenges for sustainable urban development.

According to projections by the United Nations, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. While cities only take up 2% of the world’s surface, they consume 78% of the world’s energy. What’s more, they produce 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why any serious attempts to reverse climate change will need to include a framework for sustainable urban development.

Gregor Mews is an urban planner and the founder of the Urban Synergies Group. After having studied urban planning and design in Berlin, he travelled the world to learn more about human life at different stages of urban development.

Now based in Australia, Gregor is working with local governments, NGOs, businesses and UN Habitat to create healthier, more connected and sustainable urban communities. In short, if you want to have a philosophical discussion about what the future of the city should look like, Gregor is your man!

Gregor Mews talks about the role of cities for a more sustainable future. Image: Urban Synergies Group.

 “We’re at a historical moment in time”, says Gregor about the urgency of the problem. “We have three years to turn the trend in global warming around until we enter the adaptation phase.“ However, to tackle this problem, it would require more than just installing solar panels on rooftops.

It’s in this context that Gregor identifies 3 fundamental shifts required in our thinking that will ultimately lead to sustainable urban development.

1. Putting human needs at the heart of sustainable urban development

Most people will have heard about the Mercer Global Liveability Index that ranks cities based on the quality of life they offer to their citizens.

“The issue with this ranking system is that it’s basically designed for rich minorities. It caters toward highly educated people with a high socio-economic status. However, these rankings tell us very little about what ordinary life looks like for the majority”, says Gregor.  “For example, Sydney has often been ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world. But I doubt that most people in Western Sydney would agree with this assessment.”

Scientists Thinkers