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