Dr. Samuel Myers spoke to University students about planetary health
In his new book, he evaluated humans’ impact on the environment in relation to human health.
Dr. Samuel Myers, the Director of the Planetary Health Alliance and the Principle Research Scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, spoke to the Brandeis community at an online event on Friday, Sept. 25 about his newly published book, “Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves.” Prof. Charles Chester (ENVS) hosted the talk.
Myers began by speaking about his career path, explaining that the wide scope of the fields he has studied have led to his current work in planetary health. The field of planetary health is “incredibly young,” he said, explaining that it really emerged in July of 2015 when he published a Lancet Commission report through the Rockefeller Foundation titled “Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene.” In researching for this report, Myers explored “the human health implications of transforming and disrupting, not just the climate system, but … most of our natural systems,” which is the basis of planetary health.
Myers and his colleagues then formed the Planetary Health Alliance, an organization dedicated to this new field of study. He said that the organization has grown rapidly with “over 240 organizations in over 40 countries.”
Planetary health explores changes in the environment and how human activity has had an impact on our planet, and then it ties in human health and how our disruption of nature affects our well-being, Myers explained. In his new book, he and other contributing authors lay the “foundation” of the planetary health field and discuss the associated challenges and potential solutions.
When asked about “frustrations with the limitations of how we define medicine” within his career path by the host, Myers said, “I think there really are two strains that run through that. One was … just a sense of connectedness to nature and also a real interest in environmental science, but the other stream was this sense of sort of perpetually wanting to move upstream.” He explained that as a doctor, he had been “patching people up only to send them out into a system which was going to regenerate the exact same problem.” By looking at human health through the lense of planetary health, however, Myers said he is able to look at populations as a whole and think about supporting human health on a larger scale. He said, “The domains of environmental science and public health are actually not really separate anymore, … and I think that’s actually a pretty new phenomenon.”
The reason why this phenomenon is a more recent occurrence, Myers explained, is that the impact of human activity on the environment spiked in the 1950s and has been increasing ever since then. “This moment is an extraordinary moment in human history and the scale and pace of impacts that we’re having on climate biodiversity, land use [and] pollution is really unprecedented,” he said. “We have come just in the last few decades to really outstrip our planet’s capacity to absorb our wastes or provide the resources that we’re using sustainably, and that’s what’s driving this vast transformation of nature. … Ultimately, these large scale anthropogenic environmental changes are coming to affect every single dimension of human health.” Knowing this, it is easy to be pessimistic about climate change, he said.
“In the world of environmental science, we emphasize the sort of catastrophic and the apocalyptic, but we under emphasize what an extraordinary world we could live in in 50 or 100 years if we really struggled to get this right,” Myers said with an optimistic nod to the idea that taking action now could set the world on the right path for the future. He explained that with many climate change interventions, there are “co-benefits” for humans and the environment alike. For instance, he noted that interventions such as renewable energy and eating less red meat, as well as redesigning cities with green spaces and spaces for walking and biking, are beneficial to both human health and the environment. Combating climate change benefits human health in the long run as well.
In terms of climate change intervention, Myers said, “We know how to do a lot of the things that we need to do. So the question isn’t so much ‘can we do it?’ The question is ‘will we do it?’”
Another important piece of the book is the overarching theme of equity and justice. “It’s the wealthiest people in the world who are responsible for the vast majority of this CO2 that’s going to get us between here and 550 parts per million, and it’s the poorest people in the world –– mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia –– who are really high risk … so these populations are very, very distinct,” Myers said. “In most instances, the people who are actually reaping the benefits are very different from those paying the costs, both spatially, socio-demographically and in time. So, it’s really often the future generations that are going to be at highest risk.”
Chester then steered the conversation toward planetary health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Myers said that his book does address the virus as a case study in the afterword. He explained that the recent succession of natural disasters like wildfires, hurricanes and locust outbreaks “have human fingerprints all over them.” “The pandemic is kind of the latest in a series,” he said. “It’s certainly not unique, and it’s one of these unsurprising surprises.” Myers explained that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it originated in an animal species, but that it isn’t the first of its kind –– Ebola, SARS, MERS and Nipah are all zoonotic viruses as well. “COVID is … an anthropogenic [originated due to human activity] pandemic,” he said. “And it comes from a tenuous relationship with nature.”
Myers added that although COVID-19 has resulted in tragic losses of life, it also comes with “a moment to … build back better.” He said that the pandemic has shown how quickly our lives can change and we can adjust. “This is the moment where, instead of using that money to prop up an old way of living that is destroying the biosphere and choking the life out of the world, we could use that money to support the development of new infrastructure to take us toward this great transition as well as real opportunity.”
Transitioning into action people can take, Chester asked Myers about how individuals can “convince policymakers to create positive systematic changes.” Myers said that there are three categories. First, there are things one can do personally, such as being more self-sufficient. Second, one can use the type of career they go into as an avenue to address climate change. “There’s almost no dimension and no set of skills that isn’t relevant to the problems that we face around planetary health,” he said. Third is the partners that one works with: “At the end of the day, individual action only goes so far.” Myers also explained that research is important, but so is taking action and pressuring elected officials for change.
Myers concluded on a high note, expressing optimism for a more socially equal and environmentally healthy world. “It’s a perfectly viable world,” he said. “The end of this story does not have to be a terrible apocalyptic. It really depends on what we decide to do right now.”