National Museum of Natural History

This Earth Day, the Planet’s Health is Your Health

Will the Blue Marble Stay Blue? This famous Earth photo, known as The Blue Marble, was taken on December 7, 1972 by astronauts on the Apollo 17 spacecraft – the last manned lunar mission that provided humans with such an opportunity. Beautiful and fragile, the Blue Marble became a symbol of the environmental movement and part of the official Earth Day flag (Photo credit: NASA).
Will the Blue Marble Stay Blue? This famous Earth photo, known as The Blue Marble, was taken on December 7, 1972 by astronauts on the Apollo 17 spacecraft – the last manned lunar mission that provided humans with such an opportunity. Beautiful and fragile, the Blue Marble became a symbol of the environmental movement and part of the official Earth Day flag (Photo credit: NASA).

On April 22, 1970, millions of people heard the call to protect our planet from industrial pollution, deforestation, and other destructive effects of increasing human pressure on Earth’s natural resources. Huge public demonstrations of environmental awareness and activism marked the first Earth day celebration across the U.S. Before the end of the year, the Environmental Protection Agency was established and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts passed. By 1990, Earth Day was observed by 200 million people on all seven continents, united in a global mission for a healthier planet. Last year, on Earth Day in 2016, the U.S. and more than 100 other nations signed the Paris Agreement in a landmark move to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce climate change risks and impacts around the world.

On Earth Day in 2017, scientists will come together as never before to raise environmental awareness and foster better stewardship of our rapidly changing planet. In support of science as an essential evidence-based voice in the public interest, activities on Earth Day will include a March for Science on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A few steps away, the Smithsonian Conservation Commons will present the first Earth Optimism Summit--a “master class in saving the planet” that will gather conservation scientists and supporters to share success, inspire hope, and motivate action.

These events will convene communities that see the human hand in forces that shape Earth’s future and offer solutions informed by knowledge and understanding of those forces. Yet, outside these communities, many people still fail to recognize the relevance of environmental issues to human health and well-being. Why should we care about a warmer global average temperature, while thousands of people are getting sick from Zika virus, yellow fever, and other infectious diseases? And why should we care about Zika virus, yellow fever, or other infectious diseases if they don’t occur where we live?

We are now living in a highly connected world. Human health threats anywhere can have impacts everywhere. However, we can only be as healthy as the global ecosystem in which we live and on which we depend. This is the main message of Planetary Health--an evolving discipline of enormous scope, where human health is inseparable from the state of Earth systems. By integrating natural and social sciences in a broader conceptualization of public health, Planetary Health requires a new community of practice and common source of knowledge about human causes and effects of global environmental change. Communicating across scholarly and professional boundaries is an important step to this approach, and one of the major challenges to its development.

On April 4, we published an invited commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) about Congenital Zika Syndrome. We argued that the pan-epidemic spread of Zika virus and other zoonotic viruses such as Ebola, yellow fever, and avian influenza, are related to industrialization, urbanization, globalization, and other broad-scale human impacts on the environment. With Zika virus, for example, global warming from greenhouse gas emissions can extend the geographic range of mosquitos and the pathogens they carry. People infected with these pathogens can spread them widely and quickly in densely populated urban areas and via global air travel – which can take a virus anywhere in the world within 24 hours. Among people who lack adequate health care, sanitation, or food supplies, diseases can occur and spread unchecked. In the Age of Humans – the “Anthropocene” epoch of human-induced changes to the global ecosystem – we see an increased risk for more pan-epidemics in the 21st century that could be addressed through a holistic framework of Planetary Health.

While Planetary Health is not a novel concept, its economic linkages, policy-focused aims, and whole-planet approach are promising for addressing human health challenges in a rapidly changing global environment. To broaden our thinking in connecting the health of the planet with our own, we are bringing together a wide variety of researchers, educators, and other professionals in a Planetary Health seminar at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). From February until June 2017, we aim to increase communication across organizations and institutions through a monthly series of focused panel discussions on a specific topic of Planetary Health such as pollution, globalization, biodiversity, oceans, and climate, and explore the possibilities of this growing field. We will present our findings from the course at the inaugural Planetary Health/GeoHealth annual meeting at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, MA on April 29-30 in order to help fuel this community and strengthen its networks.

Planetary health is human health. We invite you to join us in celebrating Earth Day as not only a call to protect our planet, but also ourselves – and the future we share.