The field of planetary health explores the connections between human health and the well-being of Earth’s living and non-living ecosystems with which human life is intertwined.
The term “planetary health” is relatively new, as it was first introduced in a 2014 commentary in the Lancet. However, the groundwork for the field was laid by a diverse range of disciplines, including population health, medicine, and environmental sciences, and movements such as ecology, feminism, and human rights.
The field’s relevance has become more prominent with widespread recognition that human activity is creating a significant impact on the planet’s ecosystems, leading to a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. This non-exhaustive list of readings on planetary health highlights the history of this field of science and gives readers a clear and detailed introduction to the field.
World Health Organization, “Core Terms,” Health Promotion Glossary of Terms 2021 (January 1, 2021).
In this glossary, the World Health Organization (WHO) introduces planetary health as one of the core terms in health promotion. The glossary connects planetary health with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, a seminal publication from the first International Conference on Health Promotion in 1986.
Within this glossary, the WHO notably defines planetary health, expanding on its standard definition of health as “a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” by drawing attention to the connection between human systems and the Earth’s natural systems.
Grant Hill-Cawthorne, “One Health/EcoHealth/Planetary Health and Their Evolution,” in One Planet, One Health, ed. Merrilyn Walton (Sydney University Press, 2019), 1–20.
Hill-Cawthorne helps readers understand the field and similar concepts, such as EcoHealth and One Health, by explaining how the theories and vocabulary that have influenced it have evolved.
This article traces the origins of the formalized study of public health from earlier theories of health—such as the now-debunked miasma theory—through hygiene theory, One Medicine, EcoHealth, One Health, and finally, to Planetary Health. Hill-Cawthorne asserts that the future of the rapidly emerging field will require a move toward coordinated systems-based and policy-informing action.
J. Rockström, W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. Stuart Chapin III, E. Lambin, T. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. de Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. Corell, V. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley, “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Ecology and Society 14, no. 2 (December 2009).
In this article, Rockström and co-authors propose nine planetary boundaries. These are thresholds within which human life can sustainably exist, and which, when transgressed, can trigger impacts that are abrupt, non-linear, and catastrophic to human life.
They put forward these boundaries as a way to move beyond siloed thinking on planetary health and to catalyze interdisciplinary collaborations to keep human life within safe planetary limits. These planetary boundaries are now central to the field of planetary health.
The nine planetary boundaries they propose are climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone, biogeochemical nitrogen, global freshwater use, land system change, the rate of loss of biological diversity, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading. For the first seven of the nine, the authors propose existing ways for quantifying them and identifying when their boundaries have been crossed.
Edith Brown Weiss, “Our Rights and Obligations to Future Generations for the Environment,” The American Journal of International Law 84, no. 1 (January 1990): 198–207.
For planetary health to be possible, living generations must make decisions keeping the future of the planet in mind. What do we owe future generations? Can tools be used to create and uphold social contracts between existing generations and those yet to be born?
Weiss’s work is a read from the end of the twentieth century that starts to explore the moral obligations associated with safeguarding planetary health. It frames planetary health within the context of intergenerational equity, which asserts the equality of all generations, and thus requires each generation to bequeath to the next a planet in at least a condition as good as it met it.
Weiss goes further to call for intergenerational rights that can tangibly uphold such obligations, citing human rights documents that have helped to protect future generations, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the United Nations Charter, and more.
Obijiofor Aginam, “Global Governance Approaches to Planetary Health: New Ideas for a Globalised World,” One Planet, One Health (2019): 53–64.
This collection provides academics, students, decision-makers, and general readers with a practical understanding of the relationships between the vast fields that constitute planetary health. It’s for readers who may want to understand how the well-being of animals is connected to human health or the links between human rights and ecological well-being.
Aginam’s essay discusses the evolution of governance in a globalized world, with a view to safeguarding planetary health. Central to this discussion is a call to move beyond state-centric international governance models that work through treaties between nation-states.
The limits of state-centrism in dealing with multiple actors, including and beyond nation-states, and with issues affecting the whole planet, are explored. Aginam then calls for a move from international governance to global governance.
Rishma Maini, Ronald Law, Francisco Duque III, Gloria Balboa, Hiryuki Noda, Sachiko Nakamura, and Virginia Murray, “Monitoring Progress Towards Planetary Health,” British Medical Journal 359 (December 4, 2017–December 10, 2017).
Maini and co-authors explore the link between disaster risks, sustainable development, and planetary health, with an emphasis on measurement. They reiterate the need for global agreements such as landmark UN agreements, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Paris Agreement.
However, for such agreements to be impactful, they call for them to be implemented, introducing and monitoring national indicators of progress against regional frameworks and publishing these findings regularly to drive action.
Polly Higgins, “Planetary Slavery,” Socialist Lawyer 54 (March 2010): 32–33.
Higgins highlights the potency of the law for achieving global goals, recalling how the Second World War spurred the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the efficacy of laws abolishing slavery in changing global trade. She then calls for new legal tools such as a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights to be created in response to the planetary crisis.
How can the planetary crisis be framed from a rights-based perspective? Higgins proposes rights such as the right to not be polluted, which can be applied to the atmosphere, the seas, soils, and human beings, limiting the damage that corporations can do to the environment.
David W. Patterson, “The Right to Health and the Climate Crisis: The Vital Role of Civic Space,” Health and Human Rights 23, no. 2 (December 2021): 109–120.
Public participation is crucial if human rights, including the right to health, are to be upheld. Civic space has become more important given its role as a forum for the public to demand its right to health in the context of the climate crisis.
However, there may be tensions in protecting civic space and the right to health. An example is the case of COVID-19, where the right to civic space had to be limited to protect the right to health, introducing possible room for less democratic governments to infringe on human rights.
As Patterson explores the links between civic space, public participation, and the right to health, the existing limitations in how these concepts are integrated are highlighted. The essay calls for interdisciplinary collaborations to improve the rights literacy of the public health community and fill gaps in upholding public participation as a part of the right to health.
John Middleton, “Time to Put Health at the Heart of All Policy Making,” British Medical Journal 357 (May 29, 2017–June 4, 2017).
Health requires investments in multiple sectors, an assertion that becomes even more pertinent as the connection between the health of humans and diverse ecosystems becomes even more relevant.
Within the context of the Brexit negotiations in the United Kingdom, Middleton highlights necessary investments in health in a post-Brexit United Kingdom, citing the example of the Well-being of Future Generations Act of nearby Wales. He indicates key areas where health-first policy planning is needed in a post-Brexit United Kingdom, such as industrial policy, food, and housing.
Rebecca Patrick, Teresa Capetola, Mardie Townsend, and Sonia Nuttman, “Health Promotion and Climate Change: Exploring the Core Competencies Required for Action,” Health Promotion International 27, no. 4 (December 2012): 475–485.
The planetary crisis disproportionately impacts the health of already vulnerable communities. In this work, Capetola and co-authors give an example of planetary health promotion with a focus on community-level work with remote Aboriginal communities, Pacific Island countries, and low-income populations of Australia.
The article explores ways in which the practice of health promotion can be strengthened and expanded to deal with the planetary crisis. It draws on the tenets of the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, which focuses on the interconnectedness of humans and the natural environment, while also calling for more integration of concepts from the discipline of sustainability.
Given that the article was informed by a wide range of stakeholders already acting on climate and health, it’s a helpful guide for actors and practitioners on the skills they need to integrate climate into their work in health promotion.
James C. Aronson, Charles M. Blatt, and Thibaud B. Aronson, “Restoring Ecosystem Health to Improve Human Health and Well-Being: Physicians and Restoration Ecologists Unite in a Common Cause,” Ecology and Society 21, no. 4 (December 2016).
This article by two ecologists and one physician is one example of the growing interdisciplinary collaborations between clinical medicine—which may be considered downstream—and more upstream actors such as ecologists, public health specialists, urban planners, and policymakers, to mention a few, under the broader umbrella of planetary health.
In this collaboration, the parallels between clinical medicine and ecological restoration are explored. The authors present the growing evidence on how the health of ecosystems impacts human health, give reasons for physicians and healthcare workers to be more involved in planetary health, and present future steps for future collaborations.
Greta Gaard, “Ecofeminism Revisited: Rejecting Essentialism and Replacing Species in a Material Feminist Environmentalism,” Feminist Formations 23, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 26–53.
Bodies of knowledge beyond public health have long engaged with the connection between the planet and the well-being of populations. The field of ecofeminism is an example. Gaard explains how theories from this field that gained prominence in the early 1990s but then subsequently waned have been lost because they were abandoned by mainstream feminism. She further explores aspects of ecofeminism that can be revived and used to enrich theories and advocacy for the health of the environment in today’s discourse.
Mia MacDonald, “Emerging from COVID-19: A New, Rights-Based Relationship with the Nonhuman World?,” Health and Human Rights 23, no. 2 (December 2021): 13–20.
As countries responded, adapted, and worked to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, conversations, visions, and dialogues on possible post-pandemic futures were plentiful. MacDonald’s is one such proposition, as she lays out the unsatisfactory state of human and non-human relations, making the connections to COVID-19’s emergence.
A key focus of the article is industrial meat production and animal trafficking, and how they impact human welfare, especially for the less privileged. The author draws attention to the links between industrial livestock production and the inhumane treatment of animals in factory farms, the pollution of the soil and water of low-income communities, food insecurity due to monoculture, and growing antimicrobial resistance.
To remedy this, the author cites the One Welfare Framework as a plausible post-COVID-19 framework given that it links human well-being, animal welfare, and the environment just like the One Health framework, but also provides a broader rights and welfare-based framing.
Margareth Sembiring, “Planetary Health and Triple Planetary Crisis: Relevance for Multilateral Cooperation on Biodiversity Protection and Conservation in Southeast Asia,” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (September 1, 2021).
In this essay, Sembiring details another vision for a post-COVID-19 world, framing planetary health as a concept that can strengthen regional efforts and seize post-COVID-19 recovery as an opportunity to improve biodiversity.
Sembiring draws attention to existing biodiversity protection efforts in Asia, such as the ASEAN Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment. It also notes the limitations of their exclusive focus on conversation and biodiversity and the lack of multi-sectoral buy-in.
Planetary health is envisioned as a more effective rallying concept due to the centrality that it accords human health, equity, social justice, and integrative thinking and action. The article also highlights the need for such action to take place not only globally, but by operationalizing planetary health at regional and national levels.
Madison Freeman, “Can Technology Innovation Save From Climate Change?” Journal of International Affairs 73, no. 1, CLIMATE DISRUPTION (Fall 2019/Winter 2020): 171–182.
While technology has improved human well-being, it has also greatly contributed to the planetary crisis. Freeman explores the current state of progress on the technology needed to drive the decarbonization of diverse sectors such as agriculture, energy, industry, and transportation. He cites policy decisions in the furthest advancing field—energy—and how they may inform the decarbonization of other sectors. Examples of innovation levers cited include coordinated policy efforts to provide funding, skills provision, and programs for the rapid deployment of solutions.