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Planetary health

New Johns Hopkins institute aims to safeguard human health on a rapidly changing planet

The Institute for Planetary Health will bring together experts from multiple disciplines to address how changes to Earth's environment are affecting human health worldwide

What does human health have to do with the health of the planet? A lot, says Sam Myers, a renowned expert in public health and medicine charged with leading the new Johns Hopkins Institute for Planetary Health.

"The health of the planet is not good," Myers says. "In pursuit of our ambitions, all of nature has become collateral damage."

Myers can rattle off reams of examples: malaria and schistosomiasis linked with habitat destruction and deforestation; acute respiratory infections caused by wildfires; cardiovascular disease connected with the reduced production of crops (like fruits and nuts) that depend on pollinating insects. But the world, he suggests, is doing far too little about it—a reality he hopes this new institute can help change.

"There is no time to spare. Our house is on fire. If we are going to protect ourselves and the rest of life on Earth, ... we will need to embrace rapid structural shifts across every dimension of how we live."
Sam Myers
Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Planetary Health

"The last several decades have seen a massive ballooning of humanity's total ecological footprint," he says, "and the planet can no longer absorb the wastes we are producing or sustainably provide the resources we are using." Planetary health is a relatively new and rapidly expanding field, but it provides a useful framework for understanding—and transforming—our relationship with the planet we inhabit. Though climate change is among its concerns, the field explores more broadly how human activity is altering natural systems and contributing to what Myers calls an Earth crisis—a complex, intertangled web of environmental challenges that include air, water, and soil pollution on a global scale; marine system degradation; and accelerating declines in biodiversity. And that Earth crisis, he says, is now fueling a global health and humanitarian crisis.

Myers joined Johns Hopkins last year as a professor in the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health. He comes to Hopkins from Harvard along with Marie Studer, the institute's executive director; here they hope to cultivate planetary health scholarship, policy, and practice across JHU's nine academic divisions while positioning the university as a global planetary health leader.

"We are delighted with the launch of the new Johns Hopkins Institute for Planetary Health," Bloomberg School Dean Ellen MacKenzie said. "Launching this truly cross-university effort allows us to elevate and do something about the fact that the global Earth crisis is reshaping the landscape of public health. We couldn't be more pleased that Sam has joined us in this effort and know it will be central to the work of the school going forward."

Sam Myers

Image caption: Sam Myers comes to JHU from Harvard, where he led numerous research projects exploring different ways that human-caused environmental changes are impacting human health.

The institute will include the Planetary Health Alliance, a backbone organization for a global community of planetary health practitioners with more than 420 member universities, NGOs, and other organizations in more than 70 countries. Myers became the group's founding director in 2016; Studer—a geochemist focused on aquatic systems who has spent her career working to address global environmental change and advocate for sustainable practices—has spent the past four years as its program director.

"Working in planetary health is not just a job; it's my heart space," she says. "Centering nature and human well-being within a scientific field and social movement is an opportunity to create a thriving future for all life on Earth, which is truly motivational and purposeful."

Myers plans to build on a body of work established in his previous role as a principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. For the past 20 years, he has led numerous research projects exploring different ways that human-caused environmental changes are impacting human health, including:

  • Quantifying the impact of rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on the nutritional content of staple food crops.
  • Documenting mortality in Indonesia from land use practices that generate fires and cause severe haze episodes.
  • Showing that insufficient populations of pollinating insects are causing roughly half a million deaths each year from reduced production and consumption of fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
  • Documenting how ocean warming is putting a billion people at risk of nutritional insufficiencies due to lost intake of wild-harvested fish.

In 2014, this area of research—connecting the dots between anthropogenic biophysical changes and human health—was named "planetary health" by the Rockefeller Foundation and The Lancet, which together formed the Rockefeller-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health. Its seminal report, "Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Era,"—published in 2015 and co-authored by Myers with 21 other scholars—describes the situation in stark terms, arguing that as a global society, "we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present." The report calls into question our "over-reliance on gross domestic product as a measure of human progress, [leading to a] failure to account for future health and environmental harms over present-day gains, and the disproportionate effect of those harms on the poor and those in developing nations." This issue of equity and justice runs through the field. As Myers notes, "the wealthiest people in the world are, through their consumption practices, putting the poorest people, Indigenous communities, future generations, and non-human beings in harm's way. That is deeply unfair."

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In the Institute for Planetary Health's early days, Myers and Studer have been working quickly to forge key partnerships across the university. Collaborations already are underway with the Center for Indigenous Health, the Center for Health Security, and the Center for Humanitarian Health at the Bloomberg School, as well as with scholars at the School of Medicine, School of Nursing, Carey Business School, Krieger School of Arts and Science, and Whiting School of Engineering. As the world's first cross-university institute of planetary health, the JHIPH is uniquely positioned to work across the university and tap into existing expertise, including that within the Whiting School's Ralph S. O'Connor Sustainable Energy Institute and in centers and departments across the Bloomberg School.

"We are excited to welcome Sam Myers and the institute to the university," said Stephen Gange, executive vice provost and professor of epidemiology. "As home to the world's premier school of public health, Johns Hopkins has consistently led the way in defining the field and leveraging interdisciplinary science to address the most pressing public health challenges. With Sam joining us, we've grown the capacity for leadership and innovation in this critical domain and will bolster the school's groundbreaking achievements in this vital area over the school's second century."

Added Chris Celenza, dean of the Krieger School: "The Institute for Planetary Health at Johns Hopkins could not be timelier and more necessary. I am delighted to welcome Sam Myers, a renowned leader in the field, to Hopkins, and especially honored to be partnering with Dean Ellen Mackenzie and our esteemed Bloomberg School of Public Health."

Myers says he searched for years to find the right place to house the Planetary Health Alliance and launch a new institute. More than any other place, he adds, Johns Hopkins stood out, due to its capacity for—and commitment to real collaboration—as well as its preeminence in global health.

"There is no time to spare," Myers says. "Our house is on fire. If we are going to protect ourselves and the rest of life on Earth now, and into the future, we will need to embrace rapid structural shifts across every dimension of how we live—from energy to food systems to manufacturing and circular economy, to our built environment. Providing global leadership in how to achieve this great transition will require coming together, as one university, and working together across every discipline."