Planetary health and human health: What Covid-19 can teach us about promoting sustainability

Planetary health and human health: What Covid-19 can teach us about promoting sustainability

Personal health needs to be a key part of communication about climate change and other environmental impacts, says Alexandra Criscuolo, Gabriel Krenza, and Allen Hershkowitz

The personal and institutional adaptations widely adopted to address the health risks posed by the Covid-19 pandemic has led some sustainability advocates to raise concerns that progress on climate and other urgent environmental challenges might be put on hold or, in some cases abandoned entirely.

This is understandable given that necessary adjustments at venues to prevent the immediate spread of Covid-19 has led to some valuable environmental plans being placed on hold. For example, New York State’s plastic bag ban, scheduled to go into effect in March 2020, was delayed, initially indefinitely, due to concerns that reusable grocery bags might become contaminated with the Covid-19 virus. (New York State’s plastic bag ban is now once again scheduled to be enforced beginning late October.)

Similarly, with revenue down and scarce funds directed to Covid-19 health and safety efforts, plans to advance climate action, including deferred investments in renewable energy, efficiency enhancements, food waste composting and fan education were also paused by many sports organisations.

However, based on our experience, while sports and other organisations understandably have needed to focus on the most immediate threat, doing whatever they could to protect players and employees from getting sick from Covid-19, broader commitments to sustainability have by no means disappeared.

In fact, the opportunity that we see emerging is a more informed recognition that planetary health and personal health are interdependent. Consequently, as we argue below, sustainability advocates can use society’s enhanced understanding about the systemic threats to personal health to more effectively personalise sustainability advocacy. In so doing we can make even more rapid progress advancing the UN Sustainability Development Goals. More than any event in our lifetime, Covid-19 has made it abundantly clear that a healthy economy is dependent on a healthy population, and a healthy population is dependent on a healthy ecology.

SDGs need to evolve

For decades sustainability advocates have been asking: how do we change behavior? More than merely promoting environmental and climate literacy – itself a challenge – our most important objective seeks to change behavior.

As we all know, (and with a few politically motivated exceptions) the mobilisation to prevent the spread of the pandemic was rapid and global. Accordingly, it is appropriate to ask: “What is it about the global response to Covid-19 that sustainability advocates, and climate activists in particular, can learn from the behavioral changes massively mobilised in response to the Covid-19 pandemic?”

As the actor Woody Harrelson amusingly but insightfully commented early on in the pandemic “Climate change needs to hire the public relations firm used by Covid-19.”

Unprecedented heat, wildfires, floods, drought, declining ocean health and other climate induced disasters have made it more widely understood that climate action is not advancing quickly enough. Accordingly, it is striking to compare that dangerous reality to the rapid global adaptation that has taken place in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Literally, within a matter of only a few weeks, a majority of the world mobilised to reduce personal exposure to the Covid-19 everywhere, in homes, in schools, in every business, at every theater and at all sporting events. 

By contrast, global action needed to address climate change and other urgent ecological threats, which no vaccine can cure, is sluggish. In fact, data related to atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, deforestation, species extinction, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, and ecological threats to indigenous, colored and poor communities all show worsening trends, and we’re nowhere close to meeting even the modest goals set in Paris in 2015. 

It is well known by public health advocates and environmental risk communicators that personal behavior is more likely to change when people feel a direct impact on their health and well-being. The global reaction to Covid-19 certainly bears that out. So do other threats to personal health. For example, despite often higher prices, purchases of organic food have for quite some time been among the fastest growing food markets as more people, parents in particular, show concern about the health effects to their children and themselves related to consuming chemically saturated food. In the US, since the onset of Covid-19 in early 2020, organic food sales rose 4.6% from the previous year, outpacing a general food sales growth rate of around 2%. 

Similarly, it is useful to recall that those of us who helped create the “greening” of sports movement almost 20 years ago achieved our most substantial successes when we identified  benefits related to personal financial concerns of sports executives, in particular by showing how energy efficiency, waste reduction and water conservation can reduce a venue’s operating costs (or help increase its revenue). 

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number one issue on which the entire world is focused is protection of personal health. Despite the enormous visibility of catastrophic wildfires in western United States, Australia, the Amazon, in Europe, and despite the visibility and impact of catastrophic hurricanes all made worse by climate change, the number one issue on which the entire world is focused, including the sports world is not climate, it is protection of personal health.

The rapid change in behavior due to public concern about threats from COVID-19 is informative, a messaging “elephant in the room” that sustainability advocates should not ignore. Accordingly, the priority given to concern about the pandemic should force sustainability advocates to reconsider how we present our message and who we interact with to advance our agenda. Now more than ever, sustainability goals need to interact with public health professionals and government health agencies as urgently as we have interacted with ecologists and environmental agencies.

Indeed, given the health basis underlying sustainability goals, which we explain in more detail below, it is worth noting that most government health agencies have virtually zero funding to focus on climate impacts, deforestation, the wildlife trade and other issues traditionally grouped under the heading of sustainability. This needs to change. Lessons from the Covid-19, and health impacts instigated by ecological damage confirm that ecological issues need to be more substantially integrated into the work of health professionals, and environmental advocates need to be more explicit in connecting adverse personal health impacts to ecological damage. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised consciousness about the interconnection between social issues such as racism and poverty and individual health. That raised consciousness now needs to be raised about the interconnection of personal health and the Sustainable Development Goals. In fact, even the way the SDGs are presented needs reconsideration: currently, the 17 goals listed on the Sustainable Development Goal chart imply each item as a distinct problem when in fact they are all interconnected. A healthy economy is dependent on a healthy population, and a healthy population is dependent on a healthy ecology.

To underscore and clarify this argument, we have produced the following summary explaining how each of the 17 UN Sustainable Development goals are fundamentally human health objectives.

SDGs are human health goals

No poverty: Poverty is arguably the greatest threat to personal and public health. Low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to Covid-19, contaminated water, toxic air pollution, hazardous wastes and other health threats, resulting in higher mortality rates and greater economic challenges. Poor communities also experience higher rates of chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, (which also increases risk for the virus). Those in poverty have a higher risk of being diagnosed with and spreading the Covid-19 virus and the number of people in extreme poverty due to Covid-19 is projected to increase between 71 and 100 million. 

Zero hunger: Addressing the hunger is essential to protecting personal health. Supply chain interruptions resulting from measures taken to fight the spread of Covid-19 and other pathogens has meant less availability of food and increased prices for food in many countries. Reduced incomes led to food insecurity. Food insecurity and malnutrition exacerbate major health issues and vulnerability to diseases. 

Good health and wellbeing: SDG #3 explicitly connects personal health and well-being with sustainability. For those interested in the features that comprise personal and community health and wellness, see

Quality education: Increasing the availability and quality of education is fundamental to personal and community health. Education helps lift people out of poverty, among the greatest threats to personal health, and missing school and school closures decrease access to nutritious food and affect parent’s ability to work. According to the UN, “the covid-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents. Closures of schools…have impacted 94% of the world’s student population.” Education also increases awareness of better health practices, family planning and increases professional opportunities which also reduce vulnerability to health threats. 

Gender equality: Gender inequality increases threats to personal health and well-being. Seventy percent of women around the world work in the health sector, making them more vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus and other health risks. Lockdowns have led to increases in gender-based violence and decreased the ability of women to flee from abuse and access health services. According to The World Bank, “women’s equal participation in economic and social life is essential to prevention and helping societies transition out of fragility.” Gender equality will decrease the health threats women confront on a daily basis.

Clean water and sanitation: Contaminated water spreads diseases such diarrhoea, cholera, polio, typhoid, and dysentery. Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 485,000 diarrhoeal deaths each year. Ensuring availability of safe, clean water and sanitation is essential to human health.

Affordable and clean energy: Air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide each year, including an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, acute and chronic respiratory diseases. One in eight deaths are due to air pollution and combustion of fossil fuels are the principal global cause of air pollution. Given the reduction is air pollution that it provides, “protecting the renewable energy industry and its contribution to providing sustainable energy access for all must be an urgent priority in the current crisis.”

Decent work and economic growth: The absence of work creates and worsens poverty, a principal cause of personal and community illness. The loss of work due to illness or a pandemic – or having the treat hundreds or thousands of patients dying from the pandemic, engenders mental health problems. Unemployment, unsafe work and economic shutdowns exacerbate personal and public health problems.

Industry, innovation and infrastructure: Ecologically intelligent and healthy industries and innovation are promote personal and community health. The COVID-19 pandemic and other illnesses adversely affect the world economy, and infrastructure development in environmentally essential sectors such as water and sanitation, waste, power, and telecommunications. The recovery of industry, innovation, and infrastructure is essential for personal and community health.

Reduced inequalities: The most vulnerable populations are hit hardest by poverty and illness and are most likely to spread illness (older persons, persons with disabilities, children, women, migrants and refugees). Reducing inequalities reduces threats to personal and community health.

Sustainable cities and communities: Sustainable cities and communities are healthy. A healthy and sustainable economy is dependent on a healthy population, and a healthy population is dependent on a healthy ecology. Sustainable cities and communities are less polluted and engender fewer personal and community health risks. 

Responsible consumption and production: Industrial releases of harmful chemicals and fossil fuel use negatively affect personal and public health. Sustainable consumption and production support healthier populations. Ecologically responsible consumption and production produce less hazardous wastes and emissions and reduce personal and public health threats. 

Climate action: Root causes of climate change such as deforestation for animal livestock operations increase the risk of future pandemics. Deforestation is the number one cause of terrestrial habitat loss worldwide. As global temperatures continue to rise, mass migrations of wildlife and people will cause species interactions that normally would not. This increases the chance of pathogen spread and mutation, like the one that caused the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, human migration is expected to increase as a result of climate change related impacts. If bold climate action does not continue, the UN International Organization of Migration estimates that there will be up to one billion climate refugees by the year 2050. People in refugee camps face a higher risk of health threats, including pandemic-related sickness due to close living conditions and lack of access to basic healthcare.

Life below water: Human health is dependent on healthy oceans and water systems. Freshwater and marine ecosystems provide food, carbon sequestration, and others essential biological functions that keep humans healthy and alive. According to the World Health Organization, “most marine pollution, ranging from microbial waste, anthropogenic chemicals and nutrients to plastics, is land sourced, with 90% of the nitrogen influx tending to be related to agriculture.” The introduction of antibiotic resistant bacterial strains used in industrials livestock agriculture enter waterways and can proliferate in marine species that we eat further increasing our risk of disease.

Life on land: The health of life on land is dependent on ecologically responsible stewardship of natural resources. The delicate balance of healthy ecosystems supports the health of all species. Ecosystem services on water and land including, photosynthetic oxygen production and carbon sequestration, food and fuel production provide humans with the most basic necessities to survive and work.

Peace, justice and strong institutions: Maintaining conditions that cultivate peace, justice and strong institutions contribute to an equitable access to healthcare and resources. Regions of social disruption, political unrest, and unstable economies reflect unhealthy personal lives and communities and are often unable to provide necessary medical services to inhabitants. 

Partnerships for the goals: Partnerships and collaboration are essential for human survival and personal health and well-being. Personal health depends on social partnerships and is a common objective of our global society. The greater communication and engagement within public/private partnerships, the more effective these alliances will become in creating a healthier planet for all.

Communication needs to evolve

Greater emphasis needs to be made of the fact that planetary health is dependent on human health and human health is dependent on planetary health. The term “personal health” needs to be integrated more effectively and added to the environmental lexicon. Climate Action and other important sustainability goals can be more effectively communicated when framed as personal health necessities.

Sustainability communication will be enhanced by underscoring the connection of personal health with planetary ecological health. Currently, there is an inadequate integration among eco-communicators and health professionals of this connection. This has limited how effective we can be in mobilising the kind of behaviour change necessary to address the larger ecological issues we face. 

As SDG 17 underscores, we must strengthen and diversify the partnerships we develop to advance our goals. Most health departments don’t have adequate budgets, or any budget at all, dedicated to studying the health impacts of climate changes, biodiversity loss, the wildlife trade, and deforestation. Similarly, environmental agencies are inadequately connected with health agencies when it comes to their evaluation of the threats posed by breakdowns in ecosystem services. This needs to change. 

In order to communicate effectively about sustainability, our language has to evolve. The environmental movement has a long history of re-defining its messaging. Terms such as sustainability, global warming, climate change, circular economy, natural capital, ecosystem services, material separation, toxics, biodiversity, regeneration, resiliency, now fundamental to environmental communication have all arisen within the past half century. Now, the term “personal health” needs to be more effectively integrated into the environmental lexicon. We must educate and emphasise to the world the obvious connection between sustainability and personal health, and we must build communication strategies based on that authentic connection.

It is a strategic conceptual linguistic evolution that holds the potential to be very impactful and is needed now more than ever. 

Alexandra Criscuolo is the former environmental sustainability manager at New York Road Runners and a sustainability advocate at Sport and Sustainability International. Gabriel Krenza is a senior sustainability consultant at BlackWolf Consultants, and a sustainability advocate at Sport and Sustainability International. Allen Hershkowitz, PhD is chairman and founding director of Sport and Sustainability International; co-chair of IWBI WELL Advisory for Sports and Entertainment Venues, and environmental science advisor to the New York Yankees. He co-founded and served as president of the Green Sports Alliance

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