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Harvard Researchers Declare ‘Structural Change’ Needed to Address Planetary Health Crisis

The Planetary Health Alliance is housed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The Planetary Health Alliance is housed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. By Zadoc I. N. Gee
By Ariel H. Kim and Claire Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: October 7, 2021 at 12:15 p.m.

Harvard researchers outlined lifestyle changes that would need to occur on a societal level to optimize the health and well-being of the general population and the planet in a declaration in The Lancet on Tuesday.

The São Paulo Declaration on Planetary Health — which was signed by more than 250 organizations from 47 countries — was led by the Planetary Health Alliance, a global consortium housed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health aimed at advancing the new field of planetary health.

The Planetary Health Alliance was established after a 2015 report revealed the devastating impact of human activities on the planet’s natural systems and human health, according to founder and director Samuel S. Myers. He said he launched the Alliance in 2016 with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation to “raise the alarm” about the imminent global challenge.

Jeremy Pivor — a senior program coordinator at the Planetary Health Alliance and a co-author of the declaration — said planetary health focuses on analyzing “how disruptions in our natural systems are affecting human health.”

The declaration’s foremost goal is to clarify the problem and establish a clear distinction between planetary health and climate change, according to Myers.

“People don’t really understand the statement of the problem fully, so most people conflate planetary health with climate change,” he said. “I think if we get that diagnosis wrong, then we also get the treatment wrong.”

The real problem is that humanity’s ecological footprint surpasses the planet’s capacity to sustainably produce and absorb the resources people need, Myers explained.

To address this issue, the declaration calls upon humanity to enact a deep structural change — which they call the Great Transition — across most dimensions of human activity, including food and energy consumption, goods manufacturing, urban planning, and governance.

“It's going to take everybody in every sector of human society to affect this Great Transition,” he said.

Though the declaration was first conceived in 2019 prior to the pandemic, Pivor said Covid-19 and planetary emergencies in the past two years have nonetheless influenced the ways in which the Alliance approached planetary health and the declaration.

“Covid-19 has showed us the urgency of the matter, but also showed us our capability to actually address it,” Pivor said. “The response to Covid-19 has shown our capability to come together as a global community to make the necessary changes we need to safeguard the health of all people and the planet.”

Myers added that the declaration also highlights the social justice dimension to planetary health.

“When you think about who bears the burden of degraded natural systems, who experiences the health effects, that burden is borne disproportionately by the poor, by people of color, by indigenous communities, and by future generations,” Myers said.

“That’s fundamentally just deeply unfair because those are not the communities that have contributed the most to driving this transformation of nature,” he added.

The Planetary Health Alliance held a virtual launch event Wednesday for the declaration’s publication. The event featured short remarks from Myers, Pivor, and other members of the Alliance, as well as Antonio M. Saraiva, a professor at the University of São Paulo who organized the 2021 planetary health annual meeting that created the São Paulo Declaration.

The event concluded in a series of short videos, which featured signatory representatives sharing their reasons for supporting the São Paulo Declaration, which ranged from recognizing that the climate crisis is one of the most critical issues of this generation to acknowledging that in an “interconnected planet, no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

The HSPH Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment was one of many signatories of the declaration.

Skye S. Flanigan, a program manager at C-CHANGE, wrote in an emailed statement that the declaration recognizes that prioritizing planetary health will allow for new economic opportunities, less pollution, and create safer and more resilient communities, among numerous other benefits.

During the event, Saraiva highlighted the imminence of the problem and the consequent need for humanity to shift lifestyles.

“We cannot thrive while nature’s life support systems are crumbling under the weight of our own activities,” he said. “If we get it right, our grandchildren could inherit a truly beautiful future.”

CORRECTION: October 7, 2021

A previous version of this article misrepresented Jeremy Pivor's quote on how Covid-19 influenced the ways in which the Alliance approached planetary health and the declaration.

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

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