How we’re harming the planet—and ourselves

Human-caused changes in the global environment, such as deforestation and air pollution, are increasingly threatening our own health and well-being, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Samuel Myers.

In an interview on the NPR radio show “Living on Earth” that aired the week of November 27, 2020, Myers—principal research scientist, planetary health, at Harvard Chan School, and director of Harvard University’s Planetary Health Alliance—discussed how our own disruptions to the planet’s natural systems are increasing the risk both of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, and non-infectious diseases.

“Nine million excess deaths a year are attributable to pollution,” Myers told host Steve Curwood in a wide-ranging conversation. “Those deaths are noncommunicable diseases—they’re heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, cancer.”

The unintended consequences of human activity on human health is a recurrent theme in the 2020 book “Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves,” which Myers co-edited. Myers’ own research has shown that by mid-century rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could lead to a depletion of iron, zinc, protein, and other essential nutrients in agricultural crops. That loss could translate into nutritional deficiencies in more than 150 million people worldwide. “Who would have thought if we were sitting around 20 years ago having a beer that, you know, adding carbon dioxide would make our food less nutritious,” Myers told Curwood. “And yet it potentially affects hundreds of millions of people.”

Myers also discussed the less visible impacts of planetary changes on mental health. While the emotional effects of catastrophic events such as hurricanes or fires on victims has been well-documented, Myers said we are just starting to understand the wider but more subtle effects of “eco-anxiety or ecological grief” brought on, for example, by the destruction of two-thirds of the planet’s animal population in the past 50 years.

“The first step is to acknowledge that almost every single person in this country is experiencing some form of ecologically associated threat,” Myers said. New movements such as the global climate strike organized by Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion, he said, offer new hope in translating that acknowledgment into collective action. “To take action is not only necessary,” said Myers. “It’s also therapeutic.”

Listen to the “Living on Earth” interview: Planetary Health