We have overlooked the apparent paradox of increasing global health status and declining ecological and environmental qualityResource banks, and their largely undervalued nature, hold the key to understanding the global health‐environment balanceMuch more work needs to focus on ripple effects from exploitation of nonrenewable, and nonreplaceable resources
The health and well‐being of humanity have improved markedly over the past 50 years. Longer life spans, lower infant and maternal mortality, lower birth rates, and lower poverty rates are among many positive global health developments (e.g., Ortiz‐Ospina & Roser, 2018; Roser, 2018). Many of these improvements are not just for those in high‐income countries, but increasingly are reaching into low‐ to middle‐income countries and low‐income countries (Ortiz‐Ospina & Roser, 2018). Despite terrible and unjust genocides, wars of aggression, deaths from preventable diseases, and famine from climate change that appear on our news feeds, humanity is doing better on an individual level than ever before. Despite climate change beginning to have clear impacts on cities, communities, and cultures; pharmaceuticals and other chemicals of unknown ecotoxicity appearing in water samples throughout the world; legacy contaminants such as lead and polychlorinated biphenyl poisoning our soils, water, and air, and poor air quality hovering over our major cities and countryside (e.g., Filippelli & Taylor, 2018), by all measures we are getting healthier, more prosperous, and living longer.
Meanwhile, ample evidence exists that environmental degradation is escalating on several fronts, from poor air quality to water and soil pollution to climate‐driven ecosystem degradation to human‐driven decline in animal and plant species globally (Whitmee et al., 2015). One line of evidence linking this degradation to human health is the sharp increase in morbidity and mortality from noncommunicable diseases, with 9 million people dying from pollution every year (Landrigan et al., 2017), which constitutes 15 times more deaths than from all wars and violence combined. And much of this pollution has a long life span in the environment, meaning that even if some pollution revolution would occur tomorrow, the legacy contaminants will remain in our environment for tens to thousands of years.
This paradox, substantial improvements in health across most populations (e.g., Our World in Data, 2018) in the face of declines in environmental quality in many regions, was highlighted at the annual Planetary Health Alliance meeting held in Edinburgh in May 2018 (https://planetaryhealthannualmeeting.org/) in Keynote presentations by Hannah Ritchie and Philip Landrigan. Not discussed in a theoretical framework, however, are the implications of this paradox—how is this disparity characterized and can it continue sustainably?
This mathematical solution to this apparent paradox might best be characterized by the following:
In the current state, then, the equation looks something like this:
The obvious balance to equation (2) is N, the resources bank for the planet. This bank receives deposits through natural processes, but these deposits typically come at a slow, geological rate. Take, for example, fossil fuels, which have accumulated over tens of millions of years but the carbon from which has been extracted and emitted to the atmosphere and surface systems at rates thousands of times faster than the deposit formed. Or, perhaps more troubling, take systems for which there are no obvious replacements, such as phosphate rock resources. These accumulate in rare settings over geologic time, but as for fossil fuels these are being withdrawn for fertilizer production at rates far outpacing deposits. But unlike fossil fuels, there are no alternatives to phosphorus, which plants depend on for photosynthetic processes and upon which the global population depends for food (e.g., Filippelli, 2018). And as a final example, the global population of pollinators, critical to food stability, is in sharp decline, with an observed decrease in flying insect biomass of 75% over the last 27 years (Hallmann et al., 2017), the result of multiple chemical and ecosystem pressures.
Our N, the resource capabilities of the planet, is impacted not just by the sheer quantity of reserves that exist in the resource bank itself (i.e., amount of oil and acreage of arable land) but also by our social interaction with this resource. This includes resource use intensity and preservation and technological capacities to maximize or indeed bypass this resource, such as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and precision agriculture to increase per acre yields and alternative energy sources to fossil fuels. Furthermore, geopolitical and resource distribution can impact N availability both globally and locally. For example, the majority of known remaining phosphate rock reserves exists in only two countries, Morocco and Western Sahara (e.g., Filippelli, 2008), whose standing as transparent states, which cleave to the rule of law is not solid and which in fact do not even have an agreed‐upon border, thus raising the potential for political instability impacting the extraction and distribution of this resource.
So at what point will withdrawals exceed deposits, resulting in an N that goes into a negative balance? There seems no capacity to receive a loan on N and, for some resources, no viable or at least painlessly adopted alternatives. In many cases, technological or social innovations can make N transitions feasible. The development and commercialization of alternative energy technologies relying on renewable sources are beginning to change the energy production and distribution landscape, thus replacing one N, fossil fuels, with several others. Emerging research, programs, and businesses that focus on resource use reduction and resource reuse are beginning to change the way that we can reduce the withdrawal rate of N from various systems.
A major concept of planetary health is that all systems, including ecosystems, humans, social systems, and political systems are linked together. This would imply that we could in theory quantify the components of the global N in such a way as to target exactly what components of this resource bank are most vulnerable to stress and thus should be prioritized for interventions or innovations to ensure that recent improvements in global health do not stall, or worse, degrade. In a practical sense, however, ample evidence already exists that highlight those Ns. Food production capabilities, mineral resources, energy sources, water and water distribution, and ecosystem services are among those critical, and vulnerable, resources. And hanging over all of this are the threat multipliers of climate change, inequities in resource distribution and/or redistribution, and conflict and impacts on global food trade, to name but a few.
One of the important final sessions of the Planetary Health Alliance meeting focused on solutions, both local and global. One session that resonated was by members of the Scottish Children's Parliament, which highlighted the passion, commitment, and effectiveness of youth in inspiring change. And perhaps that is where the answer to the resource paradox lies—not in passing down global problems that will impact kids but rather passing down the knowledge, tools, and pulpit to allow youth to lead. As evidenced by Pakistani Nobel Prize‐winning Malala Yousafi and her activism on female education and more recently by the Dutch youth activist Boyan Slat crusading for developing solutions for plastic pollution in oceans, with the right access to tools and platforms, there is nothing that moves hearts and minds more than hearing enough is enough from the very generation of humanity that will be living on a planet fundamentally different than the one the we grew up on. I argue that these Anthroponauts will be the first generation to grow up and die on a Spaceship Earth that is fundamentally different than before and thus should have that leading voice, which seems to have eluded previous generations, in substantively addressing the global environment‐health paradox. Hope is not a strategy, nor is despair an answer.