University of Wisconsin–Madison

Saving our planet to save ourselves

Close up head shot of Professor Howard Frumkin

What do you believe in? Leaving a livable world for our children and grandchildren? Not wasting what we’ve been given? Responsibility?

Likely, you believe in all three. For Howard Frumkin, professor and former dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, finding those shared beliefs is critical to moving beyond ideological divides to ensure planetary health for humans as well as the world we live in.

Frumkin will discuss “Planetary Health: Protecting Our World to Protect Ourselves,” at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, February 15, in the Great Hall at Memorial Union. A panel of University of Wisconsin-Madison science and humanities scholars—Lyric Bartholomay from Veterinary Medicine, Maureen Durkin from Population Health Sciences, Rick Keller from the International Division, Gregg Mitman from Medical History and the Nelson Institute, Jonathan Patz from the Global Health Institute (GHI) and Monica White from Environmental Sociology and the Nelson Institute—will respond to his remarks.

The free program will be followed by a paid reception. All are welcome. Registration is requested. The evening is hosted by the UW-Madison Global Health Institute and co-sponsored by the International Division, Office of Sustainability and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

“Dr. Frumkin is one of our nation’s most forward-thinking public health scientists,” GHI Director Jonathan Patz says. “While directing the National Center for Environmental Health, he compelled the CDC to broaden its scope to cover health impacts of urban design and global environmental degradation; these are now recognized as major health determinants at the population level, but it was Dr. Frumkin who first stirred our awareness of these threats.”

“Planetary health is the notion that planetary scale changes triggered by human activity pose threats to human well-being. It focuses, centrally, on two pieces of the story: one is earth systems changes … the other situating human health at the center of these concerns and linking them to the earth systems changes.”—Howard Frumkin

Frumkin’s message, like the concept of planetary health, is one of warning and of hope.

“We have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present,” says Frumkin, a physician, environmental and occupational medicine specialist, and epidemiologist. “Our activities—triggered especially by the huge amounts of energy we’ve been able to deploy to do the things we do—have substantially changed our world. That’s an amazing thing for a species to be able to do.”

Climate change is the best-known systems change, but there are others: the loss of biodiversity as well as changes in nitrogen-phosphorous cycles, land use and hydrologic cycles. “Even without climate change, we would need a field of planetary health,” Frumkin says.

The Lancet and the Rockefeller Foundation launched planetary health in 2015 with the report “Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch.” It showed that humans are healthier than ever, living longer lives, facing less poverty and seeing fewer children die before they turn 5. “But these gains in human health have come at a high price: the degradation of nature’s ecological systems on a scale never seen in human history,” the report concludes, noting a rapid increase in carbon dioxide emissions, ocean acidification, energy use, the loss of tropical forests and the use of water and fertilizer. “A growing body of evidence shows that the health of humanity is intrinsically linked to the health of the environment, but by its actions, humanity now threatens to destabilize the Earth’s key life-support systems.”

A physician’s evolution

Frumkin’s journey toward planetary health began when he was an environmental and occupational health physician living in Atlanta. His clinical practice and research focused on human exposure to toxic chemicals such as lead and asbestos. But living and driving in a sprawling city alerted him to a broader set of environmental health concerns: the dangers of an urban landscape “that prevented a kid from ever walking or biking to school, that prevented people from getting outside in common spaces and mingling with each other … that contributed to climate change and poor air quality because we were driving so much.”

The physician studied ecology, earth sciences and urban planning to become a systems thinker and “upstreamist,” looking beyond clinics and hospitals for the determinants of health. “It’s the food we eat and how we make that food,” he says. “It’s the buildings we inhabit, the communities we live in, the way we make and utilize energy. … If we look upstream at the choices we make in arenas such as those, we will find a lot of the answers both to long-term health and to a sustainable world. And we can enable our grandkids and their grandkids to live lives as good as ours.”

Justice also plays a role in planetary health, Frumkin says, emphasizing that those who are most at risk–the disenfranchised, poor and underserved risk–deserve special consideration because they are most affected by global changes.

“Tackling global problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss is not a story of deprivation; it’s a story of opportunity,”—Howard Frumkin

What will make a difference?

Frumkin looks to evidence, stories that ring true and self-interest to convince people across the ideological spectrum that it is time to address planetary changes, from climate change to the loss of biodiversity.

The evidence is already coming in—in record-shattering fires, droughts and floods and the spread of diseases. Listening hard and sympathizing will lead to meaningful narratives that support shared values. Evidence that shows steps to mitigate global changes benefit human well-being will appeal to self-interest.

Switching from driving to walking, bicycling and public transit, for example, leads to cleaner air, quieter communities, fewer car crashes, more physical activity and more social connectedness. Planting more trees to protect biodiversity and cool cities during heat waves persuades people to get out more, aids in storm water management and improves mental health. Eating lower on the food chain because beef has a heavy carbon footprint leads to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and several forms of cancer.

“Tackling global problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss is not a story of deprivation; it’s a story of opportunity,” Frumkin says. “Again, and again, things we have to do to tackle global problems are components of good lives.”

By Ann Grauvogl/ January 30, 2018