April 12, 2024

The new Johns Hopkins Institute aims to protect human health on a rapidly changing planet

What does human health have to do with the health of the planet? A lot, says Sam Myers, a renowned expert in public health and medicine charged with leading the new Johns Hopkins Institute for Planetary Health.

“The health of the planet is not good,” says Myers. “In pursuing our ambitions, all of nature has become collateral damage.”

Myers can list a host of examples: malaria and schistosomiasis linked to habitat destruction and deforestation; acute respiratory infections caused by forest fires; cardiovascular disease related to the reduced production of crops (such as fruits and nuts) that depend on pollinating insects. But the world, he suggests, is doing far too little about it – a reality he hopes this new institution can help change.

“There is no time left. Our house is on fire. If we are to protect ourselves and the rest of life on Earth, we will have to embrace rapid structural shifts in every dimension of the way we live.”

Sam Myers

Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Planetary Health

“In recent decades, humanity’s total ecological footprint has grown enormously,” he says, “and the planet can no longer absorb the waste we produce or sustainably provide for the resources we use.” Planetary health is a relatively new and rapidly expanding field, but it provides a useful framework for understanding – and transforming – our relationship with the planet we inhabit. While climate change is one concern, the field more broadly examines how human activities are changing natural systems and contributing to what Myers calls an earth crisis – a complex, interwoven web of environmental challenges, including air, water and soil pollution on a global level. dish; degradation of the marine system; and an accelerated decline in biodiversity. And that crisis on Earth, he says, is now fueling a global health and humanitarian crisis.

Myers joined Johns Hopkins last year as a professor at the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. He comes to Hopkins from Harvard along with Marie Studer, the institute’s executive director; here they hope to cultivate planetary health science, policy and practice within JHU’s nine academic departments while positioning the university as a global leader in planetary health.

“We are thrilled to announce the launch of the new Johns Hopkins Institute for Planetary Health,” said Bloomberg School Dean Ellen MacKenzie. “By launching this truly university-wide effort, we can improve and address the fact that the global earth crisis is reshaping the public health landscape. We couldn’t be happier that Sam has joined this effort and knows it will continue to be so. be central to the school’s work going forward.”

Image caption: Sam Myers comes to JHU from Harvard, where he led numerous research projects examining various ways in which human-induced environmental changes affect human health.

The institute will include the Planetary Health Alliance, a backbone organization for a global community of planetary health practitioners with more than 420 affiliated universities, NGOs and other organizations in more than 70 countries. Myers became the group’s founder and director in 2016; Studer – a geochemist focused on aquatic systems who has spent her career addressing global environmental change and advocating for sustainable practices – has served as program director for the past four years.

“Working in planetary health is not just a job; it is my heart,” she says. “Centering nature and human well-being within a scientific field and a social movement is an opportunity to create a thriving future for all life on Earth that is truly motivating and purposeful.”

Myers plans to build on a body of work he built in his previous role as principal investigator at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Over the past two decades, he has led numerous research projects examining the various ways in which human-induced environmental changes affect human health, including:

  • Quantifying the impact of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations on the nutritional value of staple food crops.
  • Documenting mortality in Indonesia due to land use practices that cause fires and severe haze episodes.
  • This shows that inadequate populations of pollinating insects cause approximately half a million deaths each year due to reduced production and consumption of fruits, vegetables and nuts.
  • Documenting how ocean warming is putting a billion people at risk of nutritional deficiencies due to lost intake of wild-harvested fish.

In 2014, this area of ​​research – which links anthropogenic biophysical changes and human health – was named “planetary health” by the Rockefeller Foundation. The Lancet, which together formed the Rockefeller-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health. The groundbreaking report ‘Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Era’ – published in 2015 and co-authored by Myers with 21 other scientists – describes the situation in stark terms, arguing that as a global society we have ‘mortgaged the healthcare’ of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present.” The report questions our “over-reliance on gross domestic product as a measure of human progress, [leading to a] the failure to account for future health and environmental harms relative to current gains, and the disproportionate impact of those harms on the poor and people in developing countries.” This issue of equality and justice runs through the field. As Myers notes, “the world’s richest countries and peoples endanger the poorest people, indigenous communities, future generations, and non-human beings through their consumption practices. That is deeply unfair.”

In the early days of the Institute for Planetary Health, Myers and Studer worked quickly to forge key partnerships across the university. Collaborations are already underway with the Center for Indigenous Health, the Center for Health Security, and the Center for Humanitarian Health at the Bloomberg School, as well as with scholars from the School of Medicine, School of Nursing, Carey Business School, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences , and Whiting School of Engineering. As the world’s first cross-university institute for planetary health, JHIPH is uniquely positioned to work across the university and leverage existing expertise, including that within the Whiting School’s Ralph S. O’Connor Sustainable Energy Institute and in centers and departments around the world. Bloomberg School.

“We are pleased to welcome Sam Myers and the institute to the university,” said Stephen Gange, executive vice provost and professor of epidemiology. “As home to the world’s premier school of public health, Johns Hopkins has consistently led the way in defining the field and deploying interdisciplinary science to address the most pressing public health challenges. As Sam joins us , we have increased the capacity for leadership and leadership innovation in this crucial domain and will strengthen the school’s pioneering achievements in this crucial area throughout the school’s second century.”

Chris Celenza, dean of the Krieger School, added: “The Institute for Planetary Health at Johns Hopkins could not be more timely and necessary. I am pleased to welcome Sam Myers, a renowned leader in this field, to Hopkins, and especially honored to be working with Dean Ellen Mackenzie and our esteemed Bloomberg School of Public Health.”

Myers says he spent years looking for the right place to house the Planetary Health Alliance and launch a new institute. More than anywhere else, he adds, Johns Hopkins stood out for its capacity for—and commitment to—real collaboration—and for its preeminence in global health.

“There’s no time to waste,” says Myers. ‘Our house is on fire. If we want to protect ourselves and the rest of life on Earth now and in the future, we will need to embrace rapid structural shifts in every dimension of how we live – from energy to food systems to manufacturing and circular economy, to our built environment. To provide global leadership in achieving this major transition it will be necessary to come together, as one university, and collaborate across disciplines.”

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