Sick environment, sick people

30 10 2009

sickplanetA quick post to talk about a subject I’m more and more interested in – the direct link between environmental degradation (including biodiversity loss) and human health.

To many conservationists, people are the problem, and so they focus naturally on trying to maintain biodiversity in spite of human development and spread. Well, it’s 60+ years since we’ve been doing ‘conservation biology’ and biodiversity hasn’t been this badly off since the Cretaceous mass extinction event 146-64 million years ago. We now sit squarely within the geological era more and more commonly known as the ‘Anthropocene’, so if we don’t consider people as an integral part of any ecosystem, then we are guaranteed to fail biodiversity.

I haven’t posted in a week because I was in Shanghai attending the rather clumsily entitled “Thematic Reference Group (TRG) on Environment, Agriculture and Infectious Disease’, which is a part of the UNICEF/UNDP/World Bank/World Health Organization Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) (what a mouthful that is). What’s this all about and why is a conservation ecologist (i.e., me) taking part in the group?

It’s taken humanity a while to realise that what we do to the planet, we eventually end up doing to ourselves. The concept of ecosystem services1 demonstrates this rather well – our food, weather, wealth and well-being are all derived from healthy, functioning ecosystems. When we start to bugger up the inter-species relationships that define one element of an ecosystem, then we hurt ourselves. I’ve blogged about this topic a few times before with respect to flooding, pollination, disease emergence and carbon sequestration.

Our specific task though on the TRG is to define the links between environmental degradation, agriculture, poverty and infectious disease in humans. Turns out, there are quite a few examples of how we’re rapidly making ourselves more susceptible to killer infectious diseases simply by our modification of the landscape and seascape.

Some examples are required to illustrate the point. Schistosomiasis is a snail-borne fluke that infects millions worldwide, and it is on the rise again from expanding habitat of its host due to poor agricultural practices, bad hygiene, damming of large river systems and climate warming. Malaria too is on the rise, with greater and greater risk in the endemic areas of its mosquito hosts. Chagas (a triatomine bug-borne trypanosome) is also increasing in extent and risk. Some work I’m currently doing under the auspices of the TRG is also showing some rather frightening correlations between the degree of environmental degradation within a country and the incidence of infectious disease (e.g., HIV, malaria, TB), non-infectious disease (e.g., cancer, cardiovascular disease) and indices of life expectancy and child mortality.

I won’t bore you with more details of the group because we are still drafting a major World Health Organization report on the issues and research priorities. Suffice it to say that if we want to convince policy makers that resilient functioning ecosystems with healthy biodiversity are worth saving, we have to show them the link to infectious disease in humans, and how this perpetuates poverty, rights injustices, gender imbalances and ultimately, major conflicts. An absolute pragmatist would say that the value of keeping ecosystems intact for this reason alone makes good economic sense (treating disease is expensive, to say the least). A humanitarian would argue that saving human lives by keeping our ecosystems intact is a moral obligation. As a conservation biologist, I argue that biodiversity, human well-being and economies will all benefit if we get this right. But of course, we have a lot of work to do.

CJA Bradshaw

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1Although Bruce Wilcox (another of the TRG expert members), who I will be highlighting soon as a Conservation Scholar, challenges the notion of ecosystem services as a tradeable commodity and ‘service’ as defined. More on that topic soon.


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14 03 2014
Lower biodiversity => lower human health | Green Resistance (teaching, organizing, and eco-thinking)

[…] “..there are quite a few examples of how we’re rapidly making ourselves more susceptible to killer in…. Some examples are required to illustrate the point. Schistosomiasis is a snail-borne fluke that infects millions worldwide, and it is on the rise again from expanding habitat of its host due to poor agricultural practices, bad hygiene, damming of large river systems and climate warming. Malaria too is on the rise, with greater and greater risk in the endemic areas of its mosquito hosts. Chagas (a triatomine bug-borne trypanosome) is also increasing in extent and risk. […]

14 03 2014
Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick | ConservationBytes.com

[…] The core concepts of conservation ecology are well-established: we know that habitat loss, fragmentation, invasive species, over-exploitation and of course, climate change, are bad for biodiversity. This well-quantified scientific baseline has led the discipline recently to embark on questions pertaining more to the (a) implications of biodiversity loss for humanity and (b) what we can do to offset these. A recent paper by Morand and colleagues addresses perhaps one of the most compelling reasons that human society should appreciate biodiversity beyond its intrinsic value; as biodiversity degrades, so too does human health. […]

30 04 2010
nikitalop

The recently held Healthy Parks Healthy People Congress in Melbourne Australia also featured the relationship of the environment and nature with a focus more on the benefits of nature on human physical and mental health. It was an interesting Congress in that the plenary addresses were mostly medical professionals, each pointing out the importance of nature. The importance of intact nature to human development and well-being was made quite clear.

The web site for the Congress: http://www.healthyparkshealthypeoplecongress.org/

30 04 2010
CJAB

Thank you, Nikitalop.

31 10 2009
uberVU - social comments

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by conservbytes: Sick environment, sick people: http://wp.me/phhT4-Mn

30 10 2009
insectamonarca

I am very interested in your blog and the connection of the ecosystem and human health. Reductionist thinking leads one down the road to the fact that there is no connection between the whole of anything. Biodiversity leads one down the other road that all things are related and the wheel is the network of life. What we do to the network of life we do to ourselves. Our nonprofit Happy Tonics, Inc. teaches what we do to the monarch butterfly, we do to ourselves. The butterfly is the teacher and shows us that destruction of the environment and changing our food to monoculture and genetic engineering will impact animals, pollinators and ourselves.

Thank you for pointing this out so clearly and so elequently in Sick environmenta, sick people.

31 10 2009
CJAB

Thank you for the support, InsectaMonarca – more along this line will feature on ConservationBytes.com in the near future.

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