Planet Earth’s Health Is Your Health

Taking care of ourselves means taking care of the world around us, too

Globe in shape of apple
Charlie Abad / Getty Images

The signs of a planet in peril are everywhere, and I doubt I need to point them out to you. From climate change to deforestation, floods and fires to deluges, we are witness to one health in distress.

I am using this term—one health—willfully, because there is an initiative by that very name that brings together experts in support of the idea that all health is interconnected. Ecosystems support plants and animals that, in turn, make up biodiversity that is essential for our own sustenance. Wild animal populations can serve as sentinels, alerting us to threats such as Ebola before human populations are affected. One health is about the obvious condition on a single planet in the great sea of space: We are all in this boat together.

Here at Verywell, the focus on health is rather personal. Many of our articles offer you practical tips on assessments you can make or actions you can take, many of them fairly intimate. In this piece, I am going the other way and asking you to think not just about the skin you are in, but what’s outside of it, too.

Messages From the Environment

The particular provocation for this column at this time is a report in the The New York Times, and accompanying editorial, telling of dramatic declines in insect populations. We don’t tend to feel an immediate emotional impact of that because insects don't tend to be cute and cuddly—but we should. At the base of food chains and ecological systems alike, insects are to biology what a foundation is to a house: If they go, the houses fall down in both cases.

We are all part of the same one health—the health of biology and the planet. We can defend and damage our individual health separately from the whole, of course, but if the whole health falls apart, there will be nowhere left to run or hide.

I think this is worth addressing. Given the acuity of threats to the environment now, we can no longer think about our own health separately from that. I am asking you, therefore, to embrace One Health’s concept, and to let it influence your thinking. We need to be thinking about it when we drive, shop, and eat, and when we tend our lawns and gardens.

None of us asked to be born into a world of nearly 8 billion human beings exerting an unprecedented influence on the health of the planet, but here we are. None of us asked to be born into a time of diminishing aquifers, mass extinctions, monster storms, and a rapidly changing climate, but here we are. We have to deal with it.

Benefitting Ourselves and the Greater Good

The other reason to bring this up here is a bit cheerier. There is a great and fortuitous overlap between what’s good for any one of us and what’s essential for all of us. This is particularly gratifying happenstance for me, given my devotion to lifestyle as medicine. I believe we can add years to lives and life to years and protect the planet while doing so.

Consider, for instance, just these two research findings. First, a study at Harvard in 2010 found that the single food substitution associated with the biggest drop in heart disease risk for women was beans in the place of beef. A 2016 study confirmed the enormous, personal health benefit of more plant protein in the place of animal protein. Second, a recent study by researchers at Loma Linda University suggests that Americans could meet half of the greenhouse gas emission reductions originally targeted for the United States in the Paris accord just by routinely eating beans in the place of beef.

This kind of good-for-each-of-us and good-for-all-of-us confluence is common. Getting around with more muscle power, less fossil fuel consumption is good for each of us and all of us. Eating less-processed diets is good for each of us and all of us. Drinking water when thirsty is good for each of us, because we avoid unneeded sugar and calories, and good for all of us because it takes hundreds of liters of water to manufacture a drinkable liter of cola. Eating less meat is good for each of us because it means we are eating more plant foods that protect against chronic disease, and good for all of us because it helps to reduce pollution, antimicrobial resistance, and deforestation.

Eating a variety of wholesome, whole, plant foods is good for each of us. It is also good for all of us, because it means less acreage devoted to monocultures (i.e., growing just one kind of crop everywhere, every year) that require industrial farming methods that damage the environment, and kill off animal life—perhaps notably, insects.

Now’s the Time

Ironically, we are learning ever more about the value to our health of time spent in nature as we leave ever fewer natural places in the world, and ​have ever less time to enjoy them. That has “reality check” written all over it.

There really is just one health.

So, be active. Get outside. Eat a diet of real, whole, wholesome foods, mostly plants. Drink mostly plain water when thirsty. Drive less; bike more. Use paper, not plastic—and better still, neither. You get the idea.

We are out of time to think about protecting our personal health apart from that of the rich array of life and native resources of this world to which we are connected. The good news is that what’s best for all of us tends to be best for each of us, too.

There are many of us needing to look out for ourselves, but we all need to look out for the one unifying health we share, too. Or, as the saying goes: E Pluribus, Unum.

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