Improving links between environment and human health

June 27, 2014


June 27, 2014

Robert Garris

Managing director

Robert Garris is the Managing Director of Bellagio Programs and a member of the senior leadership team at The Rockefeller Foundation, where his work enhances and extends the Foundation’s global network, search activities, and overall convening capacity through outreach, recruitment, and selection of conferences and resident fellows at the Foundation’s Bellagio Center in northern Italy. He also leads the Foundation’s global and U.S. work on the philanthropic sector. Prior to joining The Rockefeller Foundation, Rob spent eight years at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where he served most recently as Senior Associate Dean. In this role, he was responsible for ensuring that strategic planning, external affairs, global partnerships, and student affairs advanced the School’s core mission to train students and produce research that promoted global public interests. Prior to SIPA, he held leadership positions at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Garris holds a Ph.D. in European History from the University of North Carolina with a focus on immigration and urban policy. He resides in New York City.

The Rockefeller Foundation, in partnership with British medical journal The Lancet and with the active participation of The Economist Intelligence Unit, is convening a high-level meeting to discuss how we can improve links between environment and human health.

The ties between human health and our environment have been interwoven since the beginning of time.  In fact, as our vulnerability to environmental fluctuations decreases with advances in agriculture and medicine, global health outcomes linked to them have greatly improved.

In parallel, much of the human and industrial activity that has enriched us in material ways and in our quality of life is also affecting the health of our planet, breaching critical boundaries. This sets up a dynamic that threatens not only the environment, but the basic social, economic, physical and political infrastructure that forms the bedrock of our civilization.  The enmeshed nature of planetary, environmental, health, social and economic systems means that human and planetary health are inextricably linked.

Consider an increase in the prevalence of malaria as temperatures and rainfall rise in heavily settled regions. Or famines sparked by sudden changes in rainfall patterns.  Or the collapse of fisheries –a key global food source – after acidification destroys coral reefs. These shifts stem from human activities that have pushed our air, soil and water beyond critical thresholds.

These limits were clearly articulated by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009 as ‘Planetary Boundaries’. Breaching them has already triggered ocean acidification, ozone depletion, declining freshwater resources, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution and climate change. Scientists are now studying the links between surpassing these natural boundaries and new patterns in human health.  

Indeed, a further shift in the trajectories of our natural world could impact planetary systems so severely that current forms of human civilization would be in jeopardy.

To advance a global conversation on these urgent issues, The Rockefeller Foundation, in partnership with British medical journal The Lancet and with the active participation of The Economist Intelligence Unit, is convening a high-level meeting on this topic in early July. Over 30 thought leaders from corporations, universities, governments, development banks, civil society and other global organisations will exchange diverse perspectives from their sector and seek insights that will help them develop strategies to address the threat from breaching planetary boundaries.

But we are a small group and the active and ongoing contribution of the global public will be essential to tackle the problem, and to come up with a broad range of realistic and sustainable alternatives to the way we live, work and move.

To this end, in the coming week, we are reaching out to you so that your insights flow into our conversation, and are acted upon.

Some of the participants in the July meeting, as well as other select thought leaders, have agreed to answer a few questions online to share their thinking on the links between the environment, planetary boundaries and human health.  They are:

  • Fred Boltz, managing director, Ecosystems, The Rockefeller Foundation
  • Andy Haines, professor, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • Karin Ireton, director of sustainability, Standard Bank South Africa
  • Sania Nishtar, founder and president, Heartfile and co-chair of the World Health Organization’s Commission to end Childhood Obesity
  • Montira Pongsiri, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist, who studies the connections between environmental change and human health

View participant biographies

How can we tackle threats to planetary boundaries and create a sustainable future? 
Visionaries Unbound has laid the foundations for this critical debate and we invite you to join it. Do you have questions or answers? If so, we want to hear from you. Please submit your ideas below. We hope you will join us in this effort.

Find out more about Visionaries Unbound >>

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (EIU) or any other member of The Economist Group. The Economist Group (including the EIU) cannot accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any person on this article or any of the information, opinions or conclusions set out in the article.

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