Making Planetary Health a truly interdisciplinary field

26 June 2018

Portrait of Dr Jennifer Cole

by Dr Jennifer Cole
Public Policy Health Adviser

Dr Jennifer Cole joined the Oxford Martin School in August 2017 as Public Policy Health Adviser to the Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health. She previously worked at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security ...

Planet on grass Adobe Stock 106029618
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The term planetary health, and what falls within that field, provokes strong and interesting debate. Where consensus can be found is in the notion that planetary health is cross-disciplinary – involving academics from different disciplines working collaboratively on a common problem – complex and interconnected. It needs input from many academic disciplines, and many academics, each of whom needs to look outside of their own immediate area of research to wider issues that intersect, require trade-offs and involve compromises. This will enable the field to move towards being truly interdisciplinary. Only then will the right action be identified and taken.

For this reason, the team from the Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health at the Oxford Martin School recently convened the first of a series of seminars open to all members of the university – regardless of faculty, discipline or field – who are intrigued by the concept of planetary health and keen to discover what their research may have to offer.

Researchers from University of Oxford’s Climate Econometrics, the Environmental Change Institute, Primary Care Health Sciences, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, the Future of Humanity Institute and Faculty of History joined the Oxford Martin School-based staff to hear about the project’s progress so far, plans for the future, and opportunities for collaboration.

Discussions highlighted the importance of working across different levels of magnitude – with the macro-level needing to be informed by an accumulation and magnification of (more) micro-level studies whose synthesis will inform the bigger picture. A presently incomplete picture, with diverse data sets, must not be allowed to impede progress towards a better future. Sectors, as well as geographic locations, need to be considered on a global level. The shipping sector, for instance, may be a better target for focus than the US or China, in efforts to limit ocean pollution; multinationals can have a huge impact on consumer behaviour and behavioural change. A focus on the mining sector may help to understand what is driving the desire for the mined minerals and how this may be tackled.

Planetary health needs to identify root causes, not just diagnose and treat symptoms.

The discussions also asked how well do we understand the limits of the human body, and the extent to which our current lifestyles push us in negative as well as positive directions (as obesity and the rise in non-communicable diseases suggest they do)? What are the measures of good health beyond just the World Health Organization’s “absence of disease or infirmity”? What are the social determinants of this and do we sufficiently understand how a better environment can drive good health as much we understand how the current one drives ill-health?

On the one hand, it is common sense to say air pollution is unhealthy, just as we know smoking is unhealthy, but without scientific evidence of levels of harm and a corresponding understanding of how healthy we might be without exposure to such risk factors, policy-makers will be loath to limit revenue and GDP-generating activities. Such quantified understanding will be particularly important if we are to “lock in” good practice to new technologies, urban developments and progress within the timeframes needed to keep our planet within manageable levels of environmental change.

We may overshoot planetary boundaries while we do so, but how far can we overshoot and still be able to (ever) recover? If there has to be trade-offs between population numbers, (average) length of life and current lifestyles – if the planet cannot support 12 billion people all living on average to 100 with an ecological footprint equivalent to the average North American – we must decide what we sacrifice and how: energy consumption, plastic use, a second child, the last 10 years of the current lifespan, or all four for some, none for others as inequality takes on new dimensions.

Should we, and if so, how, incentivise people to make their own lives as healthy as possible, and tax into submission those who “choose” not to?

The key to all this is a better understanding of the casual chains that drive behaviours leading to degraded environments and their impacts on human health. The challenge is that these are not simple causal chains, but interconnected causal pathways that weave through complex systems. Each researcher might position their work along a single path, or at a single node of the network, but a planetary health researcher needs to see the entire system, and understand how every other causal chain affects theirs. This is no easy task, requiring academics to step outside of their own discipline into fields, methodologies and approaches with which they are less familiar as they inch towards an understanding of areas they have not considered before.

But planetary health research has to start somewhere. There may not be hard boundaries yet, but this should not be a barrier to practical suggestions on how to limit harm we can certainly see, if not yet fully quantify.

If solutions are to be found, they will be composite approaches from different academic disciplines working together, creating an innovating and forward-looking interdisciplinary space from which equally innovative solutions can emerge. More researchers are welcome to join in as we take this forward.

This blog first appeared on the website of The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health at the Oxford Martin School on 19 June 2018.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.