If there’s anything the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us among the other disasters of 2020, it’s that we are deeply connected as a society and depend on each other for our own survival. We’d like to highlight another connection that runs deep beyond our human one: our well-being and its connection with nature, the environment, and our planet. This connection extends beyond the events of 2020 and into our future.
Let’s stop and think about our link with our planet for a moment. From the food we eat, to the water we wash our hands with, to the sunlight that shines on our planet — we depend on the Earth for all of our needs. Recognizing this connection, let’s delve deeper and ask how MIT in particular can increase the work we do regarding the environment as it relates to and impacts our own health and well-being.
The answer to further exploring this relationship and developing sustainable solutions for healthy communities is planetary health. Planetary health focuses on understanding the human health implications of the rapid transformation of our earth's ecosystems due to anthropogenic changes in our environment. This emerging, transdisciplinary field enlightens people on the connections between their well-being and that of the planet, exploring climate change, environmental degradation, and the prevalence of human health issues through a new lens.
Understanding the connections between these two very related areas of study can aid in the development of targeted solutions that will prioritize not only the health of humans but also that of the environment. It can also help us better understand the urgency of our current climate situation and the present impacts it has had on us already. As evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are inadequately equipped to mitigate the effects of climate change on our health, proving that we have two options: act now to limit future impacts on our population or succumb to the consequences of our actions.
In an effort to lay out ways in which the MIT community can begin being aware of the planetary health domain, we have laid out where it can already be found and ways in which an MIT student can seek out additional planetary health opportunities and resources.
Planetary Health and MIT Groups
At MIT, there are already groups in place that touch on planetary health issues, providing foundations to build a larger planetary health network. Let’s take a look at some prime examples of the way MIT students and the community are already using a planetary health lens. In Fig. 1 we have noted both research and social action circles within the two groups of 1) environment and sustainability, and 2) biological and health-focused research. As evidenced by the figure, there’s actually more overlap between “Environment and Sustainability” and human health than we might expect, particularly for MIT student groups and organizations. Some of these groups’ initiatives and projects actually fall at the intersection of intersections! (Take ESI’s People and the Planet series for example or MIT Water Club’s upcoming Water Summit!)
We can also look at this in another frame of thinking with Figure 2. Rather than group things into either the environment/sustainability vs. biological/human-health focused research and work, let’s take a look at if we divided this according to the 14 planetary health domains:
- food systems/security,
- biodiversity loss,
- changing land use and land cover,
- climate change,
- global pollution,
- changing biogeochemical flows,
- water scarcity/security,
- natural disasters/hazards,
- infectious/zoonotic/vector-borne disease,
- civil strife and population displacement,
- deforestation and changing land use,
- nutrition, and
- mental health.
When we choose to look at MIT through a planetary health domain-focused lens, many more groups appear to connect and relate to planetary health. In particular, you might notice groups falling under mental health and urbanization— two major topics that relate to planetary health (look up eco-anxiety and health co-benefits!). We also discover some interesting connections and intersections that may not have been so visible before.
A Community that Already has a Planetary Health Focus
Now that we’ve hopefully piqued your interest and imagination, we’d like to highlight the ways in which solutions, projects, and programs developed at MIT fall under the realm of planetary health. Cutting-edge technologies in the fields and groups presented above can be applied for increasing accessibility and effectiveness of medical therapeutics and diagnostics but also as potential solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing plastic waste. When looking at food systems and security, we see the intersection of increasing access to nutritious foods for our global population and decreasing our consumption of foods that require large amounts of land and contribute heavily to pollution. In addition, we’d like to further build on the work being done at MIT by suggesting several actionable steps we can do as MIT students.
Let’s take a closer look at one particular group: Terrascope. A bustling community at MIT with a focus on thinking about complex (often global) environmental challenges, Terrascope is what we consider a place truly at the intersection of fields and with work heavily connected to planetary health. In recent years, many of Terrascope’s projects have related to planetary health topics and domains. From the Preparing the World for Climate Change to Water Security in the Navajo Nation to Resilience and Recovery: Preparing for Major Storms in Puerto Rico to this year’s The Birds and the Bees: The Everyday Biodiversity Crisis — each year’s focus really thinks about the intersection of environmental challenges and the social context in which they occur, revealing complexities beyond just the technical. For the Class of 2022, the focus on water security in the Navajo Nation revealed not only the realities of what it means to have access to running water, but even more so the resilience of a community whose livelihoods and culture depends and thrives with water: Toí Éí Íína (Water is Life). Water security is not only an environmental challenge of our future though, it’s one that we will increasingly see impacts our physical health and everyday well-being at the individual and community level. For the Class of 2023, this was clear when looking at natural disasters and resilience in Puerto Rico and the present realities of anthropogenic environmental changes as we faced being sent back home due to a global pandemic. Each year, first-years in the class come to realize that these issues are complex because they go beyond the environmental and technical to impact our very own communities and selves.
Classes Incorporating Planetary Health Topics
Although MIT does not yet have any groups or coalitions dedicated specifically to “planetary health” research, we can see how many of these group’s missions fall within the principles of planetary health work. Beyond looking at organizations one could join, here are some classes we found that you can take to learn more about the topics presented above:
- 1.063 Fluids and Diseases
- 1.081/20.104 Environmental Cancer Risks, Prevention, and Therapy
- 1.088 Genomics and Evolution of Infectious Disease
- 7.00 COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 and the Pandemic
- 12.807J Atmospheric Chemistry
- 20.102 Macroepidemiology and Population Genetics
- 20.104J Environmental Risks for Common Disease
- 20.106 Systems Microbiology
- 21A.312 Planetary Change and Human Health
- 21A.301 Disease and Health: Culture, Society, and Ethics
- 21A.308[J] Global Mental Health
- 21A.331[J] Infections and Inequalities: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Global Health
- 21A.402[J] City Living: Ethnographies of Urban Worlds
- 21A.407[J] Gender, Race, and Environmental Justice
- 21A.411[J] People and Other Animals
- 21A.410 Environmental Struggles
- And many more!
Additional Non-MIT Resources
- Check out the Planetary Health Alliance, a growing consortium of over 200 universities, NGOs, research institutes, and governmental entities around the world looking to address global environmental change and its health impacts
- You can also read the book by Director of the Planetary Health Alliance, Dr. Samuel Meyers, and Dr. Howard Frumkin, Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves
- Check out Revive and Restore, an organization committed to enhancing biodiversity through biotech and genetic rescue.
- Check out The Lancet’s Planetary Health Journal focused on emerging research work in this field.
We hope that in the ways outlined above we have pointed out the growing connection between (1) our human nature and well-being and (2) the environment and planet as it relates to the work and research being done here at MIT. We recognize that these are only a few ways we have seen planetary health in our own sphere of MIT, but there are many more ways in which planetary health can be integrated in many communities here at MIT. The lists and figures above are by no means exhaustive -- there are many other groups looking to combat issues that fall under the planetary health realm such as racial justice, gender equity, and so forth. We acknowledge that these intersectionalities are essential to a growing planetary health focus in the MIT community. The resolution then for us is: we all should be thinking about planetary health here at MIT, developing technology with the planetary health mindset, and more!
We hope this article serves as a resource for those interested in planetary health at MIT. This resource is also mentioned and connected to a piece addressed to MIT students published in The Tech here.
Header image by Fateme Alaie on Unsplash