Health & Sustainability

Module Introduction

By Erin Oakley

“By unsustainably exploiting nature’s resources, human civilisation has flourished but now risks substantial health effects from the degradation of nature’s life support systems in the future.”

― Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health..


An introduction to

global health trends

The major challenges for human health and wellbeing have changed rapidly over the last century. One hundred years ago, most deaths were the result of infectious illnesses, like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and diarrheal diseases. The Industrial Revolution of the 1700 and 1800s increasingly drew people into cities, where poor living conditions and lack of adequate water and sanitation provided the conditions for major epidemics of virulent diseases like cholera, typhoid, and the fluGreat investments in public health, particularly in the developed world, including better housing, nutrition, safe water and sanitation, immunizations, and, eventually, the introduction of antibiotics, lead to a major decline in infectious diseases in the United States and Europe.

Overall, humankind is healthier now than any other time in history. Worldwide, life expectancy increased from just 48 years in 1950 to 71 years in 2015, while child mortality, or the percentage of children who don’t live past the age of 5, dropped from almost 23 percent to less than 5 percent over the same time period. Between 1990 and 2015, 1.9 billion people gained access to an improved drinking water source, contributing to improvements in health related to water-borne disease and hygiene. Health improvements have been realized across every continent and in nearly every country, although great health disparities still exist between low-income and high-income countries. Advances in medicine and public health as well as reductions in extreme poverty have contributed to these dramatic improvements in human health and wellbeing worldwide.

However, a number of pressing health challenges persist, with high levels of inequality observed between the rich and poor in both developing and developed countries. More than 2 billion people still lack access to safely managed drinking water services and more than 4 billion lack access to safely managed sanitation services. Lack of access to safe water and sanitation contributes to the deaths of 1.5 million children every year from diarrheal diseases, the overwhelming majority of which occur in low-income countries. Further, childhood malnutrition still affects millions of children, with the highest rates of stunting observed in South Asia, and the next highest in the least-developed countries. Worldwide, noncommunicable diseases like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes account for seven out of every ten deaths, many of which can be linked to behavioral risk factors like physical inactivity, unhealthy diets, and use of tobacco and excessive alcohol. Most deaths from chronic diseases , such as diabetes, hypertension, or arthritis, occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Health and environment

in the 21st century

Despite the recent improvements in the status of human health globally, a growing population and rapid industrialization have stretched Earth’s natural systems further than at any other time in human history, placing humanity at risk for major health problems in the coming decades. Climate change impacts, soil degradation, ocean acidification, and unsustainable fresh water use will place millions of people at risk for undernutrition by 2030. Air pollution is considered one of the greatest environmental risks to human health in the world and more than 15 percent of deaths around the world are annually linked to ambient (or, outdoor) and household (or, indoor) air pollution, with most occuring in low and middle-income countries.

The threat of climate change also presents a major challenges for human health and wellbeing, and not always in direct and intuitive ways. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that climate change will likely impact human health directly through more intense heat waves and fires, as well as more frequent and intense weather events, like floods and hurricanes. Potential health concerns expected to be indirectly exacerbated by climate change include increased risk of under-nutrition and food insecurity due to decreased agricultural productivity and crop losses, greater instances of food- and water-borne illnesses, changes in the patterns of vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever, and even increases in illnesses related to asthma and allergens as climates warm.

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