Could a planetary health approach in sustainability science wake up the masses to act?

Urban planning and policymakers must adapt to the growing understanding of how planetary health impacts human well-being. To achieve this, there is a need for resolute language in scientific communication to encourage immediate actions.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are issues of growing awareness, yet the crucial link between human health and ecological crises is being brought up less frequently. The concept of planetary health recognizes that human health is intimately linked to the health of the planet’s ecosystems, climate and biodiversity.  

HELSUS was a co-partner of the People and Planet – from theory to solutions – conference organized in Lahti, Finland from February 13th-15th. The conference gave a comprehensive look on planetary health research and actionable steps towards transformative change. Throughout the three days, the ideas from a preceding day transcended into the next day's discussions, creating a collective learning experience. 

Environmental degradation is a threat to human health and a challenge for urban planning  

It is not a new assertion that climate change impacts, and environmental degradation such as biodiversity loss and pollution are real threats to human health and well-being. These threats include implications spanning from respiratory illnesses and malnutrition to injuries and deaths.   

The conference program specifically focused on urbanized and industrialized areas that are more affected by their disconnection from nature. Loss of biodiversity and green urban space are linked to human health issues such as allergies and worsening mental health.    

Professor emeritus of Clinical Allergology Tari Haahtela, offers a strong and compelling illustration of the connection between human health and diminished biodiversity in urban areas. Haahtela points out that reduced exposure to nature inevitably diminishes the diversity of humans' microbiomes. This then causes health problems by affecting people’s immune defense system. Thus, allergies are more common in urban than rural areas. Not only does exposure to biodiversity decrease the occurrence of allergies, but biogenic volatile compounds that are released by plants have stress relieving effects.  

Incorporating planetary health approaches into local and global governance 

Lahti’s nomination as the European green capital of 2021 aligns well with the conference program's strong emphasis on the importance of biodiverse green spaces in urban areas. The Discussion of leaders “Addressing the Climate-Health-Nature Nexus – from Cities to the EU”, a discussion between city mayors and EU-decision makers, focused on questions of how to better incorporate planetary health approaches in the EU and more locally on a city level.  

Sirpa Pietikäinen, Finnish member of the European Parliament, noted that the question of incorporating planetary health is about a paradigm change that needs to happen in the politicians’ heads. The decision-makers need to acknowledge and understand more holistic connections between health and the environment. The mayor of Lahti Niko Kyynäräinen emphasized that “good deeds accumulate” - local initiatives and actions can inspire global initiatives and vice versa.  

During the conference exemplary insights were presented that could fuel initiatives both on a private and public frontier, local municipalities and governmental levels. These insights included: 

  • Seedbed interventions that can foster co-creation with citizens 

  • Is micro-mobility (e.g. e-scooters and e-bikes) an opportunity to create sustainable cities or rather an unsustainable threat as it might replace public transportation, walking and traditional cycling? 

  • Urban planning must consider green equality as accessibility to green spaces can prevent social exclusion and segregation. 

  • What sort of green urban planning can motivate walking and physical activity?  

Nevertheless, upscaling and implementing initiatives like these remains difficult due to financial constraints and political barriers.  

Are researchers failing in communicating science to decision makers? 

Researchers collectively agreed that scientific communication has failed to reach the right people to mitigate climate change. How can researchers then improve their way of sharing scientific information with relevant stakeholders? Which type of narratives are needed and who bears responsibility to encourage transformative actions? 

For instance, Adjunct Professor of Public Health Matilda van den Bosch advocated that using positive language and highlighting the benefits and necessity of urban green spaces and improved ecosystem services could serve as a pathway to a better collective understanding of the need for greener cities. It was also emphasized that unbalanced risk narratives may influence this understanding.  

For example, the time children spend on outdoor activities has massively decreased because kids are no longer allowed to climb trees due to the perceived risk of climbing. At the same time, the long-term risks of staying in sterile indoor spaces in front of digital entertainment are less known. This shows how unbalanced risk narratives can be problematic for human and environmental health if such phenomena lead to less demand for trees and green areas in urban planning.   

Van den Bosch also asked the audience “Do we really need more studies?” 

The aim was not to question the importance of conducting further research, but to highlight the significance of the language used in published articles. While there is always room for improved confidence intervals and for further studies, such hesitant language is academia's own stumbling block and does a disservice to science communication that advocates for immediate actions.  

Urgent challenges demand more action from scientists 

Professor of Planetary Health Pim Martens introduced a new concept to the audience by describing himself as a Scientivist. Martens formulates that: 

"Scientivists are scientists that are engaged in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge (the ‘science’ part), that aim to promote, impede, or direct societal change (the ‘activist’ part)”.

This idea illustrates scientists’ opportunity and responsibility to encourage action, yet this is not to say that all scientivists need to take part in direct activism such as nonviolent sit ins. Scientivists can take other forms of action such as writing to politicians and newspapers, being active on social media as well as performing economic boycotts. As Martens put it, “scientivism is an attitude”.   

Another form of action notable to mention is Sonja Salomäki’s community art performance “Planetbic”. It is a form of art activism, a sort of dance, ritual and play in a shared space that illustrates a method to internalize planetary boundaries and the body-earth relationship. As part of Salomäki’s doctoral research, the art performance explores how to make abstract things such as the feelings of the environmental crisis visible. As climate communications are worn out, new forms of communication are needed that go beyond reason such as creative emotions and values.  

Here, Salomäki shows that “the sensory body brings us to the world”.  

Could the health approach wake up the masses to act? 

The environmentalist movement has long championed a shift from human-centered views towards more environmentally oriented policies that understand the interconnectedness between humans and nature. Despite decades of advocacy, the prevailing status quo, rooted in capitalism and human dominance, has remained largely unchanged.   

The predicament of inaction fueled the conversations to question whether scientific communication that focuses on human health and well-being could serve as a more effective motivator for encouraging action?  

Professor of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Sir Dr. Andrew Haynes considers it is a worthwhile tradeoff to “communicate through the dominant anthropocentric views in politics to get the benefits to the environment as a primary side effect”. By framing the need for urban green spaces by human health, it may be easier to break through anthropocentric values that prioritize short-term gains over long-term sustainability.  

This kind of approach could catalyze engagement and action while allowing current anthropocentric values to endure in power. On the other hand, supporting an already dominant narrative that the environment is secondary to humans seems controversial and counterproductive.   


This report on the conference highlights was compiled by HELSUS coordination-team members Sini Holopainen and Daniel Lindner, with two anonymous senior research staff reviewers.