Opinion guest column

It’s time to connect ourselves with our planet

The importance of planetary health at MIT

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Environment and sustainability and biological and health-focused research intersect through planetary health efforts.

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. 

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 illustrates the reliance of human well-being on 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.

Let’s take a look at some prime examples of the way MIT students and the community are already using a planetary health lens. Taking note of both research and social action circles within the categories of sustainability and health-focused work, we see substantial overlap between the environment and human health, particularly for student organizations. 

Cutting-edge technologies in the fields and groups presented above can be applied not only for increasing accessibility and effectiveness of medical therapeutics and diagnostics, but also as potential solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and plastic waste. Examining food systems and security, we see the intersection of globally increasing access to nutritious foods and decreasing our consumption of foods requiring large amounts of land and pollution credits. 

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 involves projects within planetary health domains. From 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 considers the intersection of environmental challenges and their respective social contexts, revealing complexities beyond just the technical.

Although MIT does not yet have any groups dedicated specifically to “planetary health” research or work, we can see how many of these group’s missions fall within the principles of planetary health work. 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; many other groups combat issues that fall under the planetary health realm, from racial justice to gender equity. We hope that this conveys the growing connection between (1) human well-being and (2) the environment as it relates to the work conducted here at MIT. As a result, we must think more about planetary health here at MIT, and develop technologies within a planetary health mindset.

How can you incorporate planetary health into your MIT experience? 

You can find several resources in a supplementary MIT Climate Portal article, including: 

  1. A second figure outlining planetary health topics and their respective MIT groups 

  2. A list of classes related to planetary health

  3. 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 

Melissa Stok ’23 studies materials science and engineering. Melody Wu ’22 studies biological engineering and is a Planetary Health Alliance Campus Ambassador.