Our house is on fire but we must stay at home: Reflections on Earth Day and planetary health

Planetary Health Alliance
12 min readApr 22, 2020

By: Max Zimberg, Planetary Health Alliance, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

50 years ago today, Earth Day was established out of rising public consciousness of the human health impacts of environmental destruction: from the polluting effects of petroleum, pesticides, and plastics, to the recognition of mass species extinction and the harmful health effects of toxic waste. It was out of love for Mother Earth— for the health of our loved ones and the story of Love Canal — that Earth Day continued to gain momentum, marked by unprecedented unification of stakeholders, generations, political factions, and activists from all walks of life under a common call: our health depends on our environment.

Flash-forward to Earth Day 2020 and Mother’s call has never been more clear: Our health depends on our environment; on reverence, reciprocity, regeneration, and right relationship. Not only are vaccines and ventilators our vital life-support systems, but so too are healthy forests, waters, soils, animals, air, and communities.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, we have witnessed a mushrooming of the modern environmental movement, alongside increased scientific understanding of climate change, biodiversity loss, global pollution, and other dynamics of anthropogenic global environmental change. We have made tremendous advancements by most traditional standards of global health — such as reduced global hunger, extreme poverty, literacy, and child mortality — and have welcomed unbelievable technological achievements that, in some ways, make our lives easier and more connected than ever before. But the economic, scientific, and technological developments that fueled these improvements have been at the expense of our environment and the health of all humans, our fellow animals, and future generations.

Today, the science is crystal clear: The systematic destruction and transformation our biosphere in recent centuries — including but not limited to climate change, global pollution, changes in land use and biogeochemical flows, and biodiversity loss — are severely threatening human health and jeopardizing all past, present, and future gains in global health. Despite this swelling evidence…

Planetary Health Alliance

Generating better understanding of the links between accelerating global environmental change and human health to support policy making and public education