Human development and planetary health

Hall, Jon (2018). 'Human Development and Planetary Health' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


One of the greatest strengths of the human development approach is its emphasis on viewing the world – and people’s lives – as complex, interconnected systems in which, to paraphrase the former Norwegian Prime Minister and Sustainable Development champion Gro Harlem Brundtland, “everything is connected to everything.” Recognizing that many major challenges are messy and multifaceted complicates the work of those who seek to fix them, requiring more collaboration between disciplines and line ministries. Linear problems are so much simpler. But ultimately recognizing the underlying complexity is an investment that will lead to solutions that work.

One emerging approach that looks at such interlinkages is Planetary Health. Rooted in “understanding the interdependencies of human and natural systems,” it is a concept that recognizes the short-sightedness of considering human health in a vacuum, without thinking about the health of our environment. This might seem rather obvious. But the reality is that, until now, collaboration between experts in environmental and public health has been limited. The Planetary Health initiative is breaking down those siloes in ways reminiscent of the human development approach.

But the health of the planet is a foundation of human development, not just of healthy humans. The degradation of our environment, coupled with significant declines in biodiversity, is causing many other development concerns, ranging from declining food and water supplies; through loss of livelihoods; and loss of life (e.g. from extreme weather events). Vice versa, equity – including between generations – is at the heart of sustainable human development. And so it makes no sense to consider human or natural systems in isolation: if you take any one environmental concern, it does not take long to list its importance to multiple aspects of human development.

Consider biodiversity. Almost half the world’s population directly depends on natural resources for their livelihoods. Today, some 2.6 billion people draw their livelihoods either partially or fully from agriculture, 1.6 billion from forests, and 250 million from fisheries.

But, beyond this, we each depend on biodiversity: we eat the fruit and vegetables pollinated by bees, birds and bats; we breathe oxygen produced – via photosynthesis – by the plants and trees on the land, or plankton in the ocean. And healthy ecosystems are vital for ensuring water quality and helping prevent disasters (coral reefs and mangrove forests can prevent flooding for example).

And yet massive declines in biodiversity continue at levels that jeopardize human wellbeing. The planetary boundaries framework argues that a decline of 10% in biodiversity puts local ecosystems at risk: almost 3/5 of the world’s land has already seen declines greater than this.

Loss of biodiversity is an enormous challenge for human development. But many of the causes, from habitat destruction through climate change, are a direct result of economic or social ‘development’.

In this paper I will the role of nature based solutions in promoting human development and achieving planetary health.

I will draw on the Human Development Report Office's experience, the author's experience in two national governments and two international organisations, together with UNDP's significant experience in promoting nature-based solutions around the world. And I will consider examples of best practice that can be used to encourage a greater uptake of nature based solutiuons for human development within and without governments worldwide.

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