When Ecosystems Suffer, So Do Humans: To Heal People We Need to Heal the Planet

Amaya Mikolič-Berrios

Smog hangs over the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2014. The World Health Organization estimates that outdoor air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths per year.

Even as humans have brought more and more of our­selves into exis­tence — 7.7 bil­lion as of 2019 — our species has con­tin­ued to degrade and destroy the Earth’s nat­ur­al sys­tems that make human life pos­si­ble. Humans have deplet­ed non­re­new­able resources and sul­lied renew­able resources essen­tial to life, such as water and air, and so under­mined not only ecosys­tem health but human health as well.

In late 2017, four envi­ron­men­tal­ists came togeth­er to cre­ate the non-prof­it Eco­Health Net­work (EHN) to address this grow­ing cri­sis. Bound by a com­mon vision of a future where the health of peo­ple and the health of ecosys­tems are con­nect­ed, the group pro­motes eco­log­i­cal restora­tion through the cre­ation of a world­wide net­work of restora­tion projects, whose researchers will share resources and expertise.

The com­po­si­tion of the orga­ni­za­tion’s steer­ing com­mit­tee, based in St. Louis and Boston, reflects the group’s belief in a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary solu­tion to the cri­sis. There’s ecol­o­gist James Aron­son, ecol­o­gist and author Cristi­na Eisen­berg, econ­o­mist Neva Good­win and civ­il engi­neer Lau­ra Orlan­do. With back­grounds in both pub­lic health and ecol­o­gy, the mem­bers are exam­ples of how respons­es from a vari­ety of fields, from the polit­i­cal to the envi­ron­men­tal to the med­ical, are nec­es­sary to address the cur­rent envi­ron­men­tal crisis.

Orlan­do empha­sizes the need for a wide­spread reac­tion when deal­ing with a prob­lem this large.

Bio­di­ver­si­ty, or the lack of it, is a human health con­cern,” she says. Mak­ing that con­nec­tion, not only in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty but also in the pub­lic, is critical.”

Orlan­do thinks that eco­log­i­cal restora­tion, and the Eco­Health Net­work, is about more than just sav­ing the trees; it is a world­wide attempt to heal the envi­ron­ment, bio­di­ver­si­ty and human health.

Show­ing those con­nec­tions through evi­dence-based sci­ence can direct fund­ing, polit­i­cal atten­tion and pub­lic sen­ti­ment,” she says.

The group cur­rent­ly focus­es on eight envi­ron­men­tal­ly degrad­ed ecosys­tems world­wide, what EHN refers to as net­work sites.” Three of these sites are in the Unit­ed States, one in Cana­da, one in Aus­tralia, one in South Africa and two in Fin­land. EHN brings rep­re­sen­ta­tives from each of these sites togeth­er to share resources, tech­niques, and expe­ri­ences. With­in the next few years, the group hopes to great­ly expand the num­ber of par­tic­i­pant net­work sites. The founders empha­size the impor­tance of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between restora­tion sites in devel­op­ing a sus­tain­able future and cre­at­ed their orga­ni­za­tion to com­bat the pub­lic silence that under­mines that mission.

Fight­ing with Fire
At Water­ton Lakes Nation­al Park (WLNP), an EHN net­work site in south­west­ern Alber­ta, an inva­sive species of aspen has choked-out native plants and ani­mals. The aspen was brought by Euro­pean set­tlers when they col­o­nized the area. As sur­round­ing human economies and set­tle­ments grew, air pol­lu­tants, agri­cul­tur­al pes­ti­cides, and habi­tat loss and frag­men­ta­tion led to a weak­ened and envi­ron­men­tal­ly stressed area. Project lead­ers Scott Mur­phy, the fire man­age­ment offi­cer for Parks Cana­da, and EHN’s Eisen­berg deploy eco­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples to return the degrad­ed ecosys­tem to a nat­ur­al state, in which the area is sta­ble with­out assis­tance from humans.

For exam­ple, project mem­bers are research­ing how con­trolled burn­ing can be used as a tool to remove inva­sive aspen. His­tor­i­cal­ly, light­ning strike wild­fires, once per­ceived by human com­mu­ni­ties as a detri­men­tal nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non, were sup­pressed, pre­vent­ing nat­ur­al fire from thin­ning out and reviv­ing dense areas. Parks Cana­da staff and vol­un­teers mim­ic these wild­fires by burn­ing small patch­es of land, which are then replant­ed with the native white pine tree once dom­i­nant in the area. To eval­u­ate the effects of this tech­nique on soil health, pre­da­tion and bio­di­ver­si­ty they track the num­ber of elk in the area, exper­i­ment with vary­ing lev­els of fire sever­i­ty, and record changes in the aspen pop­u­la­tion. The results from this analy­sis will inform ecol­o­gists as they con­tin­ue to restore the ecosystem.

Because the project area, which con­sists of short­grass prairie and foothills, is par­tial­ly locat­ed on Kainai First Nation land, both human and non-human inhab­i­tants will ben­e­fit from its restora­tion. The project, which began in 2006, pro­tects First Nation cul­tur­al her­itage sites locat­ed in the park, while indige­nous peo­ples part­nered with Parks Cana­da and the project to con­tribute their tra­di­tion­al eco­log­i­cal knowl­edge to the restora­tion effort. The project mem­bers hold sev­er­al con­fer­ences and on-site meet­ings every year to dis­cuss the best approach to heal­ing the Water­ton Lakes Nation­al Park.

Despite the ben­e­fits of being able to repair a degrad­ed ecosys­tem, the imper­a­tive les­son of eco­log­i­cal restora­tion is that con­ser­va­tion is bet­ter than restora­tion. It is always bet­ter to keep some­thing from break­ing than to fix it once it shat­ters. Reviv­ing the envi­ron­ment once it is degrad­ed is sig­nif­i­cant­ly more dif­fi­cult than keep­ing it healthy. In the process of restora­tion, work­ers have to address under­ly­ing issues affect­ing the area, such as ero­sion, dis­ease and inva­sive species. Even so, a restora­tion project is not con­sid­ered a suc­cess until the ecosys­tem reach­es its repro­duc­tive­ly mature stage, mean­ing it can take decades or even cen­turies to ver­i­fy the effec­tive­ness of the project, dur­ing which time all of the progress ini­tial­ly made must be maintained.

Bal­anc­ing Ecol­o­gy and Economy
Beyond these chal­lenges, ecol­o­gists must decide how to make an area sus­tain­able and at the same time allow for human activ­i­ties, such as eco­nom­ic enter­pris­es, and changes in glob­al sys­tems, such as cli­mate change. In com­plex sites — areas that con­tain numer­ous, inter­con­nect­ed land­scapes, such as urban areas or riv­er sys­tems — restor­ers often have to arti­fi­cial­ly fol­low the path of eco­log­i­cal suc­ces­sion, a gen­er­al pat­tern of ecosys­tem devel­op­ment that begins with the cre­ation of soil and ends with a ful­ly matured habitat.

Aron­son says there are lim­its to what restora­tion can accomplish.

We are aim­ing to restore the degrad­ed ecosys­tem as far as is pos­si­ble,” he says. We are not naïve dream­ers try­ing to set the clock back to 1821, or 1621 or 1491. You can’t turn the clock back; the cli­mate is chang­ing and species are going extinct. But we can learn from the past and we can take examples.”

The Gond­wana Link in south­west­ern Aus­tralia is one of the EHN’s com­plex net­work sites. This 1,000-kilometer piece of land con­tains var­i­ous types of ecosys­tems, includ­ing semi-arid wood­lands, an inland desert and tall forests, and is meant to pro­vide an exam­ple of how eco­log­i­cal restora­tion and preser­va­tion leads to vis­i­ble envi­ron­men­tal progress. Human eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties, such as com­mer­cial agri­cul­ture, led to habi­tat frag­men­ta­tion and degra­da­tion that sev­er­al projects are now try­ing to restore. Con­ser­va­tion groups and local part­ners are replant­i­ng large gaps of bar­ren soil with native shrub­bery, known as inter­me­di­ate species in the pat­tern of eco­log­i­cal suc­ces­sion. These areas are then mon­i­tored for the suc­cess­ful estab­lish­ment of the rein­tro­duced species, in some places for a length of 10 years and run­ning. The Gond­wana Link hopes to even­tu­al­ly estab­lish a cli­max com­mu­ni­ty, the end-goal of eco­log­i­cal suc­ces­sion where plant pop­u­la­tions are matured and able to sup­port a vari­ety of ani­mal life.

This del­i­cate process of recre­at­ing an ecosys­tem demands the cohab­i­ta­tion of nat­ur­al and human sys­tems. With a per­pet­u­al­ly chang­ing cli­mate, ecol­o­gists work­ing on restora­tion projects face the daunt­ing task of deter­min­ing how to assist an ecosys­tem so it can become inde­pen­dent and sta­ble with­out human interference.

The intent of restora­tion is not to recre­ate the area as it appeared before humans degrad­ed it, which would only result in its even­tu­al col­lapse when human activ­i­ties once again dam­aged it. Instead, ecol­o­gists endeav­or to use his­tor­i­cal mod­els to turn the area into a sus­tain­able ver­sion of itself that can sur­vive the effects of humans. The EHN also orga­nizes work­shops and meet­ings to raise the envi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness in the human com­mu­ni­ties around the net­work sites.

Thanks to eco­log­i­cal restora­tion, this area of the Gond­wana Link in south­west­ern Aus­tralia is on its way to again becom­ing a mature for­est. (Pho­to cour­tesy of the Eco­Health Network)

Healthy Plan­et, Healthy People
The Eco­Health Network’s mis­sion extends beyond try­ing to undo the envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion caused by peo­ple. The group empha­sizes the rela­tion­ship between peo­ple and nature: Harm­ing nature harms humans while heal­ing the envi­ron­ment restores both human and eco­log­i­cal health. Thus, the EHN focus­es on both restor­ing the Earth and build­ing a cul­ture of con­ser­va­tion that pro­motes the preser­va­tion of restora­tive projects.

Madeleine Scam­mell, who teach­es envi­ron­men­tal health at the Boston Uni­ver­si­ty School of Pub­lic Health, spoke in May at the Eco­Health Network’s work­shop at the Mis­souri Botan­i­cal Garden.

More and more peo­ple are rec­og­niz­ing that there are impor­tant social, envi­ron­men­tal, and eco­nom­ic deter­mi­nants of health that are all inter­con­nect­ed,” Scam­mell says. It is becom­ing clear­er that with cli­mate change and rapid destruc­tion of our envi­ron­ment, we need to all work togeth­er to restore ecosys­tems so they can with­stand the effects of cli­mate change and sup­port human life.”

The EHN is com­mit­ted to edu­cat­ing peo­ple on this con­nec­tion between envi­ron­men­tal and human health in hopes of cre­at­ing a restora­tive cul­ture” where human inter­ests reflect envi­ron­men­tal con­cern. They active­ly encour­age pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­als and ecol­o­gists to work togeth­er to address the com­bined con­cern of human and envi­ron­men­tal health.

EHN’s Orlan­do also teach­es envi­ron­men­tal health at the Boston Uni­ver­si­ty School of Pub­lic Health. I think of eco­log­i­cal restora­tion as gen­er­at­ing health,” she says. This lack of bio­di­ver­si­ty is a human health con­cern, whether it be bio­di­ver­si­ty in our gut micro­bio­me or our sur­round­ing area. Many of us, as a glob­al cul­ture, are des­per­ate­ly try­ing to address the cli­mate cri­sis and loss of bio­di­ver­si­ty. And one of the things that links all of it is our own health.”

Few stud­ies have focused on the effects of eco­log­i­cal restora­tion on human health. In areas that are home to mines or incin­er­a­tors, the pur­pose of restora­tion exceeds the beau­ti­fi­ca­tion of a park. It direct­ly impacts socioe­co­nom­ic inequal­i­ty where poor envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions and pover­ty have con­tributed to tox­ic atmos­pheres and poor health. Accord­ing to the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion (WHO), 98 per­cent of cities in mid­dle- and low- income coun­tries have pol­lu­tion lev­els that exceed WHO’s guide­lines and the orga­ni­za­tion esti­mates that out­door air pol­lu­tion caus­es 4.2 mil­lion pre­ma­ture deaths per year. 

For this rea­son, researcher Mar­tin Breed works in pover­ty-strick­en areas where his work with var­i­ous restora­tion projects has tan­gi­ble health results. Breed high­lights the impact of envi­ron­men­tal health on areas of low socioe­co­nom­ic status.

One of the issues in the world is that there are social equi­ty issues with access and expo­sure to bio­di­ver­si­ty,” he says. Most places that are rel­a­tive­ly poor tend to have low­er lev­els of bio­di­ver­si­ty. At the same time, peo­ple in areas that are rel­a­tive­ly poor have poor­er health expectations.”

In these regions, eco­log­i­cal restora­tion can tru­ly be a mat­ter of life and death. Breed, who co-leads the Healthy Urban Micro­bio­me Ini­tia­tive (HUMI) and the Fron­tiers of Restora­tion Ecol­o­gy (FORE), works to incor­po­rate both human health and envi­ron­men­tal projects into ini­tia­tives that cre­ate healthy liv­ing con­di­tions for peo­ple in degrad­ed envi­ron­ments. His work with the human micro­bio­me, genomics, and bio­di­ver­si­ty demon­strates how healthy ecosys­tems make healthy people.

HUMI bridges the gap between envi­ron­men­tal health and over­all human well­ness. Its main focus is to look at the role of bio­di­ver­si­ty in cities to under­stand the link between this and human health via the micro­bio­me,” says Breed. As peo­ple, we evolved in a place that was real­ly bio­di­verse, and when we live in cities we lose a lot of diversity.”

In a time when cli­mate change is a glar­ing con­cern, these solu­tions could pro­vide a course of action for humans to heal the plan­et and them­selves. The EHN plans to achieve this by spread­ing ideas and envi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness through work­shops and meet­ings, as well as con­nect­ing long-term project sites such as the WLNP and Gond­wana Link. The goal is to cre­ate a vast net­work of expe­ri­ence and resources and, ulti­mate­ly, restore in humans a cul­ture of con­ser­va­tion and restoration.

Breed believes the time to act is now.

It’s a glob­al chal­lenge,” he says. There’s no coun­try in the world that is immune from these non­com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases, which are symp­to­matic of west­ern, urban­ized lifestyles. This is the right moment to actu­al­ly do some­thing. The time of more research, of com­plete­ly fig­ur­ing out the mech­a­nisms — that’s over.”

Amaya Mikolič-Berrios was a 2019 sum­mer vol­un­teer for In These Times. She is a junior in high school in Trum­bull, Connecticut.
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