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 naive 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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