From ostriches to carrier pigeons

Yannish Jones Naik, Public health specialty registrar (writing in a personal capacity)

Published in JHH12.2 – Works that reconnect

As part of my Master’s in Public Health I wrote a policy brief on whether a rights[1]based approach to nature could help protect it and in turn protect human health. The more I have learnt about the topic the more concerned I have become about the future state of our environment, and the more certain I am that radical shifts in our global approach will be required to minimise human harm. I hope to provide a balanced view of the potential offered by a rights based approach.

The environment and human harm

This paper explores the evidence surrounding the potentially devastating health impacts of environmental damage and the urgent need for a rights-based approach to protecting the planet. Like ostriches burying our heads in the sand, health professionals mostly do not speak out on environmental issues. Although there have been calls for a new model of thought which fully embraces the ecological realm (Lang et al 2012), the environmental issues are broad and complex, and the people who will suffer most harm are outside our immediate awareness. Consequently it is easier to focus on dealing with individual patients and the daily workload. Nor do most of us have the skills for lobbying on policy even if, with such complex issues as the environment, it was clear what we would be lobbying for. Yet as trusted professionals we are in a privileged position and could be important advocates for the health of whole current and future generations.

Climate change

The fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report gives an up-to-date review of the scientific evidence on the impact of climate change – caused by human greenhouse gas emissions – on health (Smith et al 2014). The authors state with confidence that climate change will make existing health issues worse, make fires and heat waves more common, cause crop failures that result in widespread malnutrition and lead to increases in food, water and vector-borne diseases. While they highlight some possible health gains, the negative impacts are forecast to be far greater. A Lancet commission goes even further, concluding that ‘climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’ (Costello et al 2009) and that it is likely to affect billions of people in the coming years.

Resource wars

The Environmental Justice Foundation’s (EJF) report on climate change and conflict pulls together evidence from government reports, military and security analyses, and scientific models (EJF 2014). It high lights the high risk of international conflict linked with climate change, and the human consequences that could result. Difficult though it may be to forecast events accurately, the key message based on experience and expert opinion is that that climate change will drastically affect health globally. Therefore the EJF proposes that environmental justice be treated as a human rights issue.


The World Wide Fund for Nature has recently reported a decrease in 52% in the Living Planet Index – a marker of biodiversity (WWF 2014). The loss of biodiversity could in turn cause problems for human health: the decline of bee populations due to colony collapse is a clear example. The use of neonicotinoids – a class of very widely used pesticide – is toxic to bees (Hopwood et al 2012), bees that have a crucial role in agriculture as pollinators. So any threat to the global wellbeing of bees will endanger food security worldwide (UN 2014). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is expected to report on the impact of biodiversity loss on food production in 2017.


A recent report underlines the health risks of high volume hydraulic fracturing, a costly process that extracts natural gas from deep underground reserves (Zucker 2014). The review found that pollution from fracking can exacerbate respiratory diseases, and that drilling may contaminate water and soil, and even cause earthquakes. The author points out that though much of the evidence is still relatively exploratory and inconclusive, it is strong enough to recommend a ban until more definitive evidence is available. Meanwhile fracking, while banned in New York, France and Germany, is still under way throughout most of the United States. Testing has begun in the United Kingdom with apparently strong government backing.

 Re-imagining Nature

For the past five years the United Nations has held a series of interactive dialogues focused on harmony with Nature (UN 2014). The goal of this workstream, which regroups nation states, stakeholders and NGOs, is to constitute an international post-2015 development agenda by envisioning ‘the future we want’. Reporting on the fourth dialogue the secretary general stresses how ‘human health is thus inextricably linked to the health of the planet’. Drawing on fields such as earth systems science the report calls attention to the challenges we face as a species; possibly the most meaningful being the need to re-conceive of our relationship with Nature.

Living well with Nature

Would a re-affiliation with Nature confer on her certain rights to exist independent of humans? Just such a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Nature has been proposed by the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN 2011). In Bolivia and Ecuador, the rights of Nature have been enshrined in law as part of a model derived from indigenous values named ‘buen vivir’ (Gudynas, 2011). This ‘living well with Nature’ implies co-existing with the materialistic world view current in most countries, but in the light of social and economic policy changes aimed at improving wellbeing on multiple levels. Some parallel local initiatives have developed community bills of rights to protect Nature from harmful commercial exploitation (see

Andrea Yanez from the Grupo Faro reported on public health policy related to the ‘buen vivir’ model in Ecuador between 2007 and 2011 (Yanez 2013). He suggests that greater social investment (eg an almost threefold increase in state expenditure on healthcare) has reduced poverty levels from 36.7% to 27.3%. Consequently, mortality from intestinal diseases, neonatal deaths, and tuberculosis incidence have declined, though maternal death rates and AIDS mortality rates have risen. While the policy changes are far broader than a simple rights-based approach to Nature, they highlight potential gains from reconceiving our way of life and relationship with Nature. One particular barrier facing these countries remains the need to allow natural resource exploitation in order to invest in public health and social justice (Lembcke 2014).

Beyond anthropocentricity

Nearly 400 years ago the philosopher-statesman and prototypical scientist Francis Bacon declaimed the supremacy of man over Nature (Montuschi 2010). Since the Renaissance, northern nations and western thought have been shaped by the unquestioning idea that Nature revolves around human beings. This assumption is a huge barrier to a Universal Declaration of Nature’s Rights. Many complex agendas – economic growth, austerity imperatives and energy security – mean governments and industry struggle to engage with the idea, knowing that historically Nature’s loss has been their gain.

Yet there are other ways of relating to Nature, and the notion of rights for Nature finds support from many other cultures: Confucian thinking emphasises balance with Nature; respect for Nature is inherent in Norway’s frilufstliv (a lifestyle with a strong emphasis on being outdoors) (Mitten 2009); indigenous cultures worldwide celebrate an Earth-centred spirituality. As a vessel and voice for cultural diversity, the United Nations has been instrumental in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is shaping society today (Innes 2012). The UN will have a central part too in implementing a Universal Declaration of Nature’s Rights.

How might a globally agreed Universal Declaration of Nature’s Rights come about and what would it include? To get a bill of Nature’s rights on the global agenda its advocates will have to gather support and lobby effectively; the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature and local rights-based initiatives will also be invaluable in driving forward the discussion and creating practical examples; conflicts of interest between human needs and Nature’s rights will have to be resolved; mechanisms for enforcing the rights will need to be envisioned; transparent and democratic legal systems with real world power will have to ensure that Nature can be properly protected.

Somehow the whole population will need to get engaged in these processes for this vitally important idea to gain traction. Perhaps the experience of states already grappling with these challenges – Ecuador and Bolivia are examples – will help the world understand the potential impact of Nature-centred policies.


We should take seriously the idea that the Earth is a living system, and that its health depends on its primary processes – the oceans, the soil and the atmosphere. These are our planet’s vital organs, but human overconsumption and destructive actions are now on a scale that violate planetary homeostasis – an ancient, highly evolved, complex dynamic equilibrium fundamental to maintaining all life. If humankind fails to understand this, and continues to disrupt these systems, we will reach a point where the Earth will be unable to sustain further evolution, or human life.

It is already obvious that at the very least our current ways of living will cause more harm and distress in the years to come. If we are to mitigate further damage, we must make a strong ethical case for protecting Nature. This global narrative is ripe for policies to support a more positive relationship with Nature. A Universal Declaration of the Rights of Nature could provide a specific focus and draw support from groups and cultures worldwide.

So let us stop burying our heads in the sand, and instead become carrier pigeons spreading awareness far and wide about environmental destruction and its devastating impacts on human health. Let us demand a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Nature for the sake of our planet, our ecosystems, and the generations of humans to come.

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.’


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