What can planetary health tell us about COVID-19?

The pandemic raises a number of significant questions concerning social, economic and environmental systems. Many wonder why we were so poorly prepared, why some communities have been disproportionally affected and how our systems may look once we return to ‘normal’, although I question whether we actually want to return to this. We are facing an unprecedented crisis and whilst the world focuses on tackling the impacts of the virus, some individuals have begun questioning its origins.

Earlier this year, scientists from the World Health Organisation (WHO) were finally granted access – albeit limited – to China for investigations. They are ruling nothing out but current evidence is inconclusive. What we do know is that COVID-19 is a newly-emerged zoonotic disease and DNA evidence suggests the virus was first transmitted to humans from bats through pangolins as an intermediate host. Some reports suggests factory farming or wildlife markets may have facilitated this transmission although the exact route remains unclear at present.

Transmission of this kind is by no means a unique incident. In fact, two-thirds of emerging infectious diseases affecting humans have a wildlife origin and it has been reported that the frequency of spill-over events has been increasing in recent years.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that human activities may be responsible for this increase. A 2016 report from the UN stated that such emergence is often associated with changes to the environment or ecological disturbances, including agricultural intensification and encroachments into forests and other habitats as these activities create opportunities for pathogens to spill-over from animals to people. Land-use change is cited as the most significant driver of past disease emergence and climate change (a global crisis in itself) is a factor of growing concern.

The relatively new field of planetary health highlights the connections between the health of our planet and human health. Scientists have been warning us for years that the next pandemic could arise from deforestation. As forests are exploited for logging, mining and pasture land, these once traditional buffer zones which previously separated humans from animals (along with the pathogens they harbour) are remarkably reduced or lost altogether.

Past examples of diseases emerging from human activity include avian influenza (bird flu) which was linked with intensive poultry farming and Ebola which occurred after contact increased between wildlife and human settlements following the loss of forests in West Africa.

It is likely that the incidence of newly-emerging diseases will continue to increase unless we change how we interact with nature. Exploiting exotic animals for trade, raising livestock in intensive conditions, urbanisation and encroachment into wild areas all increase the risk of transmission.

Some experts suggest that prevention is better than the cure. Dr Peter Daszak, president of Ecohealth Alliance – a charity that monitors the emergence of infectious diseases – said that “If we could deal with the trade in wildlife and deforestation we wouldn’t need to stop an outbreak… we would have already dealt with it.”

There remains hope that we will learn some valuable lessons from this pandemic and begin to work more collectively to protect nature and people. Preventative measures are already starting to be enforced. For example, China implemented a ban on all wildlife trade and consumption last year (although this ban contained significant loopholes). They also removed pangolin scales from their official list of traditional medicine ingredients and in a crackdown mission, Chinese authorities reportedly shut down 20,000 illegal farms raising livestock ranging from peacocks to porcupines. Vietnam also announced a ban on all trade of pangolins and it is hoped that other countries will take more action.

COVID-19 shows us that protecting our natural world is now more important than ever. We need to allow ecosystems to not only function, but thrive without interference or destruction. The services they provide are vital for the health of animals and for us. With billions of us still living under some sort of lockdown, I hope that we may use this time to reflect on what is important and consider a future which prioritises people and planet over profit.

Did lockdown really help us to reconnect with nature?

Generation indoors has a real problem; it’s disconnect with nature. Children today spend half as much time playing outdoors as their parents did and more than 70% report that they rarely engage with nature, for example through watching clouds, butterflies or bees. This phenomenon is not just exclusive to young people, however. The same study found that, in the past year, most adults had never or rarely smelled wild flowers or listened to birdsong.

Although we witnessed a renewed interest in nature during lockdown, there was also a surge in littering and wildlife-damaging behaviour. Campaigners are concerned that once we return to a more normal way of life, the connections that were made could be lost. Furthermore, with the message to “stay at home” enduring for many months, the so-called ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ may have been exacerbated during the pandemic, especially for vulnerable individuals told to shield and children living in urbanised environments as schools and parks closed.

Access to greenspace has become somewhat of a privilege. Whilst the area and quality of nature is declining, there are simultaneously a number of socio-cultural factors which create barriers to accessing what remains. These include physical (either through distance or disability), psychological (such as concerns for safety which particularly affect women, young people and ethnic minority groups) and financial (through a lack of funds for travel or entrance fees or due to time constraints). You may be wondering what the significance of this unequal access is. To answer this, we must look at what we can gain by spending time in nature.

Firstly, are the obvious physical and health benefits. Studies have shown that connecting with nature, can reduce blood pressure, reduce the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses and promote faster healing. Nature can also benefit our mental health by reducing anxiety, improving mood and increasing self-esteem. Some research even suggests that the presence of trees in urban neighbourhoods can reduce incidences of violence. I am not advocating that trees will end violence, but these studies highlight just how calming nature is and how central it is to our wellbeing.

Besides the health benefits, connecting to nature can help us to feel empowered to protect it. The State of Nature report reveals that 60% of UK species have experienced decline in recent decades and one study found that individuals who regularly spend time in nature were more likely to take action to tackle this wildlife crisis. Thus, by improving access to greenspace and people’s connection with nature, we can improve health, help address mental health issues and ensure nature remains available for future generations to enjoy, all of which will be vital for a sustainable COVID-19 recovery. For many, lockdown has been an important reminder on how much we need nature and I hope this continues.

RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch

What is it?

The Big Garden Birdwatch is the UK’s largest citizen science project. Established over 40 years ago, it takes place in late January and asks members of the public to carry out a bird count in their garden or local park. Around half a million people take part each year and due to lockdown, participation is expected to boom this year (one of the few silver linings of being stuck at home).

Why is citizen science important?

Besides being a great way to engage with local wildlife – I spotted species that I have not previously noticed – and help boost your mood during the winter (I can’t express how excited I was when the robin finally found our makeshift bird table!), projects like this have really important scientific value. Citizen science allows researchers to collect huge amounts of data that would otherwise not be possible and monitor widespread trends. For example, the Big Garden Birdwatch has shown that song thrushes, which were amongst the top ten species during the first survey in 1979, have seen their numbers decline by 76%. This data collection enables us to spot problems and importantly, inform conservation work to protect species.

My results

During the one-hour survey I spotted 24 birds from 11 different species. Not bad for a small garden!

Survey results submitted to RSPB. The missing 11th species I counted was a starling.

The Big Garden Birdwatch 2021 has now finished but if you are interested in participating in other citizen science projects then THIS ARTICLE has some great suggestions on where to get started.

Could a Natural History GCSE help children reconnect with nature?

In recent years, it has become clear that whilst young people are highly engaged with environmental issues, the current school curriculum is failing to encourage a connection with nature. Today, with 83% of the UK population living in urban areas and technology dominating much of our lives, the education system favours technical subjects over those about the natural world. Consequently, awareness of even common species is very low. In 2002, a UK study of 8 year olds found that fewer than half could recognise an oak tree.

The concerning lack of knowledge and appreciation for nature amongst young people recently prompted campaigners to call for an educational reform. The result was a proposed GCSE in Natural History which, if approved, could be introduced for teaching in UK schools later this year. The course, which was first suggested by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and nature writer Mary Colwell, would aim to teach students about organisms in their natural environment, along with conservation and observational field skills. In contrast to Biology, which focuses on living processes, Natural History would focus on ‘what the living world is’ giving a more holistic view.

One of the key aims of the course would be to help young people feel more connected to nature. This would not only have benefits for their physical and mental wellbeing but research has also found that individuals who feel connected to nature are more likely to demonstrate pro-environmental behaviours and take action. Without some sort of education, we run the risk of creating a world of adults who lack the information and drive to protect nature which, when it is rapidly declining, is of great concern.

Whilst the plans for the course sound promising, they have not been without their criticism. Many argue that, if schools are well-resourced then education about nature and the encouragement to connect with it should already be covered by the science curriculum. Another issue is that by the time children sit their GCSEs, these lessons may be too late. Research by the RSPB found that only one in five 8-12 year olds exhibited a reasonable level of connection to nature so we likely need to be learning about it and encouraging engagement at a much earlier age. And finally, is adding another qualification to the list really the right way to engage with nature or should we be approaching this completely differently?


David Attenborough’s New Year’s speech gave us hope that 2021 could be the year to turn things around and this GCSE could be a small part of the solution. There are clearly wider socio-economic issues that need addressing in order to help people reconnect with nature but if we have the opportunity to teach young people more about the natural world and inspire them to look after it, then I welcome it.  

Sustainability Calendar 2021

One of my goals for 2021 is to be more organised with this blog! To get started with this, I researched International Days and awareness campaigns regarding environmental and sustainable development issues. After struggling to find a comprehensive list of events that included both ecological and social themes, I decided to compile my own and have created this calendar (because who wants to look at more spreadsheets?) which I am making publicly available. Click the button below to download for free!

N.B. Feel free to share this but please credit the original source and be aware that some dates for events are awaiting confirmation (for such events this is noted by a ‘TBC’).

What is eco-anxiety and how to deal with it?

Eco-anxiety, or climate-anxiety, is often described as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”. It stems from humans’ destructive relationship with nature and concerns for the future with the threat of human-induced climate change and ecological breakdown.

Specific fears may relate to awareness of a rising risk of extreme weather events, loss of unique habitats and species and threats to livelihoods and housing which may result in the displacement of millions of climate refugees.  

Whilst it is not recognised as a mental health disorder in its own right, the symptoms of eco-anxiety can overlap with disorders such as generalised anxiety and depression. It can cause feelings of loss and grief, hopelessness, guilt and even physical symptoms such as insomnia and exhaustion.

This is something that and many others concerned about the environment can relate to. Sometimes I feel like my actions aren’t enough to make a difference when giant corporations continue carelessly polluting and governments fail to regulate them.

My feelings were recently cemented when I witnessed the simple act of someone littering. I broke down crying as it made me feel that everything good I was trying to do was pointless with people like that around, using the Earth as their rubbish bin.

Another way eco-anxiety can be described is through the concept of solastalgia. Coined by the philosopher Glen Albrecht in 2005, solastalgia means a kind of ‘homesickness’ for the environment the way it used to be. As we continue to lose beautiful places, animals and resources belonging to the natural world, we can feel a sense of loss for what once was.

However we choose to describe eco-anxiety, the phenomena is rising, particularly in the younger generation. A recent survey by the environmental charity Global Action Plan revealed that 77% of young people feel anxious when thinking about climate change.

I recently attended a webinar on eco-anxiety, hosted by Wiltshire Council and delivered by climate psychologist Caroline Hickman. When I asked why we had seen a rise in recent years, she said “I think eco-anxiety has not so much increased, what’s increased is it’s come into conscious awareness”. She was very clear in saying that climate strikers were not causing anxiety but were “giving voice to the anxiety that young people have been feeling for a very long time”.

But it’s not all doom and gloom! The webinar was very reassuring confirming that these feelings arising from eco-anxiety are normal responses that help us deal with some of the terrible things that are happening (and remember that a lot of good is happening too). They also allow us to empathise, connect with people who share the same concerns and even motivate us to take action. In fact Hickman says these feelings “will give us the impetus to act, nothing else will”.

Communication is key and we need to support each other. Talking to friends and family as well as people I’ve met through my course and volunteering has been really helpful for me as it provides the opportunity to share any worries and discuss individual solutions and coping mechanisms. I can also see all the effort that lots of other passionate people are making to help the environment and I feel better knowing I am part of that positive change.

Sometimes things can be overwhelming and if you are struggling to cope, please seek help but know that you are not alone and we are all in this together.

For further information and advice:

Fast fashion: Lessons from a textiles sorter

After starting my Sustainability degree, I needed a part-time job and whilst I could have gone back to working for a supermarket, I wanted something a bit different that would complement my studies. That’s when I came across an opportunity for a Stock Sorter for a local charity and I got the job!

The job involved working in an enormous warehouse, where piles of sorted stock may be eight or ten meters high. Each day, I would sort through hundreds, if not thousands, of donated garments. Whilst some items are potentially very saleable and help to generate profit for charities, only 10% of clothing donations to charity shops end up being sold there.

Occasionally I would come across some valuable items including a pair of brand new Gucci fur boots and a vintage Diane von Furstenberg skirt but the overwhelming majority were of poor quality and from fast fashion brands. And if you’re wondering why shops can’t sell even the clothes that are in good condition and on-trend, answer this; Why would anyone pay £2 for a used Primark top when you can buy it new for the same price?

Whilst we like to think that these unsalable items ends up being recycled or given to the less fortunate, this is rarely the case. Textiles are notoriously difficult to recycle (currently only 1% of clothing is recycled) due to widespread use of mixed fibres and the sheer volume of fashion waste. As an example, it would take H&M 12 years to recycle what they produce in just a few hours! This would also consume unthinkable amounts of energy and other resources. For this reason, recycling is not the answer.

Instead, these items are ‘ragged’ and the majority is sold overseas. This however, is not so much of a solution; it just transfers the problem to someone else.

There is a false perception that people living in developing countries are unclothed and need our hand-me-downs from the West. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Countries that import our old clothes are drowning in them! Where it was once possible to make a decent living from selling “obroni wawu” (Ghanaian phrase meaning clothes of the dead white man), it is becoming ever-more challenging. Many of the stallholders in these second-hand markets are simply unable to shift the endless pile of poor quality garments and consequently many end up being burned or dumped.

My job as a Sorter was a huge learning curve for me. I have been aware of the issues associated with new clothing for some time but I had never really considered what happens to clothes at the end of their lives. The scale of waste generated by the fashion industry is immeasurable and addressing it will require significant systemic change. As individuals we can help by consuming less, buying second-hand or from more sustainable brands where possible, only buying clothes that we love and learning to repair them so that they last a life-time.

For further information, check out these resources:

Homemade deodorant recipe

It’s well-known that conventional deodorants and antiperspirants contain a whole host of potentially harmful chemicals, including aluminium which is thought to cause cancer and parabens which can interfere with our hormones.

I made the swap to natural deodorant about a year ago and used to buy them from health food shops. I liked that I was supporting small businesses but this could be quite pricey, with one pot costing between £6-8. To save money, I decided to experiment with making my own and found this recipe works well.

It’s super cheap, uses four simple ingredients which have antibacterial properties and keeps you smelling fresh all day. Say goodbye to nasty aerosol fumes and hello to your favourite essential oils. Unlike conventional antiperspirants, this does not interrupt with your body’s natural processes and allows you skin to breath.

For this deodorant, you will need the following four ingredients:

  • Coconut oil
  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Arrowroot powder
  • Essential oils (optional)

To make enough for a small tin, which should last around 3-4 months:

  1. Mix equal measures (two tablespoons) of bicarbonate of soda and arrowroot powder
  2. Add one tablespoon of coconut oil. This works best at room temperature so that the oil can mix easily
  3. Add around 10 drops of essential oil – I like to use organic lavender oil
  4. Once fully mixed, transfer it to an air-tight container or tin and leave it in a cool area to set

Note that the consistency of this deodorant changes depending on the temperature. If left somewhere hot it will become a liquid and if cold can become very solid and difficult to use. If this happens, simply rub a small bit between two fingers until it softens and can be easily applied. You could also use a clean ice cream stick as a spatula if you find this helps.

How every council can tackle climate change

In December last year, Frome Town Council declared a climate change emergency and made a commitment to going zero carbon by 2030. This news was welcome to the growing number of environmentally-conscious individuals among us however, as other councils follow suit by making these bold declarations, the public can be left wondering what plans are actually in place and whether any action will follow. For the past ten weeks, I have been volunteering with Frome Town Council, working under the guide of their Resilience Manager (one of only a few in the country). During this period, I have been exposed to a number of projects the council have established in response to tackling climate change and for the first time, I have felt some faith in how the government is dealing with these issues, at least at a local level.

I have been primarily focussing on the Plastic Free Communities campaign; an initiative run by Surfers Against Sewage that encourages towns to reduce their use of single-use plastics and invest in more sustainable alternatives. Although not so much of a climate change issue, this is still a major environmental issue. With an estimated 8 million tonnes entering the oceans each year, plastic pollution threatens wildlife, costal scenery as well as our own health through the accumulation of microplastics. We can also reduce our carbon footprint by choosing to invest in reusable products instead of buying hundreds or thousands of disposable ones over a lifetime. The council have overseen this campaign and whilst volunteering, we have managed to get twelve businesses signed up and have awarded them with a plastic free campions plaque.

Frome was the first town in the UK to create a community fridge – an idea which has since spread across the country. The aim of the fridge is to divert excess food from going to waste and instead share it with the community. The fridge is open to everyone and is non-judgemental, removing the stigma associated with a food bank and making food more accessible to those in need. Besides the social benefits, community fridges offer a solution to the growing problem of food waste. Each year in the UK, we send over 7 million tonnes to landfill. When this breaks downs, it releases methane – a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change. Sharing food is a great way of tackling this.

Another UK first for Frome was SHARE. Described as a ‘library of things’, SHARE is a shop where people can borrow items that are only needed once or infrequently. For example, the average drill is only used for thirteen minutes. Instead of forking out for a new one, residents in Frome can borrow one for just a few pounds. During the placement, I volunteered in SHARE every Friday afternoon. Each week is different. One day you may be erecting a tent to check it has the right poles, another you are making a trip to the recycling centre to dispose of the cardboard boxes from all the new items that have arrived. I spent most of my time, updating the online inventory and serving customers. The locals love the shop and the membership base is pretty staggering for such a small town.

In terms of a more direct response to climate change, Frome has established several projects. Firstly, the town runs a scheme where residents can have solar panels installed at a significantly reduced cost. The council promotes greener travel through the use of ebikes and hybrid cars that available for hire. They have also overseen the installation of electric car charging points. Whether Frome will be carbon zero (whatever this means) by 2030 is uncertain but what is certain is that they are a model for other towns. There is a real sense of community here – the people have pride in their town and this is reflected in the things that go on. I hope that as other towns declare climate change emergencies, they look to Frome for inspiration.

Greenwashing

Greenwashing has increased over recent years as the public have become more aware of environmental issues. The practice involves companies making misleading claims by marketing their products or services as environmentally friendly. Of course, even if something has been produced sustainably, the most sustainable option is to buy nothing at all! Ultimately, every product comes with some level of environmental cost. Whilst many of these products may be very aesthetically pleasing (and certainly Instagram-worthy), many are unnecessary and you can make use of items you already have at home.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Use containers you already own to store food both at home and on the go. We’ve built up quite a collection of takeaway tubs in our house – these are perfect for taking lunch into uni.
  2. Take stainless steel cutlery with you. A bonus of not buying a bamboo set is that others won’t mistake it for being disposable!
  3. Reuse old plastic bags when shopping. I do own a couple of tote bags but I find that it’s always handy to carry a spare bag – plastic ones are super light and take up little room.
  4. Keep hold of glass jars for food storage (I hope to have a pantry full of these one day). There is no need to buy new ones and this saves the energy that would be used in the recycling process.
  5. Keep hold of gift tins/ boxes. Some of these are really pretty and can be useful for keeping bits and bobs in – I like to use these for makeup and toiletries
  6. Buy less paper. Keeping hold of scraps to write to-do lists on will save you money and trees.