Civilization is in jeopardy says Richard Horton. (Photo: Dickey Center for International Understanding)

A Health Warning Guaranteed to Jolt You


Submitted 2 years ago
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Lee Michaelides

The long running series of New Yorker cartoons featuring a shaggy prophet with an “End is Near” sign doesn’t seem funny after hearing Dr. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, speak at Dartmouth’s symposium on "Global Health in the Era of De-Globalization."

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Horton’s talk, “Planetary Health: Perils and Possibilities for Human Civilization," was heavy on perils. 

“This is not just a climate crisis,” Horton said. “The fate of civilization is at stake.  My unit of concern is the health of human civilization and the natural systems we depend on." 

Horton is not some random crank spewing fake news. The man is a major player in the arena of world health. His honors include the Edinburgh Medal (2007) for scientific and professional contributions to the understanding and well-being of humanity and a recognition of contributions to public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2009.

Horton believes that the planet entered a new geological epoch when human activity emerged as the dominant influence on climate and the environment. This new epoch is called the anthropocene era. Horton places the era's start precisely at 5:29 AM on July 16, 1945—the time the world's first atomic bomb was detonated. 

Using a series of charts and scatter graphs, Horton illustrated how human systems are failing to meet the challenge of this new era. Two years ago The Lancet, in conjunction with the Rockefeller Foundation published a report on planetary health. Among the conclusions— humans have never been healthier but to reach this point humans have put unprecedented stress on the earth’s natural systems. Click here to read the full report.

Compounding the problem is the Trump administration's plan to pull the United States back from its leadership role in science.  “We’re living in a moment when science is under attack and vital partnerships developed over the last decades are being threatened,” said Horton.

Other symposium participants also viewed a retreat by the U.S. from the world stage as a major mistake.

“All global health is local and all local health is global,” said Dr. Martin Cetron, Director of Global Migration and Quarantine at the Centers for Disease Control. “We can’t change how fast people and things move around the world — even in the era of de-globalization.”

Cetron, one of a dozen world-health experts who participated in the symposium, offered this example: There was a flu outbreak in Mexico in 2009. Within 6 weeks the disease spread to 122 countries. “People are going to move no matter what other people say about closed borders,” said Cetron.

Horton says that human institutions, both private and governmental must work together to keep the planet and its people healthy. He challenged his mostly academic audience to step up. “Publishing papers in a medical journal isn’t much use if we don’t do something about it,” he said.

Horton pointed to the University of Sydney’s creation of the world’s first professor of planetary health last October as an example schools should follow

Planetary health, as described by the university, “is a multi-disciplinary field founded on the interconnectedness of human and natural systems. It recognizes that human advancement and economic development impose heavy burdens on natural systems and that global patterns of human production and consumption are unsustainable.”

Then Horton put the question directly to Dartmouth president Phil Hanlon.  “Who will be the first professor of planetary health at Dartmouth College?”

Required Viewing: The Dickey Center posted Dr. Horton's talk on Youtube.

Required Reading: Dr. Horton urged his audience to read Climate Change and the Health of Nations by Anthony McMichael. Horton describes the recently published book as "the Silent Spring of our generation" —referring to the landmark volume on environmentalism written by Rachel Carson in 1962. 


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