Conservation and ecology: critical for Public Health in the 21st century

Research output: Contribution to Newspaper/Magazine/BulletinArticle


The environment is so fundamental for our health and wellbeing that it is sobering to know how relatively little health research engages with the complexity of functioning ecosystems. It is only relatively recently that the ‘environment’ moved beyond being a source of health risks, including microbes, pollution or climate change in most health training and assessments. It is more recently again that we have started to measure the negative impacts of operating health systems and achieving health on the environment, including biodiversity.

The predicament of the disconnect between people and “Nature” is intuitively recognised by many but the science, policy and ways to address it – both as an individual and society, and in ways that will have global impact- are still emerging. This has become an urgent task. The 2021 State of Environment (SOE) Report findings were sobering and flag the challenges of single sectorial approaches:

“Our inability to adequately manage pressures will continue to result in species extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem condition, which are reducing the environmental capital on which current and future economies depend… Australia currently lacks a framework that delivers holistic environmental management to integrate our disconnected legislative and institutional national, state and territory systems, and break down existing barriers to stimulate new models and partnerships for innovative environmental management and financing.”

This is not just an issue for Australia.

This is not a problem that can be addressed by the environment sector alone. The listed key drivers in the SOE Report – climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction- are driven by people, still increasing in numbers and needs, inequitable distribution and a global economic model of growth.

While the prospect of tackling that level of complexity is daunting, possibly a distraction from the immediate needs of a threatened species or community, ignoring it may render any local progress short lived. This is reflected in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (Convention of Biological Diversity) released last year. Although best noted for its call to increase protection of terrestrial and marine ecosystems to 30% by 2030 (“30 by 30”) most targets address drivers such as pollution, climate change, (un)sustainable consumption and agriculture, aquaculture, forestry, wild species trade and harvesting, invasive species and investment in urban green and blue spaces.

These drivers are increasingly the same as threats to human health and wellbeing expressed by the World Health Organisation, the UN Sustainable Development Goals or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They are also variably articulated as challenges to ‘Planetary Health’ , ‘One Health’ or other integrated health approaches. They are issues of concern in Australia’s (first) National Health and Medical Research Centre special initiative into health and environmental change.

Who needs to be at the table for ‘holistic environmental management’ in Australia? Do we have the right evidence base to drive good policy?

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is an independent intergovernmental body linked to the UN system, founded in 2012. It has steadily progressed from auditing regional and global biodiversity and what is also referred to as ‘natures contributions to people’ (e.g. to providing policy relevant evidence to address pressures. The current assessments explore a nexus approach to maximising positive interlinkages between biodiversity, food and agriculture, water, climate mitigation and adaptation, and health and wellbeing – sourcing useful examples from around the globe to assist relevant sectors; the drivers of and motives behind broad societal changes and transitions to inform the design of relevant policies, communication and engagement campaigns to bring about transformative change for the conservation, restoration and wise use of biodiversity taking into account broader social and economic goals in the context of sustainable development; and the impact and dependence of business on biodiversity.

While Australia arguably underutilises the work of IPBES, IPBES draws on the expertise of Australians and the evidence generated from important work and research done in this country, as it does globally. Importantly IPBES is committed to enhancing recognition of and working with indigenous and local knowledge and knowledge holders including through the development of specific participatory mechanisms. This is an area where even more contribution from first Nation Australians could be sought. IPBES recognises not only the harm done to Nature but to those to whom the relationship is not disconnected and seeks, respectfully, to draw on that wisdom.

Despite the great resources of this knowledge and that these and other such reports do and will provide there continue to be knowledge gaps and new questions that require answers. The world is changing. Some of these questions are best answered by evaluation of interventions that test no-regret solutions in the face of much uncertainty– for threatened species and increasingly threatened people, assessing trade-offs and synergies across sectors so that we challenge ignorance or simplistic assumptions. We have traditionally valued excellence within disciplines, including ecology. However, there is a pressing need to value the ecology of sustainable health, food, urban planning, livelihoods and to develop a holistic environmental management plan for Australia that manages pressures because our health and wellbeing depends on it.

Ro McFarlane is Discipline Lead for Public Health at the University of Canberra and a Coordinating Lead Author for the IPBES Nexus Assessment. She began her career as a veterinarian and natural resource manager.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages3
Specialist publicationEcological Society of Australia Bulletin
PublisherEcological Society of Australia
Publication statusPublished - 7 Sept 2023


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