Planetary Health Histories

October 2020

Vivian Mannheimer | Manguinhos blog

In the past few years, historians of health have been inspired by the work of environmental historians and used concepts like climate change, pollution,  global warming and Anthropocene — an unofficial unit of geologic time that describes the most recent period in Earth’s history when interventions of human societies damage ecosystems that sustain human life.

The world-first Planetary Health Platform was launched at the University of Sydney in 2017.

These notions describe drastic transformations in the relationship between society and nature that dramatically increased the role played by vectors (usually insects) and primary hosts (usually animals) in several epidemic outbreaks. These notions are also raised by health and environmental activists that believe that their goals are intertwined in a new framework called Planetary Health.

Warwick Anderson and James Dunk are researchers of the history department at the University of Sydney.

Although historical investigations on this framework are few, the interview with Warwick Anderson and James Dunk conducted by Marcos Cueto, (hereafter WA, JD and MC, respectively) explains how an historical perspective can enrich it and provide some key references.

We hope this interview will be useful to those historians of health and historians of the environment willing to join forces in their studies and to those historians interested in a broader framework for their research on the interaction of biology, politics and society.

MC: What is the history of ‘planetary health’? What attracted you to it?

WA: In my experience, finding a new research project is always serendipitous. I’d long been interested in the conceptual history of disease ecology, the effort of some elite infectious disease researchers in the twentieth century to make our understanding of epidemiology, of disease patterns, more realistic biologically, more complex. Since the influenza pandemic in 1918, a number of microbiologists around the world have drawn on evolutionary biology and, later, systems ecology, in order to explain the emergence and spread of novel pathogens. I’ve been writing articles on this since the early 2000s, though the book seems to get deferred each year.

Anyhow, the University of Sydney, where I work, decided about five years ago to establish a planetary health platform and appointed Tony Capon (now at Monash University) as the world’s first professor of planetary health. I had no idea what ‘planetary health’ meant, though it sounded impressive. At the time, jokes along the lines of, ‘What next? galactic health?’ had currency, of course. Well, Tony perceived some potential alliance between my interests in disease ecology and his mysterious research program, so he approached me, and Jamie, and suggested we convene a workshop on history and planetary health. As a result of the interdisciplinary meeting in 2017, I looked further into what turned out to be this new formulation of environmental health on a planetary scale. Most people seem to regard it as a mere supplement to global health, but it seems to me it’s really more closely related to environmental health, just scaled up and framed more systemically. The term ‘planetary health’ emerged in the 1970s, mostly to refer to the health of the planet itself—but by the 1990s, a number of politically engaged epidemiologists were using it to denote the effects of planetary environmental degradation and anthropogenic climate change on the health of human populations. Commitments from the Lancet and the Rockefeller Foundation, and later the Wellcome Trust, gave planetary health added exposure and force. It’s very much a recent phenomenon, but with deep roots, gaining vitality mostly from 2014.

For me, what was particularly compelling about planetary health was its origins in systems ecology and post-World War II planetary thinking, including fears of nuclear apocalypse. Older medical geography had an influence too, but vastly scaled up.

JD: When I first heard of planetary health, I thought it was an odd phrase, too. Was this about the health of the planet? What are the presenting symptoms, and what are the disease pathways they might point to? Aren’t there better metaphors to describe the integrity of the earth’s systems? I’ve come to think that those who have pushed for the new approach, and the language they’ve used to describe it, might not mind the ambiguity in the phrase. The words ‘planetary health’ create a conceptual slippage between the human and the planetary, and between notions of balance and stasis and well-being, which efficiently point to the goal of the new approach. That is to reconfigure human health in its planetary context – that is, embedded in biological or ecological reality, in close relationship with other species and with the biosphere itself.

As I’ve worked further into the subject I’ve been struck by the ambitious vision at the core of planetary health – a planetary, ecological vision of health – which I think distinguishes it from other recent movements in global health. It scales not only between the present and the deep evolutionary past, but between local phenomena (or symptoms) and planetary systems.

MC: Can you tell us more about the challenges of writing a history of planetary health?

WA: I’ve concentrated so far on what I call the conceptual history of planetary health, providing a dispersed, worldwide intellectual genealogy for its current formation. In a sense, I want to trace the cultural history of ideas about environment and health at multiple sites over the past century or more. Not surprisingly, the challenge is to broaden the cast of thinkers about these issues beyond a recognisable coterie of white men. At least, in this case, the white men are often in locations beyond North America and Western Europe, but that doesn’t excuse the supposed paucity of women and absence of Indigenous and non-white thinkers. It goes to show that planetary health, like conservation biology and disease ecology, are still largely well-meaning or restorative sciences of settler colonial societies. I think our main challenge is to decolonise these narratives, to recognise other agents and authors. They’re present, no doubt, but we’re not paying enough attention to them. But Jamie may have additional thoughts on this….

JD: I agree with Warwick. Writing historically about planetary health is a project in planetary history, and it’s always difficult to present a planetary history that is staged in only a few small areas of the planet. Still, the key historical interest is the developing consciousness of the planetary environment of health and illness, and there is an important mid-twentieth century moment in which many in the more developed societies in the world began to worry that their sophisticated technology – including, but not limited to nuclear fission – was making both humans and the earth quite sick.

I was trained as a cultural historian at Sydney, and part of my training was to value, and to delve into, the particular. Historical narratives cannot tell every story at once, and certainly oughtn’t try to. So, in this project we’re looking to tell a story about Western biomedicine pivoting to ecological thinking, and, in a sense, returning to environmentalism. One challenge is to write in such a way that we don’t let the unwieldy scale of the planetary framework – which inclines often into what Timothy Morton in 2013 called ‘hyperobjects’ – obscure the particular narratives of injustice and oppression which, as many have pointed out, have produced our current planetary predicament.

MC: Does planetary health history have anything to offer our understanding of the Covid-19 pandemic?

WA: I suppose that question was inevitable in these circumstances. The issue is addressed in the conclusion of Samuel Myers’ and Howard Frumkin’s recent Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves (2020), to which Jamie and I contributed a historical chapter. As I see it, the fundamental problem is that viral diseases often emerge and spread because of environmental and societal disturbances, which provide new opportunities for microbial evolution and flourishing. This is the basic argument of disease ecology, though different mechanisms for disease emergence have been postulated during the past century, based on different ecological theories. Although we haven’t worked out the details yet, I’m sure that environmental degradation will be a factor in the emergence and enhanced transmission of SARS-CoV-2. But whether climate change itself is directly implicated is hard to know at this stage. I find it intriguing, though, that many of the behaviours that increase carbon emissions, such as intense urbanisation and international air travel, are the same as those promoting viral spread.

JD: There’s also more and more research on the mental health effects of the pandemic itself, and of the public health measures taken around the world to combat it. This is hardly surprising, but I think combined with increase in ecological discussions of health during the pandemic, the result may be that we have a more rounded conversation about the interdependence of human health, social systems, and earth systems. I imagine planetary health will have an important role in that conversation – and indeed I notice The Lancet is calling for papers on this theme.

MC: You raise an interesting subject. Can we talk about a history of planetary mental health? What would that be? What does it add to conventional histories of mental health?

JD: It seems generally acknowledged that mental health is a critical dimension of planetary health, and Susan Clayton has an excellent chapter on the subject in Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves. And yet my impression is that most planetary health approaches seem to concentrate on physical health while noting that the increasing frequency and severity of ‘natural’ disasters, and the conflict and displacement generated by the disruption of earth systems, will register in a plethora of psychological symptoms. This is undoubtedly true, but I am interested in tracing a more thoroughgoing framework for mental health on a disrupted planet. My sense is that a truly planetary mental health will inevitably involve ecological logic – that psychological symptoms in a changing planetary environment involve disordered emotional and intellectual responses to planetary threats framed in ecological terms. So, I am interested in tracing the various ways in which ecology, psychology and psychiatry have intersected, in recent decades, registering new kinds of planetary consciousness and planetary peril.

One of the core aspects, of course, which goes back to your question, is the way that a planetary-scale view, and phenomena like ecological grief and anxiety, call for new consideration in mental health of the supposed, quite hard boundary between the human self and the non-human world. These phenomena suggest a more powerful affinity, even an identity, between species – perhaps a sort of psychological co-dependence. This line of enquiry indicates a significant shift in the history of mental health, as we explore visions of human well-being in what E. O. Wilson has called ‘the age of loneliness’.

 WA: I don’t have much to add to what Jamie just said, except to point out the obvious—obvious at least to any historian of medicine—that perceived connections between environment and health, whether physical or mental health, have a long history in most healing traditions. But environmental determinism or modulation for almost two centuries was displaced and discounted in biomedicine. It never entirely disappeared, as I’ve tried to show in twentieth-century histories of ‘racial’ acclimatisation, medical geography and disease ecology. The supposed relations between milieu and mentality proved particularly durable. Now new visions of environment and health are coming into view, on a different scale and with special urgency. I believe that as historians, and as moral beings, we have a duty to give critical attention to the emerging formation called planetary health.


ANDERSON, Warwick. “Natural Histories of Infectious Disease: Ecological Vision in Twentieth-Century Biomedical Science.” Osiris, 19, 2004, pp. 39-61.

ANDERSON, Warwick. “Postcolonial Ecologies of Parasite and Host: Making Parasitism Cosmopolitan.” J. History of Biology, 49, 2016, pp. 241-59.

ANDERSON, Warwick. “Nowhere to Run, Rabbit: The Cold-War Calculus of Disease Ecology.” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 39, 2017, DOI 10.1007/s40656-017-0140-7.

CLAYTON, Susan, “Mental Health on a Changing Planet.” In MYERS, Samuel; FRUMKIN, Howard, eds. Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves. Washington: Island Press, 2020, pp. 221-44.

DUNK, James; ANDERSON, Warwick. “Assembling Planetary Health: Histories of the Future.” In MYERS, Samuel; FRUMKIN, Howard, eds. Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves. Washington: Island Press, 2020, pp. 17-35.

DUNK, James H.; JONES, David S.; CAPON, Anthony; ANDERSON, Warwick. “Human Health on an Ailing Planet—Historical Perspectives on our Future.” New England J. Medicine, 381, 2019, pp. 778-82.

DUNK, James H.; JONES, David S., “Sounding the Alarm on Climate Change, 1989 and 2019.” New England J. Medicine, 382, 2020, pp. 205-7.

MORTON, Timothy, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

MYERS, Samuel; FRUMKIN, Howard, “A Bright Future for Planetary Health.” In MYERS, Samuel; FRUMKIN, Howard, eds. Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves. Washington: Island Press, 2020, pp. 475-86.

WHITMEE, Sarah, HAINES Andy, BEYRER Chris, et al. “Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch: Report of The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health.” Lancet, 386, 2015, pp. 1973-2028.

WILSON, Edward O., The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

How to cite this article:

ANDERSON, Warwick; DUNK, James; CUETO, Marcos. Planetary Health Histories: Interview with Warwick Anderson and James Dunk. In: Revista História, Ciências, Saúde – Manguinhos (Blog). Published on 3rd Nov. 2020. Available on

Related articles already published in HCS-Manguinhos:

Silva, Sandro Dutra e. Cultura e meio ambiente: o intercâmbio biológico e o cultivo do arroz nas Américas. Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos, Dez 2019, vol.26, suppl.1, p.267-269.

Silva, Sandro Dutra e et al. O cerrado goiano na literatura de Bernardo Élis sob o olhar da história ambiental. Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos, Jan 2017, vol.24, no.1, p.93-110

Fischer, Marta Luciane et al. Da ética ambiental à bioética ambiental: antecedentes, trajetórias e perspectivas. Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos, Abr 2017, vol.24, no.2.

Losada, Janaina Zito. Historiografia brasileira e meio ambiente: as contribuições de Sérgio Buarque de Holanda e o debate contemporâneo da história ambiental. Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos, Set 2016, vol.23, no.3, p.653-668

Marinho, Pedro Eduardo Mesquita de Monteiro. Entre o saneamento e o meio ambiente: engenharia e política no final do Império e na Primeira República. Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos, Mar 2012, vol.19, no.1, p.340-342

Bernabeu-Mestre, Josep, Galiana-Sánchez, María Eugenia and Monerris, Angela Cremades Environment and health with respect to a poverty-related disease: the epidemiology of trachoma in Spain, 1925-1941 . Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos, Dec 2013, vol.20, no.4, p.1605-1619

Soffiati, Arthur. Vozes esquecidas: a defesa do meio ambiente no Brasil dos séculos XVIII e XIX. Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos, Dez 2003, vol.10, no.3, p.1119-1125

Pádua, José Augusto. Biosfera, história e conjuntura na análise da questão amazônica. Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos, Set 2000, vol.6, p.793-811

Anderson, Warwick, Cueto, Marcos and Santos, Ricardo Ventura Applying a southern solvent: an interview with Warwick Anderson. Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos, Dec 2016, vol.23, suppl.1.

Little mangrove – Warwick Anderson is a leading historian of science and race from Australia. See his testimony about HCS-Manguinhos and related articles:

Luso-tropicalism and its discontents – This book reinterprets Gilberto Freyre’s Luso-tropicalist arguments and critically engages with the historical complexity of racial concepts and practices in the Portuguese-speaking world.

Investigar en tiempos de pandemia: archivos digitales para la historia de la agricultura y el medioambiente – “En vez de ver la investigación digital como una alternativa inferior a la investigación histórica tradicional — algo para hacer ‘mientras tanto’— debemos verla como una oportunidad para explorar nuevos tipos de proyectos.” Stuart McCook, profesor de historia en la Universidad de Guelph, presenta algunas colecciones digitales sobre temas que van desde la historia del cultivo del cafe y de la cana de azúcar hasta la biodiversidad a nivel mundial.

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