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Environment and health


The world is currently facing an unprecedented health and environmental crisis. Despite progress in both the health and the environment fields, the situation is approaching the brink of global disaster. So extensive and far reaching are the problems that the future wellbeing of humanity, together with that of many other life forms on the planet, is in jeopardy.

On one level, individuals and communities - especially those who are poorest, most marginalised and suffering the most discrimination - are facing the direct consequences of local environmental destruction, which often result from exploitative business practices and destructive development projects. Those who are worst-off pay with their health for the destruction of their local environment.

On another level, people all over the world are beginning to be affected by regional and global environmental changes. These drastic environmental problems, e.g. the changing climate and the depletion of the ozone layer, are mainly the result of unsustainable lifestyles, overconsumption and unhealthy patterns of development. Also these environmental problems are likely to hit the poor and marginalised first -and with the most drastic consequences- but will sooner or later also affect the privileged.

Unless curbed (through wide-ranging, structural changes) these global environmental trends threaten to cause havoc to whole ecosystems and essential life-supporting systems. This may in turn lead to an immense, unprecedented crisis for the whole of humanity. It is thus of utmost relevance for everyone involved in the People's Health Movement to understand the links and interconnections between health, the environment as well as underlying factors such as social, political and economic structures which determine the current patterns of development.

Ultimately, the health and environment crisis relates to issues of social justice. Analysing health in an ecological and environmental framework calls for a broad, intersectoral, holistic understanding of health. It shows how many of the pressing health and environmental problems of today share the same root causes and the same barriers to being effectively tackled and solved. It encourages a long-term perspective on health and its future challenges. And it provides, through the experiences of the environmental movement, exciting examples of how people - or 'civil society' - can successfully influence current thinking and policies.

Learning objectives

This topic has been developed to enable participants to gain:

  • broad familiarity with the range of environmental issues facing humanity (from the local to the global), including the arguments and the politics of those issues;
  • broad familiarity with work of the environmental movement; its structures, cultures and how it works;
  • broad familiarity with the main intersections of concern between the people's health movement and the environmental movement; including the issues themselves (eg environmental issues with direct health implications) and the political economy of those issues and the links with the political and economic forces driving many global health issues;
  • participants will be alert to the opportunities for collaborative projects and campaigns involving the people's health movement and the environment movement, at local, national and global levels.


The WHO Environment page provides a series of ‘Fact Sheets’ on various topics in Environment and Health.  It is quite a narrow selection.   

The UN Environment Program provides a broader picture.  See the Statement from the Global Intergovernmental and Multi-stakeholder Consultation on the Fifth Global Environment Outlook held in Nairobi from 29-30 March 2010.

Actually the discussion paper prepared by the Executive Director of the UN Environment Program for the Nairobi Consultation is also very useful. See in particular Annex 4.  This annex works through the main areas of ‘the environment’ and identifies the key issues and the relevant international agreeements.  These main areas of ‘the environment’ are listed as:

  • Air pollution and air quality;
  • Biodiversity;
  • Chemicals and waste;
  • Climate change;
  • Energy;
  • Environmental governance;
  • Forests;
  • Freshwater;
  • Oceans and seas;
  • Soil, land use, land degradation and desertification.  

Of course there are other ways of thinking about environmental quality and sustainability.  Friends of the Earth (International) prioritises the following areas in its environment work:

  • Climate justice and energy;
  • Food sovereignty,
  • Forests and biodiversity,
  • Economic justice- resisting neoliberalism,
  • Safe and clean water,
  • Oil and gas extraction and mining,
  • Sustainable lifestyles,
  • Gender equality,
  • Cultural diversity.

A different perspective again comes from the field of Work and Health.  For the official perspective visit the International Labour Organisation and scan its coverage of different employment sectors. The international union organisations offer a different perspective again.  See for example the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions health and safety page. 

Another approach to environmental activism is to focus on the role of transnational corporations. See the Corporate Watch health page.  Or for a more systematic analysis of the role of transnational corporations see the Transnational Institute

Action framework for health activists working on environmental issues

These various perspectives on the Human Environment and its relation to Population Health are helpful but do not provide a very clear framework for health actvists facing a particular health issue in this field.  How to frame our analysis of this problem?  How to plan a campaign around this problem? Some of the key questions might be: 

  • What is the problem?  How big is it?
  • What do the affected communities know about it? What is their plan? 
  • Are there other activist groups who are already working on this problem?  Locally, nationally, globally? 
  • Are there technical issues we need to understand? About causation? Mitigation? Remediation?  
  • What are the politics of the issue?  Who benefits, who loses?  What are the power relations? 
  • Who are the possible allies?  Locally? Nationally? Globally?  Do other people in other parts of the world have the same problems? 
  • What are the short, medium and long term options? 
  • What are the possible regulatory strategies? Political strategies? Campaign strategies?


Several topics are being developed under this module:



This topic developed by Miguel San Sebastian with inputs from Romeo Quijano, Jeff Connant and David Legge.