Human health bottom line of sustainability

Thursday, 26 May, 2005

The health of human populations is a truer bottom line of sustainability than the much-vaunted 'triple bottom line' approach, according to epidemiologist Tony McMichael who directs the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University (ANU).

Professor McMichael says the triple bottom line approach of seeking a balance between economic, social and environmental conditions overlooks the fact that those three entities are means, not ends. "After all," he says, "what's the point of having a sustainable environmental resource base, sustainable social structure and sustainable economy if they don't translate into improved wellbeing, health and survival for humans, now and indefinitely into the future?"

Professor McMichael notes that economists like to view good health as an input to economic development, while environmentalists argue that health impairment is reprehensible collateral damage. "Meanwhile, the population health research community recognises that when Earth's life-support systems are impaired that, before long, population health will decline.

"We all need a rapid course in learning to understand how the Earth System works," Professor McMichael says. "We must recognise that an intact biosphere is absolutely essential for the sustained wellbeing and health of human societies. We must begin to think ecologically about the nature of contemporary, human-induced problems and their solution."

Professor McMichael is one of a number of prominent Australians who are chapter authors in a new book from CSIRO Publishing titled In Search of Sustainability.

The book is co-edited by Jenny Goldie, former national director of Sustainable Population Australia, Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas, Chair of Australia 21 and Dr Bryan Furnass, member of the Nature and Society Forum.

The editors have drawn together a series of thought-provoking chapters written by Australian leaders in a wide range of fields. The topics covered include human health, water resources, land use and natural ecosystems, energy, equity and peace, economic systems, climate change, labour forces and work, urban design and transport and population.

Further information is available at

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