Public Health and the Environment

In an editorial in the Spring 2016 issue of Epidemic Proportions, Dr. Peter Winch encourages public health to incorporate environmental sustainability into all facets of the field. He offers recommendations for Johns Hopkins University as a whole and for each person with in the university to address environmental sustainability challenges. See below for a copy of the editorial.

Dr. Peter Winch is Professor of International Health and Director of the Social and Behavioral Interventions Program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Read the Spring 2016 Issue of Epidemic Proportions 

What is Public Health?

I am often asked this question by students, as they ponder whether it is something they should take an interest in, or even consider as a career. There is no simple answer. Notions of public health in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had a laser-like focus on viruses, bacteria and parasites. Over recent decades, the scope of public health has expanded to include non-communicable diseases, mental health, injuries and violence, as well as a range of social and economic factors that affect health: poverty and marginalization, stigma and discrimination, conflict and forced displacement, torture and imprisonment.

To counter this broader range of threats, public health has developed a dazzling array of research methods and intervention modalities. The latter include tools to formulate and influence policy, drugs and vaccines, interventions to promote behaviors such as hand-washing with soap and smoking cessation, approaches to strengthen health systems and ensure an adequate health workforce, alternatives for health care financing, monitoring and surveillance systems, and ways to engage with and work in partnership with marginalized and powerless communities to address complex and their multi-faceted needs.

On one hand, public health is incredibly broad. On the other hand, some question whether it is far too narrow. Public health typically limits itself to the health of the world’s human population, but leaves out the health of the biosphere, and the non-human species with whom we share the planet. The numbers support this line of questioning. We are witnessing steady decreases in global deaths due to diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. At the same time, we are witnessing increasing numbers species going extinct and degradation in ecosystems, along with the services these ecosystems provide to us as a species.

The Lancet-Rockefeller Commission on planetary health¹ is one of several groups warning that we need to take preservation of the biosphere and ecosystems services seriously, if we want to have a future as a species. What does this mean for public health at JHU? Among other things, it means breaking down walls between departments and academic programs dealing with ecosystems and environmental sustainability, and those seeking to improve public health. It also means that each member of the Hopkins community needs to take steps to reduce her or his impact on the biosphere, most notably by consuming less. Environmental sustainability is an enormous challenge. But we need to fold it into all aspects of public health, if we want to extend the progress we have made in recent years.


Peter Winch
Director, Social and Behavioral Interventions Program

¹ See and

The correlation between poverty and obesity can be traced to agricultural policies and subsidies.
— Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma