Here’s what ecology can teach us about healthy communities and a healthy climate

Written by Joanna Nelson, Joy Hagen, and Linda Rudolph

This piece was originally published by the Public Health Institute Climate and Health Alliance.

Good health depends on a healthy environment — clean air, clean water, abundant nature, and a healthy food system. While this seems straightforward, we — as health, development, or environment professionals — still largely fail to connect human and environmental health in our work on sustainable solutions. A positive feedback loop between public health disciplines and environmental science disciplines can build more sustainable health in our communities if we do more together. For example, environmental scientists working on watershed function in response to climate change may fail to work with public health professionals on downstream drinking-water quality, even though those environmental scientists are also working towards maintaining a healthy water supply for everything that relies on it. Agroecologists working on healthy soils may not connect soil microbial webs to jobs and health equity for people. Together, if we change the way we look at the connections between these issues, we can work to figure out lasting improvements in community health even in the face of our uncertain climate. For example, Dr. Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont and collaborators completed a study showing that forest cover in watersheds is correlated with lower diarrheal illness for children downstream. The Community Alliance for Agroecology in California is one group that is consciously connecting healthy soils, carbon storage to mitigate climate change, and justice for communities:

Connecting the dots between pollution, healthy soils and healthy communities can help set priorities for climate work… I think our collaborative really is working on taking the skills that we want to build, and using this new enlightenment around soil…to address environmental justice concerns. — Janaki Jagannath, Community Alliance for Agroecology, California (“Healthy Soils, Healthy Communities”)

The quote above is from the “Healthy Soils, Healthy Communities” report produced by three collaborating organizations who connect the dots between soil carbon storage, soil health, and healthy, just communities. Solutions involve connecting climate action, health, environmental justice, nature stewardship, and jobs.

Who can you reach out to in other sectors to make a real difference for healthier communities? This question helps us build on what we each know about our single-sector work in public health, ecology, and climate science. We see many positive outcomes for health and the environment when we work across sectors: in school gardens with nutrition education ; in interconnected health clinics and elementary schools; in climate action via soil carbon sequestration in urban and agricultural soils; and in watershed restoration for clean, abundant drinking water in both public and private areas. An important example of successful cross-sector work is The California Healthy Soils Initiative, which aims to improve community health for both the individuals and the environments across California.

The California Healthy Soils Initiative is a new project of the California Department of Food and Agriculture whose objective is to mitigate climate damage through building soil carbon, reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, and prioritizing disadvantaged communities for support in soil stewardship. The initiative offers grant funding, from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, for soil and vegetation management by farmers and ranchers.

When we do more work together, we can create lasting and integrated solutions. As medical professionals, we patch up individuals to go out into an unhealthy world — a world that is disproportionately unhealthy for communities of color, indigenous communities, and poor communities. As scientists, we fail to engage individuals’ questions about their own well-being when we work solely on climate and ecosystem health. If we work across sectors, we create more holistic responses that — instead of creating the next problem — improve multiple interconnected concerns simultaneously. For example, cross-sector success from the fruition of the California Healthy Soils Initiative achieves the goals of soil health, agricultural soil stewardship, reductions in greenhouse gases, and benefits flowing to disadvantaged communities through their own engagement.

Working together, we can regenerate nature and build healthy communities in unison. Working together, we can learn about how ecosystem degradation impacts human health and how ecosystem preservation and restoration benefits human health. Together, we can mobilize climate action and healthy communities. To learn how to work well together, we have offered these examples.


Linda Rudolph, MD, MPH: I work with health professionals and local public health departments to leverage the health voice in support of climate action, and to integrate climate change into health programs. It’s exciting and gratifying to work with people in other sectors because I get to learn about and advocate for strategies with health and climate co-benefits.

Joanna Nelson, PhD: In my ecological field research in the Monterey Bay, California, I stand in the salt marsh; a dynamic, tidal edge environment between land and sea. The salt marsh buffers storm surge, provides habitat for juvenile fish, and filters agricultural runoff before it hits the ocean. I measure how the salt marsh filters runoff from upstream land use (agriculture, industry, and resident communities). High nutrient loads from conventional agriculture kills salt marsh in the downstream estuary, so one healthier part of this system is sustainable, diversified agriculture upstream. When I partner with organic farms promoting a more healthy, just food system, I see agriculture become conservation action. Living soils store carbon, hold more water, support local food streams, and send cleaner water downstream. While heroically filtering nitrogen pollution to prevent dead zones that impact fisheries, the marsh needs the heft of sustainable agriculture to get the job done. A vibrant marine estuary promotes healthy, abundant commercial fish catches and outdoor recreation rich with wildlife. Therefore, my work on both healthier soils and wetlands benefits human health in my community.

Like what you read? Give Bioneers a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.