The Straits Times says

Safeguard health of next generation

The macabre kicker of any celebration of human health in present times - better than in any other period of history - is that the longevity of Baby Boomers, for example, might be at the expense of the challenged health of Generation Zers.

Current health gains are attributed to the progress ushered in by bounding capitalism. But the latter is held culpable by activists for the abasement of the planet's ecological systems - worse than in any time of history. As nature's life support systems weaken, significant threats are being posed to human health, according to a recent study. Thus, "we have mortgaged the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present", as noted by the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on planetary health.

This stark reality ought to help focus minds as the world works towards a new climate change deal, in time for the Paris summit scheduled in December. As with mountainous financial debt left for future generations to clear, nations might be brought to the brink sooner than they expect in the case of public health as well. Another recent analysis published by Lancet that also deserves attention has revealed that, despite relative health gains over time, almost one-third of humanity suffered from five or more health problems in 2013 - of whom over 80 per cent were below age 65. In short, signs of creeping ill health are already showing, and the complicity of planetary degradation is becoming increasingly clear.

Higher carbon levels, for example, can affect staple crops like wheat, rice and soya and lead to zinc deficiency that can undermine immune functions - a risk already faced by a fifth of the world's population. In a related area, if human activities wipe out all pollinating creatures, such as bees that are already on the decline, the quality of agricultural crops will be adversely affected and it will put a quarter of a billion people at risk of vitamin A or folate deficiency. This can lead to a higher incidence of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

Declining health is the heavy price that humans will have to pay for the relentless exploitation of natural resources and land pollution as a result of industrial waste disposal and other malpractices. Coupled with such activities is the neglect of ecosystems upon which human beings rely - for example, biodiversity loss is harmful as it plays a role in mediating exposure to infectious diseases. In losing sight of the interconnected nature of people and the planet, in the pursuit of economic growth, leaders are jeopardising what is more precious to their people than mere wealth - good health. Hence, major carbon emitters such as India, for example, which is baulking at a commitment to significant cuts, ought to get their priorities right. As is oft said, the true value of health is never fully appreciated till it's lost.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2015, with the headline 'Safeguard health of next generation'. Print Edition | Subscribe