Traditionally, we've thought of health as living longer — fighting diseases that cut our lives short and reducing infant mortality rates.
Focusing on these things has helped humanity accomplish tremendous things. Life expectancy in developed countries has almost doubled since 1840.
But thinking of health just in terms of human lifespan is incomplete, according to a new report published by a commission organized by the Rockefeller Foundation and The Lancet. When we talk about health, we also need to take into account the environment surrounding us.
They call this concept "planetary health."
We need to redefine health and talk about people and the planet together because, according to the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet commission, we've been operating as if we can keep on improving health forever and living longer without simultaneously considering the changes occurring in our surrounding environment. That's short-sighted and probably wrong.
And if we look at those environmental changes, we might currently be headed towards a crisis.
Why we need to redefine health
The improvements we've made to human health and lifespan around the world are impressive, but they have come at a cost.
"We may have mortgaged the future in order to sustain our current level of health and development," explained Sir Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the chair of the commission that wrote the report.
Haines, speaking at a discussion releasing the report on July 16, said that "most concepts of health ... just assume any benefit to health is good and it can be sustained indefinitely." Planetary health, meanwhile, says "we need to pay attention to these natural systems on which our human health and development is founded."
As we've improved our lives up to this point, we've simultaneously changed the world, taxing its resources. Population and life expectancy have boomed and poverty has fallen, especially in the past 50 years, the report shows.
Yet at the same time, energy use has skyrocketed, along with tropical forest loss, water use, fertilizer use, fishing capture, ocean acidification, and carbon dioxide emissions. This has led to extreme water shortages, higher temperatures, and biodiversity loss.
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The world is still growing, and as economic situations improve, each person on the planet consumes more of its resources. We don't want poverty rates to rise or life expectancy to fall, but at some point, this strain on resources will become unmanageable unless we take steps to address it. By 2040, the world will need to produce 50% more food than it does now.
Urbanization and globalization have also exposed humanity to new disease threats. Polluted air can lead to respiratory ailments and airborne diseases spread more easily in densely populated areas. As wild environments are destroyed, people are exposed to more and more animal diseases that could potentially jump species — like Ebola and HIV both did.
These changes threaten to reverse some of our greatest achievements in health over the past century and could mean that future generations don't just have to deal with a changing climate – we could also be headed for food and water shortages and new infectious diseases, along with extreme weather events.
Without doing anything, we'd essentially be "betting that the inherent ingenuity of the human species will be enough to transcend the problems," said Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet.
But that's a bet with disastrous consequences if we're wrong.
As part of creating this new interdisciplinary health concept, the report outlines some of the potential ways to address the environmental challenges we face.
Up to 30% of agricultural land right now produces food that's wasted, so cutting food waste could significantly help ensure we don't deforest more land — while still providing enough to feed the world. Technological innovations like genetic modification could help improve plant productivity.
Economic incentives to produce more sustainable energy (instead of subsidizing fossil fuels, as we do now) could make a significant difference.
But perhaps most importantly, governments and businesses need to better value the environmental and planetary resources that we have.
As Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, explained: "We are in a symbiotic relationship with our planet, and we must start to value that in very real ways."
If you love planet Earth, check out the slideshow below of 26 of the globe's most amazing natural wonders:
Greatest natural wonders of the world to remind you how wonderful Planet Earth truly is
There's a real risk that many of our advancements to human health could be lost
North America, day and night, satellite image of the Earth
Photo: Getty Images/Brand X
Aerial views of The Great Barrier Reef are seen from above in Cairns, Australia. A recent report by marine scientist Charlie Veron claims that the reef will be so degraded by warming seas that it will be gone within 20 years, and that this situation is now irreversible. He goes on to predict that once carbon dioxide levels hit levels predicted between 2030 and 2060, that all reefs will become extinct and their ecosystems would collapse.
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
An aerial picture of the Grand Canyon in Arizona taken from around 30,000 feet (10,000m).
The Grand Canyon, considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is 277 miles (446 km) long, up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and attains a depth of over a mile (1.8km). Nearly two billion years of the Earth's geological history has been exposed as the Colorado River and its tributaries cut their channels through layer after layer of rock while the Colorado Plateau was uplifted. While the specific geologic processes and timing that formed the Grand Canyon are the subject of debate by geologists, recent evidence suggests the Colorado River established its course through the canyon at least 17 million years ago. Since that time, the Colorado River continued to erode and form the canyon to its present-day configuration.
AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Aerial view taken of Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall, with a height of 979 meters (3,212 feet), located in Canaima National Park, South-Eastern Venezuela. The falls are 500 feet wide at the base. They got their name from American pilot James Angel, who saw the waterfall for the first time in 1933 while searching for the Gold City.
AFP PHOTO/FEDERICO PARRA (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)
View of the 'Grand Prismatic' hot spring with it's unique colors caused by brown, orange and yellow algae-like bacteria called Thermophiles, that thrive in the cooling water turning the vivid aqua-blue to a murkier greenish brown, in the Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Yellowstone National Park was established by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Grant on March 1, 1872. The park is located primarily in the U.S. state of Wyoming, though it also extends into Montana and Idaho and was the first national park in the world. It is known for its wildlife and its many geothermal features, especially the Old Faithful Geyser.
AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture shows an aerial view of Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain which is 8,848 meters (29,028 feet) high. In 1994, a research team discovered that the mountain is continuing to grow by about 0.16 inches every year. In 1978, Reinhold Messenger and Peter Habler were the first to ever climb the mountain without oxygen.
AFP PHOTO/Kazuhiro NOGI/FILES (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)
Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, Acre State, Brazil.The Amazon is home to more than 2 and a half million different species, and is the largest rainforest in the world. It's estimated that 10% of total animal species lives in the vastly diverse Amazon Rainforest. The Amazon basin is so large that it covers 40% of the South American continent.
Photo credit: BrazilPhotos.com / Alamy
FOZ DO IGUACU, BRAZIL: General view of Iguazu Falls in Foz do Iguacu, Brazil. The area of Iguazu Falls is a set of about 275 waterfalls in the Iguazu River (catchment area of the river Parana), located between the Iguazu National Park, Parana (Brazil) and the Iguazu National Park in Misiones (Argentina) the border between the two countries. The total area of both national parks, correspond to 250,000 hectares of subtropical rainforest and is considered Natural World Heritage.
(Photo by Buda Mendes/LatinContent/Getty Images)
The Wave is a sandstone rock formation. It is located near the Arizona-Utah border, on the slopes of the Coyote Buttes, in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, on the Colorado Plateau. It is famous among hikers and photographers for its colorful, undulating forms, and the rugged, trackless hike required to reach it.
Photo credit: Alamy
View of the south wall of the Perito Moreno glacier in the Park and National Reservation Los Glaciares, an ecotourism destination in Patagonia, Argentina, declared by the UNESCO as Natural World Heritage Site. The glacier Perito Moreno, in the province of Santa Cruz, is one of the most significant natural attractions of Argentina 30km (20 miles) long and with a total surface of 257 km2 (160 square miles). The magnitude of this mass of ice, seems to float on lake Argentino some 70 meters (230 feet) above the water surface.
AFP PHOTO/ Daniel GARCIA (Photo credit should read DANIEL GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Tanzania, The world famous Ngorongoro Crater. Its 102-square-mile crater floor is the haunt of a wonderful wildlife spectacle. The crater is in fact a caldera -- the largest unbroken, unflooded caldera in the world -- which was formed two and a half million years ago.
Nigel Pavitt via Getty Images
View of the Fly Geyser in Nevada. This odd-looking geyser lies on the edge of Black Rock Desert and was accidentally made by mankind. While drilling for a well, geothermal boiling water, which can hit 200 degrees Fahrenheit, was struck. Because this waster wasn't suited for farming, it was left alone. A second geyser was created when an energy company was drilling and struck the same geothermal heated water.
Now, Fly Geyser exists 40 years later and has grown substantially. However, the geyser is not open to the public, seeing as it sits on private property.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Flickr RF
Aerial view of the Great Blue Hole, Belize, Central America. This natural wonder is located off the coast of Belize, and is widely known as a diver's paradise. The hole originated as a limestone cave that began to form some 150,000 years ago. The deepest point of the Blue Hole is at 406 feet, and it is shaped as almost a perfect circle.
Photo credit: Greg Johnston via Getty Images
Pamukkale, Turkey. Meaning 'Cotton Palace' in English, Pamukkaleis a famous site in Turkey for its natural spring and water formations. Calcite waters have created a unique landscape made of mineral forests and petrified waterfalls.
(Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Autumn colors of Natural reserved area in Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China. The area is known in English as the "Nine Valley Village" and is a national park in South Western China. The landscape is vast -- from mountains to waterfalls and forests. The park covers 72,000 ha, or 277 sq. miles.
Photo credits: Getty Images/Flickr Open
A picture shows tourist posing for a photo next to the General Sherman Giant Sequoia at Sequoia National Park in California. With an estimated volume of 1,487 cubic metres (52,513 cu ft), General Sherman sequoia is the largest tree on earth. The tree's height is 83.8 metres (275 ft), its diameter - 7.7 metres (25 ft) and its estimated age - 2,3002,700 years.
AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
The Blue Grotto islocated on the coast of the island of Capri, in Southern Italy. It's is one of several sea caves, worldwide, that is flooded with a brilliant blue or emerald light. The quality and nature of the color in each cave is determined by the particular lighting conditions in that specific cave.
Photo credit: rilcombs via Getty Images
This photo shows the 'Top of Peak' formation at the Huangshan (Yellow Mountains) park in Anhui Province. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of China's major tourist destinations and has been a source of inspiration to Chinese painters, writers and poets for thousands of years.
AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Aerial view of Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1989), Zimbabwe. These falls are among the most spectacular in the world, and expand over 14 sq. miles. Sprays from the majestic Victoria Falls can be seen from 18 miles away.
(Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
In the Catedral de Marmol (the Marble Cathedral), erosion has created caverns in the marble on the northern shore of Lago General Carrera, Patagonia, Chile. Visitors can see blue water reflecting off the marble surfaces of the caves, creating a mesmerizing effect. The caves themselves have been formed by water that flowed through them for thousands of years.
Photo credit: John Shaw via Getty Images
MADAGASCAR-ENVIRONMENT-BAOBAB By Gregoire Pourtier: Ancient Baobab trees are silhouetted at dusk against the Madagascan susnset near Morondava. The trees can range anywhere from 15 to 98 feet tall, and can be as wide as 150 or so feet.The Malagasy government recently declared the the 320 hectare-baobab area a protected zone in a bid to conserve the natural resource. The striking landscape is a major tourist attraction for the region.
Aurora borealis (Northern Lights) photographed in the early hours of the morning in arctic circle. The colors themselves are actually produced by "collisions of electronically charged particles from the sun hitting the Earth's atmosphere."
The phenomenon can be seen as far south as New Orleans, but the best places to watch in North America are in Canada and Alaska.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Vetta
The Danakil Depression is located in the Danakil Desert in Ethiopia, and is known as one of the 'cruelest places on Earth.' Record temperatures have been recorded here, breaking 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The depression lies 150 ft below sea level and is characterized by active volcanoes, a living lava lake, geysers, acid ponds, and mounds of sulfur deposits.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Vetta
Picture taken shows a tourist visiting the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, located in Bolivia near the crest of the Andes, some 3,650 metres above sea level.