Public Goods vs Private Goods

Learning Objectives

By the end of this module, students will be able to:

  1. Define and contrast ‘public goods’ vs ‘private goods’.
  2. Describe how ecological public goods influence population health.
  3. Summarize global concerns over the future of ecological public goods for health in the 21st Century.


The central thesis of this  course is that population health is primarily ‘produced’ by human  extraction, processing, and consumption of goods. The universal source  of goods for health is natural ecosystems. These are goods such as wild  foods, air, water, soil, firewood (in past populations), and fossil  fuels since the Industrial Revolution.

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Ecological goods for health  have interesting properties. First and foremost, they were ‘public  goods’ for thousands of years of human evolution. These are goods that  cannot be monopolized by individuals. Also, one person’s consumption of  the good does not affect another person’s access and use of the same  good. For example, among hunter-gatherers, models of early human  societies, ‘fire’ is a public good. Men and women make fires. They also  carry firebrands from one camp to the next. No one in the band excludes  others from borrowing firebrands to start their fire, or taking a piece  of the burning wood from someone else’s fire hearth. Water is also a  public good. No one can monopolize natural sources of water, and  everyone collects what they need to take back to camp.

In present-day societies,  interconnected by globalization, air, sunlight, and soils appear to be  the only ecological goods that are still public goods. Individuals  cannot monopolize them or keep others from having access to them.

In this module, we will learn  about the difference between public and private goods for health and how  ecological public goods like water have become private in present-day  large scale societies. Moreover, we will consider if the human  microbiome-a recently discovered contributor to population health-is a  type of ecological public good.

We will also learn about  exponential population growth and the emergence of the Anthropocene  Epoch. The combination of the two put humans at the helm of geophysical  forces, a new role that could destroy networks of natural ecosystems.  Such destruction could have devastating effects on population health  over the remainder of the 21st Century. The Greenhouse Effect of CO2 and  methane emissions and the large ecological footprints of developed  nations have become crucial epidemiological concerns. The World Health  Organization and the United Nations have made calls for a new level of  awareness and urgency. Human populations worldwide now need protection  from scaled-up humanitarian crises never seen before in human history.


Before you view my PowerPoint  presentation for this module and proceed to the learning materials page,  I would like you to watch a video on Ecological Goods and Services for  population health, and another on a current event you may have heard  about: the destruction of one of the Earth’s most important ecological  public good – the forests of the Amazon region of South America.

Give yourself time to engage your curiosity and creative minds, and take note of points that are most significant to you.


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