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The Australian National University

Professor Colin D. Butler

PhD, MSc (epidemiology), BMed, BMedSci(Hons), DTM&H, DLSH&TM
Associate Professor
ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment

Areas of expertise

  • Population Trends And Policies 160305
  • Other Environmental Sciences 0599
  • Economic Development And Growth 140202
  • Public Health And Health Services 1117

Research interests

Future population health and the survival of civilisation in the context of diminishing resources and denial. However some hope exists due to new technologies and ways of human organisation.

Key words: Sustainability, eco-social interactions, environmental health, infectious diseases of poverty, ecology and health (especially the ecology of infectious diseases), discrimination, prejudice and the struggle for improved social justice, intergenerational ethics, limits to growth, climate change, conflict and its avoidance, food security, phosphate supplies, rare earths, energy and the new industrial revolution, human nutrition, extreme weather events and extreme agricultural events, one health, ecohealth.


My interest in global health predates medical school, which I started in 1980. 1985 was spent mostly in disease endemic countries, where I saw how public health trumps individual medicine in terms of public good. Career paths in global health were rare so I took enough medical training to make a living as a clinical doctor. Along the way I was a whistle blower at a provincial hospital, whose peripheral location contributed to the systematic discrimination it experienced.

In 1989 I stood for the Green Party, and also co-founded a non government development organisation, called BODHI. My interest in the environment started in the 1970s, but in 1983 I was arrested (with 1500 others) to stop the Franklin River dam. I was motivated to do so because I witnessed police intimidation of peaceful protesters.

In 1994, while a solo country doctor, I published a paper in the public health section of the Lancet, warning that global health was heading to a precipice, fuelled by the convergence of discrimination, hubris and denial that limits to growth could impede civilisational progress.

Now the cliff is closer; it is now very hard to stop some of us heading over it.

In 2009 the French Environmental Health Association named me as one of a 100  "doctors for the planet". This year I start a 4 year grant, funded by the Australian Research Council, appropriately called a "Future" Fellowship.

I started at the ANU in 1998, as a doctoral student, then researcher (and visiting fellow 2005-08). My PhD, "Inequality and Sustainability" was originally proposed to be called "An analysis of the global claste system: a tool for survival" .. but that was seen as too risky. ("Claste" is a neoligism; think Rupert Murdoch: first claste. Think of a homeless beggar: fourth claste. Think of a child soldier in the Congo, or a textile worker in Bangladesh with no AC: third claste. Think of you or I: second claste.) This is not just theoretical; I have spent much time in the South ("developing" countries), and not just in fancy hotels.

Most of my papers concern our collective risk and paths to lessen those dangers. Career highlights to date include with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Special Programme for Tropical Diseases Research, the World Medical Assocation and the International Association of Buddhist Universities.

Available student projects

I am interested in a variety of topics proposed by potential research students (eg Hons, Masters, PhD and other) candidates, concordant with the interests above. I am also interested in the following projects.

A. Help assemble an inventory of what I term "extreme agricultural events" .. eg Cyclone Larry (Qld, 2006), Typhoon Morakot (Taiwan 2009), Australian floods (2011), Cyclone Nargis (Myanmar, 2009), Pakistani flood (2010), Russian and Ukrainian heatwave (2010). These are extreme weather events that have a disproportionate effect on agriculture and thus food security and human nutrition.

B. Help to produce the world's first estimate of the number of lost IQ points, globally, due to environmental and infectious diseases, including pollutant exposure (eg lead) micronutrient deficiency, parasites, diarrhoea and other forms of undernutrition that lead to stunting and impaired cognitive development. These factors harm IQ, irrespective of genetic factors (which is a highly contentious area, not to be confused with my main interest.) However, social factors, such as the quality of schooling and other forms of mental stimulation, clearly also affect cognitive function.

C. I am also interested in genetic factors that might protect against iron deficiency anaemia, in addition to haemochromatosis, whose protective role in Caucasian populations exposed to low iron environments is fairly well understood.

D. Novel ways of researching and conceptualising "ecohealth" - ie the relationship between ecology and human health.

Current student projects

Five capitals and human well-being (Ivan Hanigan, PhD candidate)

Climate change, health and conflict (Devin Bowles, PhD candidate)

Cognition, intelligence tests and lead; components of the environmental burden of disease (Bhaval Chandria, BPH (Hons) candidate)



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Updated:  20 April 2014 / Responsible Officer:  Pro VC (Research and Research Training) / Page Contact:  Researchers