It’s coming home to me that interest in creating a new human relationship with the rest of the natural world is growing. It’s been three months since my previous blog post, a sign that there’s a great deal happening, rather than having little to say. At a recent National Trust event where I was talking about the pathways to nature connectedness, I was struck by an analogy made by Tony Berry (Visitor Experience Director). He spoke of creating the right habitats to allow a diversity of nature experience to flourish. Coincidentally my recent talk at the opening of Nation Connections 2018 also mentioned parallels between ecology and human experience. Firstly, let’s consider the three keynote talks that preceded mine.
In the opening talk Gregor Henderson (National Lead, Wellbeing and Mental Health, Public Health England) provided the foundations for the day with a powerful message about the scale, cost and impact of mental health issues. Worldwide services are largely unprepared and insufficient – or simply absent (WHO, 2017). It was very encouraging though to hear recognition that nature connection provides opportunities for good mental health.
Professor Cindy McPherson Frantz then explained how nature connectedness and our need for social connections derive from the same powerful psychological force. Raising the questions of how can we design interaction with nature to meet our inherent need to have a sense of belonging with others – we return to habitats for connection again. The third keynote came from Howard Davies (Chief Executive – National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) who caught the need to move beyond traditional approaches and develop a new relationship with nature, calling for us to “map what things mean, not what they are” – mapping the pathways to nature connectedness offered in our habitats, rather than the traditional offer of labels for identification.
It was clear that momentum is building in terms of the evidence base showing the value of nature as crucial to well-being and I closed the opening session by bringing together the talks on well-being, connectedness and beauty. It’s a story of the embededness of people in their wider habitat. How simply viewing the beauty of roses impacts our physiology, activating our sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous system. The same response found when we’re within a woodland. Even simply touching oak impacts our physiology in the same way. There is clearly a powerful and innate relationship at work. We are deeply embedded and interconnected within nature, a symbiotic relationship found throughout the natural world.
Within this context it’s no surprise that realising this connectedness to nature should be good for our well-being, it’s who we are. And research suggests that the relationship between connectedness and well-being is mediated by engaging with nature’s beauty. There’s mounting evidence that a connectedness to nature is good for two types of well-being, feeling good and functioning well. A systematic review of this evidence conducted at the University of Derby was presented at the conference. As was some very recent evidence from phase 2 of the Nature Connection Index work with Natural England, Essex and Derby (supported by The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and the National Trust). This showed that nature connectedness is predictor of mental well-being and pro-environmental behaviour, independently and to a greater extent, than the traditional metric of visits to nature. Reaffirming that nature connectedness is different, and perhaps more powerful than, simple exposure to nature.
I’ve recently been reading Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, and in my talk I noted how recent evidence from Derby suggests that nature connectedness brings well-being through improved emotional regulation – a dynamic interconnectedness that requires a balance of emotional states for mental wellbeing. Similarly healthy ecological systems are dynamic and balanced. Clearly, we are of, and therefore well, when within nature – both physically and mentally.
Of course, nature connectedness is not just about our own well-being, it matters because of the links to nature’s well-being. In addition to the crisis in mental wellbeing and the overwhelmingly negative impact of a changing climate (WHO, 2017), “Earth is experiencing a huge episode of population declines which will have negative cascading consequences on services vital to sustaining civilization” (Ceballos et al 2017). A recent UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services report (IPBES, 2018) shows that the risks posed by biodiversity loss are on the same scale as those of climate change. Despite these three global challenges there is a huge disparity in awareness and coverage. A quick Google news search reveals 65 million news articles on mental health, 50 million news articles on climate-change and in comparison just 1 million news articles that mention biodiversity – yet this is the crisis that’s arguably most advanced. For example, recent data on life on the planet shows the shocking decline of wildlife since the dawn of human civilisation (Bar-On et al. 2018). 80% of mammals have been lost and now humans and livestock make up 96% of mammals on Earth. There are similar stories of decline for marine mammals and plants.
Given the interconnected relationship we’ve seen between humans and (the rest of) nature it seems no surprise that with nature, and nature’s beauty, in decline, our well-being is in decline. There is hope though; as well as being good for our own well-being, nature connectedness explains a huge chunk of our pro-nature behaviours. Recognising and improving our relationship with the wider natural world can make a real difference. It’s clear to me that the relationship we see between people, oak, roses and woods is a beautiful thing. Nature connectedness being good for both our own and nature’s well-being is a beautiful thing. However, noticing the beauty of nature can seem far removed from the complex reality of life for many people, those just looking to manage their emotions, never mind use them to appreciate the beauty of a local tree. So we need to find new ways to connect people (with often complex lives) with nature, new habitats of connection that make it easy.