In nature everything is connected. Wolves, bears and fish; deer and trees; ants and aphids – as described by Peter Wohlleben in The Secret Network of Nature. The ecosystem is so complex that simple rules of cause and effect don’t apply. A small change can have unintended large consequences. Yet in science we strive to control variables and seek causality in order to obtain the evidence to inform our decisions – evidence that nature is good for humans.
Research accuracy can suffer if all confounding factors are not included in our analyses, yet we can’t fully comprehend all the connections in nature. It’s impossible to evaluate the overall balance, for example between ants and trees and the interactions that are key to the wellbeing of each. Sometimes it seems sensible to accept the network of relationships and focus on finding creative ways to engage with those relationships, rather than getting bogged down in trying to evidence that they exist.
People do not question whether fish need a river, birds the sky or apes the forest, yet people want evidence that humans need nature. Decision makers require (and we are working to supply) more evidence on the benefits of the relationship between people and the (rest of) nature. Those that question whether a close relationship with nature is good for our wellbeing should perhaps consider some fundamental questions. How did we arrive here? Are we part of the natural world? Sadly, when asked, most people are not sure that they are part of nature. Little surprise, as relationships in nature can be fragile, and our detachment from nature is reflected in our thinking, our discourse and increasingly in our culture. This is also reflected in traditional models of human health that view people as separable from their environment. The biomedical model of medicine is based on a deviation from ‘normal’ – health being a function of the individual. Recently, ‘one health’ models of health have been proposed that recognise that humans are embedded within the rest of the natural world
Another parallel from ecology is that when we change conditions to ensure the survival of one species we can put the survival of another in jeopardy. When we focus on one relationship we weaken another. Stephen Kellert, professor of social ecology at Yale, described nine types of human relationship with nature, and a similar perspective can be taken. The dominance of our utilitarian and dominionistic relationships has weakened our moralistic relationship with nature. The dominance of the scientific relationship has weakened the emotional and aesthetic relationships with nature. When we studied the nine types of relationship, we found five predicted a close connectedness with nature. Four did not.
As humans within a wider ecology, we too need balance, in what we do, in what we eat, in what we feel and in our relationships with nature. A sustainable relationship with nature is more than science, more than knowledge, more than facts, more than a resource, more than a challenge, more than a threat. It is also a network of joy, calm, meaning and beauty. We should do all that we can to sustain nature and therefore ourselves.
I increasingly see all things in terms of balanced relationships, people physically embedded in the wider ecology of life and mentally embedded in the wider environment. Our bodies and minds themselves a network of relationships. Although extended cognition and psychological arguments that firmly embed us in the environment exist, these relationships are not fully accepted – you guessed it, more evidence is needed.
Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), the social scientist, anthropologist and systems theorist wrote that we should not be working towards control based on our imperfect understanding of the natural world. Instead we should be using our curiosity to work towards tapping into the secret network, improving our connection with nature and the wider ecology.
The secret network of nature is the secret network of wellbeing, the secret network of our thoughts, the secret network of our being. If a small change can have large consequences in an ecosystem, and humans are of that ecosystem, then it should come as no surprise that small interactions with nature can have a large positive impact on our wellbeing. That is why it is important to notice the good things in nature and ensure that there is a variety of nature to notice.