The human relationship with the rest of nature matters for our well-being, yet the climate and environment emergencies show that the human relationship with the rest of nature is broken. To fix it we need a new more connected relationship that recognises that we are part of nature. This is a relationship that will bring both pro-nature behaviours and improved mental wellbeing – a good life.
Sir Bob Watson was lead scientist of the IPBES landmark health-check of life on Earth – the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems published this year. The report showed that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. In an interview earlier this year he said we need to ask how do we become more in tune with nature? What makes us happy? How do we relate to nature?
These are the right questions to ask as recent research provides evidence for a causal link between a close relationship with nature and pro-nature behaviours. The science of nature connectedness has delivered a number of key insights in 2019 and can help answer those questions:
- What makes us happy? Naturally, there are many things, but systematic review evidence from 2019 shows that nature connectedness brings two key types of happiness – feeling good and functioning well – to levels above accepted benchmarks.
- How do we become more in tune with nature? Here we could ask, how do we become more connected to nature? Our intervention research (again from 2019) shows we can tune in through simply noticing the good things in nature, through the senses. And doing so make us feel significantly better.
- How do we relate to nature? A connected relationship with nature is based upon finding beauty in nature, experiences in nature that evoke positive emotions and bring meaning, and activities that involve caring for nature – the pathways to nature connectedness.
We need a closer relationship with nature in order to save nature. A closer relationship with nature helps bring a happy and worthwhile life – more so than socio-economic status. With these essential benefits, plus the benefits of exposure to nature for health, should there be a basic human right to a close relationship with nature? And to prevent it seeming ‘dominionitive’, it could be phrased as a close relationship with a healthy natural environment.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t mention nature or the environment. The first principle of the United Nations Rio Declaration on the Environemt (1992) states that “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”. The principle notes the human role in sustainability and ties human health to living in harmony with nature. Of course, productive living is a necessary part of life, but an entitlement to a close relationship with nature is clear. The key is a sustainable balance between them. Something our pathways to nature connection research revealed – the activities in nature needed for a close relationship differed from those that have exploited nature, built our modern world and caused the environmental crisis.
In another 2019 paper, Jane Hurly and Gordon J. Walker from the University of Alberta have argued that the human need for nature connectedness is a basic psychological need. They reviewed the compelling evidence of the benefits of nature connectedness and examined if it met published criteria for basic psychological needs. The growing importance of nature connectedness is further illustrated by proposals for its inclusion in the Gallup World Poll (GWP) a tool used internationally by decision-makers (Lambert el al., 2020).
Also from 2019, Alexia Barrable from the University of Dundee argues that nature connectedness should be a distinct goal of early childhood education. Alexia notes the focus on learning about the natural environment and spending time outdoors, but that the distinct construct of nature connectedness has not been considered in detail. Further research from 2019 shows that it’s not just young children. Evidence from the UK, Canada and China shows that we know children’s relationship with nature breaks down from 10 years of age, taking 20 years to recover. This suggests that nature connectedness, living in harmony with nature for a sustainable future, should be a goal of educational institutions from early childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood.
So if there were a basic human right to a closer relationship with nature how we would get there? We’ve often thought of our pathways to nature connectedness in terms of activities for individuals and small groups, but recently we’ve been thinking about how the pathways can inform societal changes that could allow and prompt the types of activities and values linked to a closer relationship with nature.
Another 2019 paper starts to consider this issue. As an editorial for a special issue, it’s limited in scope, but the recommendations give a flavour of thinking that we’re currently developing in other work. Our Frontiers special issue, One Health: The Well-being Impacts of Human-Nature Relationships, responds to two interrelated issues confronting humanity today: the health and well-being of populations and the state of the natural environment.
We discuss the ways to improve the human-nature relationship through interventions, campaigns, activities, curricula, green infrastructure and urban design. Bringing together artists, planners, designers, and researchers to create places that afford a connection to nature. There’s scope across the full range of policy areas and at various leverage points, for now examples are provided in the recommendations distilled from the research in the special issue:
- Everyday experiences of nature matter. Provide green spaces, close to home and work, with opportunities and prompts for people across the lifespan to notice nature and its beauty.
- Encourage a broader range of seasonal experiences in nature, of various durations, at various times and calling on insight from a range of approaches to human-nature relationships (e.g., Stoic and Buddhist Traditions; nature connectedness).
- Provide habitats for a variety of wildlife. Biodiversity matters for human health. Micro-variables such as birds, plants, wildlife, and native species create a bond between people and natural places.
- Provide nature based therapeutic environments.
- For those with limited access to nature, provide imagery and VR alternatives.
2019 has seen some breakthrough nature connectedness research and as a measurable psychological construct it provides a great focal point – a basic psychological need that captures the human-nature relationship. Especially as we have pathways and interventions that can improve nature connectedness – with causal links through to pro-nature behaviours and mental well-being.
So, should there be a basic human right to a close relationship with nature? The evidence is clear; the well-being of future populations and the planet depends on closer, positive and sustainable human-nature relationships. We also need a new concept of what constitutes a good life, one that recognises the vital role of nature to human life. The first principle of the United Nations Rio Declaration (1992) already captures that need for harmony, but human rights don’t cover the human relationship with the natural world – despite nature being essential for human life. And of course, a right to a close relationship with nature would require a healthy natural world.
Hurly, J., & Walker, G. J. (2019). Nature in our lives: Examining the human need for nature relatedness as a basic psychological need. Journal of Leisure Research, 1-21.
Barrable, A. (2019). The Case for Nature Connectedness as a Distinct Goal of Early Childhood Education. International Journal of Early Childhood, 6(2), 59-70.
Mackay, C. M., & Schmitt, M. T. (2019). Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 65, 101323.
McEwan, K., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., Ferguson, F. J., & Brindley, P. (2019). A Smartphone App for Improving Mental Health through Connecting with Urban Nature. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(18), 3373.
Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., & McEwan, K. (2019). The relationship between nature connectedness and eudaimonic well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1-23.
Richardson, M., Hunt, A., Hinds, J., Bragg, R., Fido, D., Petronzi, D., … & White, M. (2019). A Measure of Nature Connectedness for Children and Adults: Validation, Performance, and Insights. Sustainability, 11(12), 3250.
Brymer, E., Freeman, D. E. L., & Richardson, M. (2019). One Health: The wellbeing impacts of human-nature relationships. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1611.
Krettenauer, T., Wang, W., Jia, F., & Yao, Y. (2019). Connectedness with nature and the decline of pro-environmental behavior in adolescence: A comparison of Canada and China. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101348.