Cats, Dogs, LSD and the Meaning of Know

A few articles, conversations and blogs have caught my attention recently – dogs (and cats for balance), LSD and the notion of ‘to know is to care’. All with a relation to nature of course!

Firstly, I’ve seen debates on Twitter and an article on dogs and nature reserves recently. The article argued along the lines that the need for human contact with nature means that dogs, and therefore their owners, should be allowed into nature reserves. The environmental impact of the dogs being acceptable as contact with nature for the owner brings care for nature. There’s a body of research into the impact of dogs on wildlife. For example, with dog walking reducing bird variety and numbers by around 40%, even when on leads. There’s not so much on contact, time or exposure to nature leading to pro-environmental behaviour (broadly carbon footprint reduction). Predictors of pro-environmental behaviour tend to be values, responsibility, attachment and nature connectedness – recent research shows it’s about relationships more than time. The same research suggests visits to nature are not related to pro-nature conservation behaviours (broadly habitat creation) – whereas nature connection is.

Cats and Dogs and Nature

It’d be very difficult to assess whether the impact of a little more individual contact on pro-nature behaviour would outweigh the harm done by the dogs’ presence, but recent evidence suggests it would not. Personally, I’m all for nature reserves being for nature with any human access being related to necessary monitoring and management, or as a ‘leave no trace’ place to help build human-nature connectedness – that is an outcome linked to pro-nature conservation behaviours.

I was also struck by a line in the article that dog owners’ level of contact with nature puts them first in line to be champions and campaigners for nature.  Putting the contact to care link aside, there’s little data on whether dog owners care for nature more than none owners. What has been found is that pet owners, including cat owners, exhibit greater pro-environmental behaviours. It seems likely that people who care for nature are more likely to have a pet – bringing a link to nature by proxy into their lives perhaps. As cats don’t get walked it also suggests the additional regular contact with nature through dog walks is not a big factor in care. However, cats have a greater impact on wildlife than dogs – so those who care more have a pet which impacts wildlife more. A message here is that there are no simple explanations.

What I think we should understand is that ultimately human actions have an impact on nature. Be it owning a dog, a cat, driving to a nature reserve alone, buying products with palm oil – even turning on a light. As the article says ‘humans are messy and self-regarding’ – we need to accept that many of our actions impact the rest of nature in some way. Few, if any of us in the Western world ‘leave no trace’. What we do know is there’s a causal link between a close connection with nature and doing more to care for the environment. And that a close connection with nature doesn’t come through time spent in nature alone.

So how do we improve the relationship with nature? Should the less connected to nature take LSD?

That’s an idea in a recent research paper on the links between psychedelic use and nature connectedness. It has received a lot of interest, including in The Conversation, it makes for a headline. In a survey of psychedelic substance users the researchers studied the relationship between psychedelic use and nature connectedness. They found increased ego-dissolution and influence of natural surroundings during the psychedelic state (to me this is the interesting aspect of research in this area, suggesting nature connectedness is an observable brain state). The researchers concluded that there was evidence for a causal effect of psychedelic use on increased nature connectedness (of around 2.7% from my calculation), and that this “bears relevance for psychedelic treatment models in mental health and, in the face of the current ecological crisis, planetary health“. Noting that “these findings point to the potential of psychedelics to induce enduring positive changes in the way humans relate to their natural environments“. They also “propose the use of specific techniques for nature connection before or after treatment with psychedelics, such as forest walking, or Shinrin-Yoku (forest bathing).”

Although the positive impact of nature connectedness for human and nature’s well-being is highlighted in the paper, there’s little on existing interventions to improve nature connectedness. Indeed, although there’s likely to be a positive impact, currently there is little evidence on a link between forest bathing and nature connectedness. Successful interventions that have delivered greater increases in nature connectedness and clinically significant increases in mental health, such as noticing the good things in nature and 30 Days Wild, are not discussed. If ‘treatment with psychedelics‘ is a proposed route the majority of the UK population would need to take them – but even then a 2-3% increase wouldn’t be enough for a sustainable future.

Practicalities and outcomes aside, i’m not sure taking a biomedical approach to the problem of our disconnection from nature is beneficial. The biomedical model of medicine is based on a deviation from ‘normal’ – health being a function of the individual. These models view people as separate from the environment, separate from nature. ‘One health’ models where nature is part of people’s health can help bring about the cultural changes that can bring about the increases in nature connectedness needed for a sustainable future.

So if prescribing psychedelics is not the solution, what about teaching people to care through increasing knowledge about nature?

Some of those seeking to build a more caring relationship with nature suggest that “We won’t love what we don’t know” or in a recent tweet “We need to teach our children about the natural world so they learn to love it and therefore will fight to protect it”. Some cite Richard Louv “We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know” – however, the quote continues – “and we cannot know what we do not see. Or hear. Or sense.”

This is important as out of context the start of that passage could refer to know as “be aware of through observation, inquiry, or information”. However, the paragraph the quote is taken from refers to ‘attachment theory’ – a deep and enduring emotional bond. The following paragraph refers to sense of place, relationships, beauty and wonder. Here a second definition of know makes better sense – “have developed a relationship with”.

So, to see, hear and sense are part of the meaning of ‘know’ – to be aware of and have developed a relationship with. Research shows a focus on education, information and knowledge, such as learning facts and figures, is not the route to connection with and care for nature. Education explains 2% of ecological behaviours, nature connectedness explains 69%. To know – to hear, sense and see – matters as a caring relationship comes from noticing, wonder, finding meaning and beauty.

Nan Shepherd also refers to knowing on the closing page of The Living Mountain. “Knowing another is endless…The thing to be known grows with the knowing.” Is Nan referring to knowing as being aware of through observation, or having developed a relationship with? The book is full of observation, but in the forming of a deep relationship with the mountains. ‘Knowing another’ suggests relationship and the context includes emotion in penetrating “deeply into the mountains life“.

So rather than know that a tree is an oak we should consider what ‘know’ in this context means. See, sense, hear, notice, experience, appreciate, feel, behold, be friends with the tree. Then you’re likely to want to learn that the tree is an oak, understand its ecology and cultural significance.


About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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6 Responses to Cats, Dogs, LSD and the Meaning of Know

  1. Matt says:

    Nice one, Miles. A lot here that could be unpacked but a quality synthesis which illuminates the key issues on these diverse themes. I’ve been long ruminating on a blog piece re pets & nature connectedness (and weighing the pros and cons about whether they find synergy or not – this might prompt me to put fingers to keyboard). In terms of the ‘knowing’ – you make a critical distinction in that real knowing is a fully embodied experience (not abstract thought alone). I would add that linking that knowledge/knowing with place (i.e. place-based knowing) is another vital component.

  2. Liana stupples says:

    Just wanted to let you know that I really value your blog. I read every one from here in New Zealand and they inform my nature connection practice. Liana.

  3. Lucy-Anne says:

    So interesting. Only recently found your blog. I’ve mulled over lots of these things being a very consciously nature-connected person choosing to live in London where human needs are usually given dominance in an urban environment, to practice environmental education.
    I also have a rescue cat. I agree that having the personal and intense emotional connection to another species that a pet gives may be part of wanting to be connected with nature outside ourselves. Certainly young children are strongly drawn to both nature and pets.
    Life is complicated and things are rarely binary, and we have to find our personal ways through complex competing concerns. Also true of pet-keeping. So with my cat I do this by making sure he wears a collar and has 2 bells on it to warn and scare off any birds he might want to chase.

    I am wondering about the dog walkers’ supposedly increased appreciation of nature. They may just be out in it more.
    Some will indeed acquire dogs specifically to get them out more in the nature that they love, plus to be companions, or as a motivation to take exercise in nature. So the dogs are the embodiment of their nature connectedness. They would be the ones who would heed signs to keep dogs on leads where there are ground nesting birds, because they care about the birds too.

    Other dog walkers might only really enjoy nature vicariously through the obvious happiness and enjoyment of their pets, and are motivated by taking responsibility for their welfare seriously. As dogs need exercise even in wet weather I expect at those times being out in nature has even less to do with nature connectedness in comparison with non dog walkers!

    But I also suspect following on from what you say, that other dog owners are mostly concerned about having nature nearby to ‘use’ for dog walks. These will be the ones who either don’t pick up their dog’s mess or leave it in plastic bags in bushes. In these cases is it nature they are enjoying at all or a safe green space to let dogs off leads to exercise where they won’t get run over? I suspect despite the nature they are resolutely able to remain unconnected with it.

  4. The effects of LSD on nature relatedness seem very small and there are some dubious stats in one part. How did they get this published? The very idea of medicating ourselves out of the environmental crisis with a controlled drug seems bizarre.

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