One of the findings of a major new research study published in Scientific Reports shows that the UK is not a nation of nature lovers. Our supposed love of nature is often expressed, from our poets, to naturalists, in our love of nature documentaries, and millions being members of nature conservation organisations. However, this new research across 18 countries suggests strongly that in reality the UK has a failing relationship with nature. We visit nature much less than people in other countries. Our connection to the rest of nature is much lower than elsewhere.
That was the result that grabbed my attention, but the research did much more. So, in sum, before returning to our supposed love of nature, the survey of 16,000 people explored associations between mental health, exposure to different natural settings and nature connectedness, across season and country. The research found that people who lived in greener/coastal neighbourhoods reported higher wellbeing, but this association largely disappeared when recreational visits were controlled for. Frequency of recent recreational visits to nature were all positively associated with well-being – Its worth noting that levels of noticing nature weren’t included in this study, but our recent research found noticing nature explained wellbeing better than recent visits’. Nature connectedness was also positively associated with positive wellbeing and was, along with green space visits, associated with a lower likelihood of using medication for depression. By contrast inland-blue space visits were associated with a greater likelihood of using anxiety medication.
From a nature connectedness perspective, the authors conclude that the “Results also offer support for initiatives e.g. education programs, aimed at increasing levels of psychological connectedness to the natural world, irrespective of direct exposure, for mental health as well as ecological reasons,” – although I’d replace ‘education’ with ‘engagement’ it’s good to have further confirmation that work in this area needs to go beyond access and visits. As we’ve seen in recent research, when considered in concert with visits to nature, nature connectedness plays an often more significant role in mental wellbeing, pro-nature and pro-environmental behaviours.
Returning to the headline, and looking at the two charts from the paper, the UK was amongst the lowest nations for nature connectedness (16th of 18) and nature visits (17th of 18) – and also wellbeing (17th of 18). The level of nature connectedness was 20% below the highest nation. It’s natural to ask, why?
From a pathways to nature connectedness perspective, it would suggest that the types of relationship unrelated to nature connection dominate. The pathways research was based on Kellert’s (1993) nine values of biophilia. Five of the nine types of human-nature relationship were pathways to nature connectedness; four were unrelated to nature connectedness. These were fear of nature, dominion over nature, utilitarian use of nature and a purely scientific relationship.
Nature is often seen as a resource (utility), a source of challenges to conquer (dominion), presented in terms of facts and figures (science), or as a threat (fear of nature). These types of relationship are common, often emphasised within capitalistic societies and can be seen as essential pathways for human survival and progress that, unchecked, have led to nature’s decline – as shown by the red arrow in Figure 1.
I’m no expert on such things, but the UK was at the heart of the industrial revolution, and adept at exploiting natural resources. It’s also interesting to note that former parts of the British Empire also have low levels of nature connectedness (Canada, US, Australia, Ireland, HK). This suggests an attitude towards nature that we exported and that persists through to this day.
From a day-to-day perspective do we in the UK care for nature? Weedkillers are promoted (and purchased) as garden essentials. Our cultural products refer less and less to nature, but more and more to the individual. Do we increasingly care more about ourselves than the wider natural world?
For a little more insight we’ve done some further analysis of the data presented in the paper. We looked at biodiversity, population density, urbanisation and tree cover for the 18 countries and how these factors related to nature connectedness and visits. We found a very strong correlation between biodiversity (National Biodiversity Index) and nature connectedness – and nature visits. The more wildlife there is in a country the greater the love of nature and likelihood people will go and visit it. Urbanisation and tree cover had no significant relationship and population density was weak once Hong Kong was removed from the analysis.
The UK has much lower levels of biodiversity and nature connectedness – and we know that the two are related. Our previous research has shown that people are good a spotting biodiversity and that higher levels of biodiversity are linked to greater wellbeing – and more visible biodiversity helps build nature connectedness. And increased nature connectedness through noticing nature leads to greater wellbeing.
Yet, when we do visit more biodiverse spaces do we truly respect nature? There were many reports of littering in lockdown and ‘dogs on leads’ signs are often ignored or pulled down at nature reserves despite the evidence that the presence of dogs harms wildlife. Would we litter or exercise a dog in a churchyard? It is time to recognise a deep lack of respect for nature, accept our failed relationship with nature and ask challenging questions.
What’s the way forward? Our relationship with nature needs to improve. Biodiversity needs to improve. And the plans to do so need greater integration. We know nature connectedness is built through noticing nature and increasing levels of biodiversity clearly provides more nature to notice, but people don’t notice nature.
There’s a battle for our attention. Companies spend millions competing for it. When brand X grabs attention from brand Y, there must be less noticing of nature. Nature has no marketing budget. No new styles – this year’s robin is the same as last years. Similarly, social media is designed to engage us. Waiting at the bus stop, technology wins the battle for attention and those who use their smartphone more have lower levels of nature connectedness. Perhaps a tax on advertising can be used to promote the restoration and noticing of nature? Yet, the countries with higher levels of nature connectedness have adverts, social media and smartphones too.
These are also modern phenomena; we can also ask if people in the UK have ever lived in harmony with nature? Did the relationship with nature start to fail during the industrial revolution? Or after the enlightenment – a period marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism. Yet again though, countries with a closer relationship with nature are not devoid of science and industry.
So what explains the UK’s lack of love for nature? There’s more work to do, but from a pathways perspective, dominion over nature and utilitarian use of nature are dominating the positive relationships based on noticing nature, beauty, emotion, meaning and caring for nature. This will lead to a lack of nature, further reinforcing the disconnect. To become a nation of nature lovers, there’s a need for greater biodiversity, bringing nature to where people live and a celebration of it each and every day.
White, M.P., Elliott, L.R., Grellier, J. et al. Associations between green/blue spaces and mental health across 18 countries. Sci Rep 11, 8903 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-87675-0