The Butterfly Affect: Can noticing nature really boost wellbeing and help address climate chaos?

In chaos theory The Butterfly Effect is a term for a situation where small changes may have large effects, such as the path of a tornado being influenced by the distant flapping of butterfly wings weeks before. It arose when meteorologist Edward Lorenz observed how seemingly inconsequential changes to his weather model produced dramatic effects.

A focus of my research is that actively noticing nature increases levels of nature connectedness, which in-turn leads to improved mental wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. One of the items we’ve used in this research refers to noticing butterflies, 62% of adults infrequently or never take time to notice butterflies. We’ve found that moments noticing butterflies and other simple joys of nature such as listening to birdsong explain mental health and pro-nature behaviours. During 2020’s first lockdown increases in noticing nature also explained both higher levels of wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. When we’ve asked people to write down the good things in nature that they notice, it leads to greater pro-nature behaviours and mental wellbeing.

Simply noticing nature helps build nature connectedness, a closer relationship with nature that drives the pro-environmental behaviours required to help reduce climate chaos. The active sensory engagement of noticing nature is the first step to finding beauty, emotion and meaning in nature – and to caring for nature – the pathways to nature connectedness.

So, The Butterfly Affect, refers to the influence and impact of everyday nature on our emotions. When noticed, emotions can be affected by simple things like a passing butterfly or singing bird. If a passing butterfly affects us, such that we feel the effect on our emotions, it’s a small step toward nature connectedness, mental wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. Of course, affect can also mean the experience of feeling emotion, and research shows that moments with nature can help manage our feelings.

Butterflies can affect us in meaningful ways.

This dreamy world of enjoying birdsong and noticing butterflies can seem adrift from the complex lives lived by many people, but it is something we’ve tested in urban environments, even during winter months. Simply noticing nature can seem even further adrift from the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis that require transformational and urgent action on a global scale. This needs extensive political and cultural change. How can noticing a butterfly make a difference?

Speaking after the publication of the influential IPBES global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems, Sir Bob Watson, lead scientist of the work, noted that a core issue concerns humans and asked how can we become more in tune with nature? And how do we relate to nature? This core relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world is at the heart of the climate crisis and loss of wildlife. Largely, the human-nature relationship is failing.

Fixing that failing relationship and increasing levels of nature connectedness starts with noticing nature – on a large scale. That change can be facilitated by the political and cultural environment to form a new relationship with nature. The pathways to nature connectedness can be applied at societal scale to create an environment where nature is a valued part of everyday living. Through the design of urban spaces, our institutions, and our approach to health and education.

The political, scientific, and cultural environment led to an exploitation of natural resources that diminished habitats and polluted the atmosphere. Many of these changes occurred imperceptibly over time with each shovel of coal, each switch of the light and each tree felled. Small individual actions are both a product and shaper of culture. If a culture can be created where a passing butterfly is noticed and enjoyed by the many, there will be a greater chance to limit climate chaos and the destruction of nature. Such nature rich living would feel good and worthwhile, with people being more supportive of the wider changes needed for a sustainable future. Butterflies can affect us in meaningful ways.


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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