Country level factors in a failing relationship with nature

There is global recognition from organisations such as the UN and IPBES that the failing human relationship with nature is an underlying cause of the environmental crises. The UN Secretary-General has noted the “urgent need to transform our relationship with nature“, and the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity speaks of restoring our broken relationship with nature. Nature connectedness captures that relationship with nature which allows research to identify the factors in the failing relationship, develop solutions and monitor progress towards a sustainable future. Our latest paper published recently in the Springer Nature journal Ambio looks into country level factors in a failing relationship with nature across 14 European countries and at nature connectedness as a metric for a sustainable future. The paper is available here and the blog summary is split into two parts, the first being this blog on country level factors – the second shows why nature connectedness is a key metric for a sustainable future.

Factors in a failing relationship with nature

The study analysed data from 14,745 adults across 14 European countries, this revealed some fundamentals, shown below in a table ranked by nature connectedness which  also shows human and nature’s wellbeing. This shows the UK is not a nation of nature lovers which links through to the UK being one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. This relationship between a closer relationship with nature and higher levels of biodiversity can also be seen in the table, as can a similar tendency for wellbeing. Some figures on those relationships are provided below.

Country Nature Connection Biodiversity Wellbeing
Italy 4.67 0.51 61.00
Portugal 4.63 0.51 65.13
Czech 4.47 0.50 62.35
Bulgaria 4.43 0.49 63.94
France 4.36 0.42 61.97
Greece 4.35 0.55 63.45
Estonia 4.29 0.44 56.45
Spain 4.29 0.49 67.55
Germany 4.27 0.37 58.23
Netherlands 4.21 0.41 61.52
Finland 4.17 0.29 60.61
Sweden 4.05 0.30 58.97
Ireland 3.96 0.28 58.97
UK 3.71 0.32 54.13

The loss of nature in the UK is linked to centuries of farming, building and industry and this research we wanted to see how individual levels of nature connectedness related to country level indicators that broadly reflect such activity and therefore a failing relationship with nature. The indicator groups were:

  • Extinction of nature experience – with measures of urban population and adults over 65 years old.
  • Consumption and commerce – with measures of average income, energy use and smartphone ownership.
  • Use and control of nature – with measures of cultivated land, biodiversity and material footprint.
  • Negativistic factors – with measures of risk of natural disasters and average rainfall.

The full rationale for these indicator groups and measures is provided in the full paper, but the aim was to gain insight into how factors such as affluence, technology, consumption and loss of nature are associated with a weaker, or stronger, human-nature relationship.

As an exploratory study, these relationships were simply explored across the 14 countries with correlations. These show the strongest associations to the human-nature relationship were:

  • The country’s level of biodiversity – more wildlife was related to people having a closer relationship with nature.
  • The age of the population – populations with more older people tended to have a closer relationship with nature.
  • Average income – countries with a higher average incomes had a more distant relationship with nature.
  • Smartphone ownership – the more people owned a smartphone, the more distant the relationship to nature.

There were also moderate associations to the human-nature relationship for:

  • Arable land: The more land used for growing crops the higher the closer the relationship with nature.
  • Pasture land: Higher levels of pasture land were linked to a more distant relationship with nature.
  • Urban population: The more people lived in urban areas the more distant the relationship with nature.
  • Rainfall: Wetter countries had a more distant relationship with nature.

This table provides a summary of the correlations between nature connectedness and each country level metric – the closer to 1 or -1 indicating the strongest relationships, with zero indicating no relationship.

Metric Correlation to Nature Connectedness Metric Correlation to Nature Connectedness
Biodiversity 0.806 Energy Use -0.295
Proportion Aged 65+ 0.640 Urban Population -0.402
Arable Land 0.400 Pasture Land -0.433
Natural Disasters 0.059 Rainfall -0.457
Material Footprint -0.065 Income -0.555
Smartphone Penetration -0.784

The results show strong or moderately strong relationships within each of the three broad indicator groupings of extinction of nature experience, consumption and commerce, and utility and dominion. This suggests that extinction of experience, consumption and commerce and utility and dominion are country level factors that are linked to the individual human-nature relationship.

Across all the measures, biodiversity and smartphone ownership had the strongest relationships to nature connectedness, with average income and proportion of older adults providing the next strongest relationships. There’s much more discussion of these results in the full paper, but when it comes to country-level factors and the failing human-nature relationship it is fair to say:

  • Biodiversity really matters – more nature is strongly linked to more connection.
  • Consumerism, technology and prosperity are linked to the human-nature relationship.
  • The way we use our land is linked to individual relationships with nature – with some uses being positive, others negative.
  • Populations with fewer older adults (or more children) tend to have a lower connection with nature – perhaps a sign of shifting baselines and decline in nature connection that mirrors the decline of nature.

The direction of any causality can’t be determined by these results, but the point of the analysis is to show that country-level factors are related to individual relationships with nature. Causality isn’t an issue when there is no relationship. So, the presence of moderate to strong relationships in this relatively homogenous group of countries suggests that the broad macro level impacts on the individual levels of nature connectedness – that is important to know.

Whether it is the weakening relationship with nature that leads to the loss of wildlife or the loss of wildlife that damages the relationship, is a moot point as neither is beneficial – but it is clear that the two are strongly related. Also, research suggests that there is a reciprocal relationship between biodiversity and nature connectedness – both directions are probably important.

Although correlation does not show causation, proposals can be made. It’s fair to propose that national indicators such as urbanisation, land use, biodiversity and income have a long gestation period that could affect individual perceptions of nature connectedness. However, it may still be the case that a long-standing culture of nature connectedness in a country brings about conditions which give rise to higher biodiversity, less urbanisation and lower income.

Causality can also be suggested when there’s other evidence of causal effects, for example increased nature experience (which links to biodiversity and urbanisation for example) and increasing nature connectedness. Or where there is evidence at the individual level for the key relationships, for example nature connectedness has been found to be linked to biodiversity and smartphone use. With immersive digital environments emerging and planned there is also a need to consider the impact of such technology on the human-nature relationship.

A further aspect to consider is that the countries with the greater disconnect to nature tend to be those that have experienced the most economic growth since 1820, with personal income increasing 13-fold in Western Europe, compared to sixfold in Eastern Europe and tenfold in Southern Europe. Affluence is related to consumption and unsustainable trends – the exploitation of natural resources and reduced biodiversity. Especially in these countries nature has given for free and now owe a debt to nature.

In sum, nature connectedness has often been considered at the level of the individual, with programmes and interventions designed to help bring people closer to nature. However, the analysis in this work also shows the need for macro perspectives. The way land is used, how people engage with that land and the impact of land use on biodiversity matters for the human-nature relationship and a sustainable future. Further, the analysis shows that the nature of society matters, the nature of its consumer economy, urbanisation and intergenerational activity are also related to the human-nature relationship. This unique country level analysis adds power and direction to the need for a new relationship with nature for a sustainable future. It also highlights the debt to nature we must repay.

Read Part 2 of this blog here.

Richardson, M., Hamlin, I., Elliott, L.R. et al. Country-level factors in a failing relationship with nature: Nature connectedness as a key metric for a sustainable future. Ambio (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-022-01744-w

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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