Nature connectedness: A key metric for a sustainable future

As noted in the first part of this blog, 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. Nature connectedness captures that relationship with nature which allows researchers 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 illustrates why nature connectedness is a key metric for a sustainable future. The paper is available here and the blog summary is split into two parts, this blog on nature connectedness as a key metric being the second part – the first part covers country level factors in a failing relationship with nature.

Nature connectedness – one measure for one health

Part one showed the relationship between country level factors and individual levels of nature connectedness, with the strong relationship between individual levels of nature connectedness and various country level factors. There is also wider research which shows the strong and causal relationships between nature connectedness and both wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours. This suggests nature connectedness could be a useful indicator to monitor progress towards a more sustainable future. So in the Ambio paper we compared nature connectedness to existing indices of prosperity, human development, sustainability and social progress. Again, the full paper gives more detail.

The table below provides a summary of the correlations between a selection of composite indices for each country and outcomes related to human and nature’s wellbeing. 14,745 adults across 14 European countries responded to questions on nature connectedness (INS) and well-being (WHO’s 5-item index of positive well-being) with the National Biodiversity Index NBI used for biodiversity and the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) for carbon emissions.

Nature Connectedness Carbon Emissions Well-being Biodiversity
Legatum Prosperity Index -0.61 0.13 -0.52 -0.83
Human Development Index -0.65 0.06 -0.51 -0.76
Social Progress Index -0.44 0.01 -0.33 -0.67
Sustainable Development Ranking -0.38 0.20 -0.42 -0.72
Nature Connectedness 1.00 0.02 0.64 0.81

Interestingly, whereas nature connectedness is linked to higher levels of well-being and biodiversity, the four composite metrics all had a negative relationship to well-being and, most notably for the Sustainable Development Ranking, biodiversity. Further, the selected composite indexes all have a negative relationship to nature connectedness, even the Sustainable Development Ranking.

Higher scores on these indexes are intended to reflect positive outcomes related to meeting basic human needs, human development, prosperity and sustainability – yet they have a negative relationship to wellbeing and biodiversity. They fail to capture the bond between people and nature that is recognised as by organisations such as the UN and IPBES as essential for a healthy and sustainable life. While nature connectedness emerges as a useful, yet simple indicator of both human and nature’s well-being that should inform the transition to a sustainable future. It provides one measure for one health.

These relationships could be limited to this sample of countries, although when extended to data from 150 nations, the relationship between biodiversity and the Sustainable Development Ranking is weaker, but still negative. More work is needed to extend this analysis to all the countries around the globe.

Meanwhile it’s interesting to consider what might be happening. The sustainable development ranking measures a country’s overall progress towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). To me the SDGs are essentially dualistic, they are a product of the dominant worldview where people and nature are sperate. Some of the goals focus on humans, such as ensuring health and education, ending poverty and hunger. And other goals focus on nature, such as conserving marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Despite the UN statements on the “urgent need to transform our relationship with nature“ the SDGs do not specifically mention the human-nature relationship or consider nature connectedness (or related measures) as an indicator.

The only relevant reference to the human-nature relationship I can see is a sub-item of Goal 12, ‘Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’ with target 12.8 stating ‘By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature’. It is still not specifically targeting the human-nature relationship and the indicators for 12.8 are focussed on citizenship and sustainable development education providing the knowledge and skills to act – but research shows that human-nature relationships aren’t built on knowledge and such an approach is unlikely to improve nature connectedness.

More work would be useful, however, given statements and evidence that the human-nature relationship is failing and an underlying cause of the environmental crises, together with wider evidence that nature connectedness captures that relationship with nature and explains both human and nature’s wellbeing there should be an 18th SDG specific to improving the human-nature relationship with nature connectedness providing a straightforward indicator.

It is clear that the human-nature relationship is failing, leading to human induced climate change and loss of wildlife. The country-based analysis in part one of the blog helps confirm that this failing relationship is related to affluent, technological consumer-based living that consumes natural resources and reduces biodiversity, which feeds back to further weaken the human-nature relationship. That analysis, plus the comparison of indexes above, also supports nature connectedness as a key indicator of the human-nature relationship. Hence the conclusion in the paper that nature connectedness is a critical indicator of human and nature’s well-being needed to inform the transition to a sustainable future. Rather than focussing on treating the symptoms of the failing human-nature relationship, it’s time to tackle the root cause.

Read Part 1 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).

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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