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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Actions for visible biodiversity help noticing nature and nature connectedness

Having a strong connection to nature leads people to undertake actions that help conserve the natural world. Recently we wondered whether this relationship is reciprocal. That is,  whether taking steps to conserve biodiversity might actually connect people more strongly to nature. The pathways to nature connectedness suggest care for nature is important, but it’s also the case that pro-conservation behaviours can increase a second pathway – sensory contact with nature. Pro-conservation behaviours vary in terms of how much visible
biodiversity, and therefore contact with nature, they produce. We thought it is likely that conservation behaviours that support higher visible biodiversity will create more sensory contact with nature and therefore increase nature connectedness. The paper on this research has just been published in Ecopsychology, where the final version can be accessed. The accepted version is available here.

Pro-conservation behaviours vary in terms of how much positive visible feedback they provide in terms of habitat and biodiversity, and therefore sensory contact with nature, they produce. For example, a shady log pile under your shrubbery most likely has less visible biodiversity and positive feedback than a sunny patch of nectar-rich flowers. And berry-bearing trees and shrubs such as Rowan and Cotoneaster, although visible habitat, probably support less visible biodiversity throughout the year than a bird feeding station – which in itself is visible but not a sensory nature experience.

We hypothesised that conservation actions that lead to more visible biodiversity and feedback (e.g. planting and maintaining pollinator-friendly plants and providing food for wild animals such as birds) will result in more sensory contact with nature than other conservation actions, such as maintaining fruiting plants and creating log piles or other shelters for wildlife. Furthermore, we hypothesised that this increased sensory contact will in turn lead to greater levels of nature connectedness.

Creating visible biodiversity by planting pollinator-friendly plants

We investigated this using data from Natural England’s People and Nature Survey in the UK, a large national survey that includes items that measure noticing nature, nature connectedness, and pro-nature conservation behaviours. We looked at responses from 4206 people. As we worked with an existing survey choices of pro-nature conservation actions were limited. There can also be some debate about whether the actions produce attractive habitat or visible biodiversity – or both. And that will also be subjective. So further work will be required, but the current work provides proof of concept.

As we expected, the two conservation actions that provided the most visible biodiversity and feedback – maintaining wildflowers and putting out food for wildlife – were significant predictors of the extent to which participants reported noticing nature. In contrast, the two other conservation actions, which would be expected to produce less visible biodiversity and feedback (maintaining fruiting plants and creating log piles), were not related to the amount of nature that participants reported noticing. It’s interesting that of the two more visible habitat actions one was non-significant and the bird feeders that clearly attract wildlife were significant.

How much noticing nature people reported was in turn positively related to their levels of nature connectedness. Importantly, the relationship between pro-nature conservation behaviours and nature connectedness was mediated by the extent to which participants noticed nature. Or another way of putting it: the results suggest that certain nature conservation actions lead to people noticing more nature, and this increase in noticing nature leads to an increase in nature connectedness.

These results also mirror previous findings that increasing the amount of nature noticed leads to a stronger connection to nature and extends those findings by showing how noticing is also facilitated by conservation actions that promote visible garden biodiversity and feedback.

Taking actions to create visible biodiversity helps noticing nature which improves nature connectedness, which motivates actions for biodiversity!

These results point to a relatively simple way to boost human connection to nature: encourage garden behaviours that boost visible biodiversity.

The results also have implications for the design and management of green spaces. When creating and managing green spaces, consideration should be given to creating green spaces that contain features that promote positive visible feedback and biodiversity. For example, particular attention could be focussed on creating areas rich in flowers that attract salient pollinators, such as bumblebees and butterflies, or wetland areas that attract easily-viewed wildfowl, such as ducks, swans, coots and moorhens. Similarly, providing long vegetation in places around the otherwise neatly mown edges of urban ponds should provide places for dragonflies and damselflies to shelter, allowing them to be easily viewed by visitors.

Additionally, habitat features that promote salient biodiversity should be located in salient places. For example, if a woodland planting project contains some mast-bearing species such as oak or beech, then it would be desirable if some of these species were planted close to paths, so that the jays, nuthatches, squirrels and other species they attract can easily be seen by site users.

The results from this study also fit well with previous research and we’ve captured this in the figure below. The figure presents our previous findings that noticing nature is important for building nature connectedness, that nature connectedness is linked to improved wellbeing through noticing nature; that nature connectedness is linked to greater pro-nature behaviours through noticing and that the pro-nature behaviours that increase biodiversity are linked to improved wellbeing. The results above complete the reciprocal relationship between nature connectedness and pro-nature behaviours through noticing nature.

The key role of noticing nature

When we consider improving the human-nature relationship at a societal scale, a key aspect is sensory interaction with nature and creating positive feedback loops to combat the extinction of experience. The present research suggests that visible biodiversity is important. Visible wildlife can be amplified through programmes, events, community involvement in the places where nature recovery networks and people mix.

In sum, biodiversity loss is a sign that the human-nature relationship is failing. A new and sustainable relationship with nature is needed. It is becoming clear that ‘noticing nature’  has a key role to play in improving that relationship for human and nature’s wellbeing. There’s a need to bring visible and salient nature to people and engage them with it. Both through nature recovery networks in urban areas and advice on visible nature conservation actions for the public.

 

Hamlin, I., & Richardson, M. (2022). Visible Garden Biodiversity is Associated with Noticing Nature and Nature Connectedness. Ecopsychology. Advance Online publication: https://doi.org/10.1089/eco.2021.0064.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Nature Connection Handbook

The real-world application of the science of nature connection really matters – there’s an urgent need to connect more people, more fully with the rest of nature. With widespread recognition of the importance of a close relationship with nature, there has been growing use of nature connection principles and practices across a range of sectors, including environmental, mental health, social care, youth, arts and creative industries, local government, community, education, and business.

In addition to our work carrying out research, evaluation, and designing interventions, we regularly offer guidance and support to organisations who want to put the research into practice. To meet the increasing demand for help in the design and delivery of nature connection initiatives, we have created The Nature Connection Handbook: A Guide for Increasing People’s Connection with Nature – it’s free and you can download it here (the shortened URL for sharing is bit.ly/NatureConnectionHandbook.

The Nature Connection Handbook

The handbook is designed to be used by a wide range of organisations and individuals who have an interest in helping people grow closer to nature and offers an accessible summary of nature connection research and application, a framework and guidance for helping people improve their connection with nature, and examples of activities and initiatives that support and develop nature connection.

The need to transform the human-nature relationship has never been more important. People who feel closer to nature are happier and more satisfied with life and are more likely to take actions that help wildlife and the environment. This handbook will support those who are showing people new ways of relating to nature, prompting the kind of sensory and emotional engagement that leads to fundamental shifts in nature connectedness and mutual benefits for humans and nature.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Nature Connection Design Ideas

The are many potential routes and stepping stones to a new relationship with nature. I find the creative application of nature connectedness research findings really exciting and, for me, it’s an essential part of the research process – work to understand a problem and provide solutions. There are many good examples where our research has been applied, but also unrealised ideas. This blog simply shares some of my ideas, some very recent, some may be impractical and others perhaps plain daft! But sharing and discussing ideas is often the catalyst for others, so here goes…

A key finding from our research is that simply noticing nature is an essential step to improving nature connectedness and thereby mental well-being and pro-nature behaviours. Yet most people don’t tend to notice nature. Then we’ve also found that the typical amount of time people spend in urban green spaces is just 4 minutes 36 seconds. There’s a need for places and spaces that prompt people to pause, notice and linger. There are several art installations that prompt people to sit and notice, such as “Skyspace” by James Turrell. The plan view of the ‘harbour’ below is simply two curved walls that allow the option of a roof or cover for those enjoyable rainy days. Positioned within an area with some trees and habitats, the overlapping curves create a simple entrance to the space. A space that invites people to sit and be harboured by the curves. To pause, away from those who continue to wander. Permission is given to notice nature.

The second version has a single entrance, like a tunnel towards a nest. To leave the wider world to a calmer place. Although simple, such spaces can be special. Too often there are no places to pause, or a bench is sited on the footpath itself, legs shuffle as others pass by. Create a space, a focal point and people will come. Such spaces also create great areas for green social prescribing.

Sometimes green spaces are limited. Simply passed through on route to some place else. How can the smallest green space provide the longest walk and more moments with nature? Through a labyrinth. Mazes require thought, can bring frustration, labyrinths are simply followed – all the better if created with wildlife in mind.

And of course the harbour and labyrinth can be combined. Sadly, how practical such spaces would be in public and urban areas is another matter. Just as they invite people to pause and linger to enjoy nature, they will invite people to linger and enjoy other things – but good design could perhaps mitigate such concerns.

I love the nature writing of Richard Jefferies (1848 – 1887), it is clear from his wonderful accounts of time lingering by fields and hedgerows just how much wildlife there was 150 years ago.

In Nature Near London Jefferies writes of numerous wildflowers and birds:

A certain road leading outwards from a suburb, enters at once among fields. It soon passes a thick hedge dividing a meadow from a cornfield, in which hedge is a spot where some bluebells may be found in spring … This meadow in June, for instance, when the buttercups are high, is one broad expanse of burnished gold. The most careless passer-by can hardly fail to cast a glance over acres of rich yellow. The furze, again, especially after a shower has refreshed its tint, must be seen by all. Where broom grows thickly, lifting its colour well into view, or where the bird’s-foot lotus in full summer overruns the thin grass of some upland pasture, the eye cannot choose but acknowledge it….The thick hedge mentioned is a favourite resort of blackbirds, and on a warm May morning, after a shower—they are extremely fond of a shower—half-a-dozen may be heard at once whistling in the elms… A pair of turtle-doves built in the same hedge one spring, and while resting on the gate by the roadside their “coo-coo” mingled with the song of the nightingale and thrush, the blackbird’s whistle, the chiff-chaff’s “chip-chip,” the willow-wren’s pleading voice, and the rustle of green corn as the wind came rushing (as it always does to a gateway).

And of numerous insects in Field and Hedgerow:

This forest land is marked by the myriads of insects that roam about it in the days of sunshine. Of all the million million heathbells—multiply them again by a million million more—that purple the acres of rolling hills, mile upon mile, there is not one that is not daily visited by these flying creatures. Countless and incalculable hosts of the yellow-barred hover-flies come to them; the heath and common, the moor and forest, the hedgerow and copse, are full of insects. They rise under foot, they rise from the spray brushed by your arm as you pass, they settle down in front of you—a rain of insects, a coloured shower. Legion is a little word for the butterflies; the dry pastures among the woods are brown with meadow-brown; blues and coppers float in endless succession

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to witness such scenes? A journey from the present, back 100 then 1000 years to see how a sterile landscape was once alive. An antidote to shifting baseline syndrome where each generation thinks the current state of nature is the norm. Of course this can be done with Augmented Reality headsets, but what about an AR window that overlays the past upon the present. A window on a popular route, where many pass to enjoy the landscape of today – but can witness the landscape nature intended. Of course, even if technically possible, a rewilded landscape would be a better solution!

A window onto more vibrant times

And now we wander into the more unusual corners of my mind, although this idea springs from a corner I occupy most evenings. I’m big fan of funk music and avid listener to funky.radio (24/7 funk with no adverts!). Funk music is always ‘on the one’ and nature connection is about being at ‘one with nature’, about ‘one health’ on ‘one planet’. It’s the story of the one. And funk music, especially Parliament Funkadelic has many fun stories and characters. From the Clones of Dr. Funkenstein to an alien UFO that visits Earth to steal the funk to save their dying world from its funklessness.

I expect engaging with nature has a bit of a tired and predictable image to many, from macs, wellies and binoculars to soft focus visions sat cross legged in a meadow. But a vibrant natural world is exciting, alive and full of characters and the story of the need for nature can be told in different ways to appeal to different audiences. So, inspired by Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair, an underwater concept album set in Atlantis, I created some characters to describe a funk themed walk on the walking and nature connection app, Go Jauntly. As you’re reading this and not walking, I’ve transferred the text of the walk onto the slides below.

 

In a vaguely similar vein of alternative framing, several years ago I imagined a nature themed celebrity lifestyle magazine.

A celebrity lifestyle magazine.

So, there we go, not a full ‘brain dump’ of ideas – i’ve omitted several, including my nature spoof aftershave ad and my emotion balancing contraption – a machine that illustrates how nature helps manage our moods. Hopefully, the ideas above will inspire some to create other ideas that become real and help bring people a little closer to nature.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Going Global: Transforming the Human-Nature Relationship

It is recognised globally by organisations such as the UN and IPBES that the human relationship with nature is broken and 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; it can be measured and is known to relate to pro-nature and pro-environmental behaviours – while also benefiting wellbeing. Nature connection unites human and nature’s wellbeing. And people’s connection with nature is a key realm for interventions to transform sustainability. This global ambition may seem out of reach, but each of us can play a part.

The UN Environmental Programme report Making Peace with Nature suggests that the world can transform its relationship with nature and tackle the climate and biodiversity crises through bold policymaking. An important part of this is changing the mindsets and values that create the current relationship with nature. Yet, it’s not just about policymakers, one of the key messages from the report is that “Everyone has a role to play in … transforming humankind‘s relationship with nature” – rather than using human knowledge, ingenuity, technology and cooperation to transform nature. This needs to be supported by empowering people to express themselves and act responsibly towards the environment.

New visions of a close relationship with nature are needed from new sectors. And I’ve seen that those new visions often come from one or two individuals within an organisation. People who have a close relationship with nature can lead the way in how to integrate nature connection into everyday life. Indeed, such visions are listed as key areas for transformative change in the report: “Paradigms and visions of a good life: Move towards paradigms that emphasise relationships with people and nature over material consumption.”

A key message from the report is that improving our relationship with nature, understanding its value and putting that value at the heart of our decision-making means transforming social and economic systems. I’ve discussed systems change and material consumption in our paper on applying the pathways to nature connectedness at a societal scale. At its simplest, this involves fostering the relationships that build nature connection while moderating the damaging relationships at key leverage points.

Towards this goal of transformative change, work on the IPBES transformative change assessment into the underlying causes of biodiversity loss has begun. The assessment will identify factors in human society at both the individual and collective levels that may be leveraged to bring about transformative change for the conservation and restoration of biodiversity. This includes behavioural, social, cultural, economic, institutional, and technological dimensions.

The IPBES transformative change assessment will consider the human-nature relationship. International experts from every region of the world will contribute as authors to the assessment, which will be considered in 2024 by representatives of almost 140 countries that are part of IPBES. The assessment will set out options for policymakers based on the latest scientific evidence. I’m excited to have been invited to be a lead author on this assessment.

The assessment will present evidence for the need for transformative change and present visions of a sustainable world – for nature and people. In addition, the assessment will consider the specific challenges transformative change for nature and people presents, such as the range of differing worldviews and values related to biodiversity, nature and visions of a sustainable future.

The assessment will also consider how transformative change occurs, focusing on those changes that can be intentionally promoted, accelerated, and scaled to improve, maintain or restore healthy relationships with nature – to realise a sustainable world where biodiversity can thrive. This will need to consider how to overcome the challenges of achieving transformative change, why efforts to address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss have mostly been unsuccessful and the obstacles that impede transformative change. Before assessing the options to realise a sustainable world for nature and people.

These global initiatives set the scene for forging a new relationship with nature close to home. Pioneers can help in their areas of activity and influence. While many environmental initiatives focus on reduction and restriction, nature connection offers a positive vision of a nature-rich world that helps people feel good and live meaningful lives. The principles of nature connectedness provide an accessible and evidence-based approach that can be creatively applied across the public realm to help bring people closer to nature.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment