Only Connect

There is a mountain behind the house where I used to live where I would go when I wanted to feel peace. Walking among the towering pines, soft needles underfoot, I myself felt rooted – my lungs would open and I could breathe easier. Now, I live in a big city built of apartment buildings stacked in rows like Lego blocks. I feel as though I haven’t seen a tree in weeks. I heard birds singing the other day and felt a thrill of joy – before I realised they were perched in a cage on someone’s balcony. I feel suffocated by the concrete and brick, as though their heavy presence is a weight bearing down on my shoulders. I miss the nature I took for granted in my old home. The longing has made me think about the connection between people and nature; about how important it is not only for our own wellbeing but also for the wellbeing of the world around us.

I use the term ‘connection’ loosely, to refer not only to physical interactions with the natural environment, but also the feeling of being connected with and a part of nature. I use it to refer to an intimate knowledge of the natural world in which we live and an appreciation of it as something important.

Why is a connection with nature important?

When humans are connected with nature, things generally look better.[1] For example, a connection with nature is good for your physical health, a benefit demonstrated by a number of studies. People who live near green spaces are significantly more likely to be physically active than those who don’t; and physical activity, as we all know, is good for both physical and mental health. Other physical upsides which have been proven to be associated with a connection with nature include faster injury healing times, lower blood pressure, and a reduction in the incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The mechanisms that produce these effects are not entirely clear – most research on the topic shows correlation rather than causation.

Interactions with nature have also been shown to reduce mental fatigue and stress and increase cognitive ability. Related to mental wellbeing are what some researchers term the ‘spiritual benefits’ of a connection with nature. These include heightened levels of inspiration, and a sense of being a part of something larger than yourself. Conversely, living in cities (which, typically, means away from nature) is associated with higher levels of mental illness (in particular anxiety, depression, and substance abuse).

A connection with nature even has broader societal and environmental benefits. One study has shown that crime rates are lower in urban areas with a higher density of vegetation, even after confounding factors were taken into account. Moving away from the anthropocentric (human-focused) perspective (that arguably is a feature of the decline of our relationship with the natural world), a connection with nature is associated with a greater appreciation for the environment in and of itself, and environmentalist attitudes and behaviours.

The research has its failings though. As already noted, it largely investigates the correlation between generalised interactions with nature and the observed results, without discovering how these benefits are produced or what specific aspects of the broad entity of ‘nature’ are actually responsible for delivering them.[2] The studies have also largely been skewed towards a ‘western’ perspective, and therefore tend to focus on both ‘western’ cultural values and the types of ‘nature’ which are found in European and other western latitudes. This means that important dimensions about the connection between humans and nature might be being overlooked.

 

Disconnected

The connection we humans (at least we in the ‘western’ world) have always had with the land, with the birds and bugs and trees, is fading. As society has increasingly urbanised, modernised, technologised, we have become less and less connected to the environment of which we are a part. By plugging into modernity, we have unplugged from the ecosystems of which we are fundamentally a part, and like a two-year old smartphone whose battery-life is starting to dwindle because of planned obsolescence, we’re not doing so well.

There is evidence for this disconnection all around us – in the diminishing amount of time spent on nature-based activities since the 1980s and the rise in ecological illiteracy, wherein the average 8-year-old British child in 2002 could identify 78% of all Pokémon characters but only 53% of common British wildlife species. Researchers have found a steady decline in cultural references to nature in ‘anglophone’ fiction, song lyrics and films since the 1950s. These cultural products reflect their social and cultural context, so the decline of references to nature in them reflects the decline in importance of nature to the societies which produced them.

 

What can this disconnect explain in the world?

It seems quite clear to me that a disconnection from nature is endemic in the increasingly urbanised world, where we live our lives indoors and on city streets, only rarely venturing somewhere where the sound of engines and machinery fades away. This separation, both physical and cultural, can explain more than poor health outcomes. A feeling of being connected with nature is not only good for people, it’s also good for nature: those who identify with nature are less likely to harm their environment. And, unfortunately, it seems to me that the opposite is equally true.

One example is the lack of connection between the packages of meat we buy in the supermarket and living, breathing animals on a farm. Styrofoam and plastic wrap covering a fridge full of pink and red flesh, plastered with stickers advertising special deals and brand labels – it’s all so sanitised and abstract that it is easy to completely dissociate the act of buying meat from where that meat came from.  It’s very easy to ignore the fact that your bacon used to be a pig. And if the label doesn’t specifically say the animals were raised ‘humanely’ (whatever that might mean), it makes it easy to ignore that those pigs likely lived out their lives in unnatural and cruel conditions for the sake of profit and efficiency.[3]

The disconnect is also tied up in the narrow political and social focus on the economy at the expense of all else that seems so common. Questions about what implications climate change mitigation measures or environmental protection regulations might have on the economy are based on the erasure (whether conscious or unconscious) of awareness of the reality that there can be no economy without an environment in which we can live and carry out those economic activities. It also ignores the fact that the cliché about money not buying happiness may be tired but is nevertheless unavoidably true. Once the basic needs of life are met, it isn’t greater wealth which brings joy. What does? Connection – both with nature, and with other people. Counterintuitively, it seems that the obsession with economic growth has actually led to a decrease in wellbeing for many parts of ‘western’ society by eroding those connections.[4]

Relatedly, I think the presence or absence of a connection with nature also goes some way to explaining the different ways environmentalism is framed. Is it to ‘save humanity’? Or is it to save the planet, the world we live on, which is made up of humanity, yes, but also so much more? From an ecocentric perspective (one that considers ecosystems and the environment as predominant, with humans as just one of many constituent parts), the answer is clearly the latter. But without a connection to nature, is it really possible to see things that way?There are many other things I think are related in some way or another to the declining connection with nature – from disordered eating to farmer indebtedness and suicide – all of which bear exploring another time.

 

Why is this happening?

Why are we increasingly disconnected from nature? Urbanisation and a lack of green space in the cities we are all moving to makes it difficult both to interact with nature and to form a relationship with the environment. These implications are especially significant for the elderly, the disabled and those who are socio-economically marginalised. (To me, this is unsurprising, proving yet again the critical connection between environmentalism and social justice.) Restrictive conceptions of conservation may have contributed to the problem as well, emphasising pristine sanctuaries which must be protected from humans, rather than allowing people to explore them, interact with them and play in them. This theory of conservation is known as ‘fortress conservation’,[5] and in my view perpetuates the idea that the environment is something ‘other’, a place where humans don’t belong.

Significant amounts of research have been done into children’s lack of connection with nature. Childhood is crucial in terms of forming relationships and attitudes across all aspects of life, including with regard to the environment. By interacting with nature, children learn that they are a small part of a larger whole.[6] In the UK, though, children today explore and play in an area around their homes which has decreased by 90% over the past 20 years alone. This can partly be explained by hypervigilance on the part of parents and authority figures, but also by the diminishing availability and accessibility of natural spaces to explore and play in. Even if there are natural spaces near to a child’s home, how can that child come to feel a connection with them if she or he isn’t permitted to get lost in them, get curious about them, appreciate them?

 

What can we do about it?

On an individual level, some trends suggest to me that more and more people feel a sense of wrongness with the world of skyscrapers and concrete vistas, television binge-watching and mindless internet scrolling, and are turning away from it towards a life that provides them with the connection with nature (and with other people, though that’s a topic for another day) that they so sorely crave. For example, around the western world, a small but growing number of young people are leaving city offices to become farmers.[7] Even less drastically, many are simply choosing to live rurally. Paradoxically, it is technology which often permits this shift, allowing people to work remotely from home.

Beyond taking individual responsibility for getting out in nature more and nourishing our own and our children’s relationship with it, what can be done to promote a renewed connection with nature? As mentioned already, childhood is critical in terms of forming a relationship with nature and forging connections that will last into adulthood. The incorporation of the environment into education is one way to help children create this relationship. (One example is this ‘forest kindergarten’, in which the outdoors IS the classroom). But what can be done for us adults – for whom it might seem that it’s already too late? Considering that over half of most ‘western’ populations live in urban areas, we should design, and re-design our cities with nature in mind. The benefits of even looking out the window at foliage indicates that the incorporation of more green spaces in cities would be highly beneficial. Beyond the city, we can make natural areas more accessible to urban-dwellers, for instance by ensuring there are public transportation links.

One of the problems, it seems to me, is that this is a bit of a chicken-egg scenario. To prioritise nature, and humans as part of it, in policy requires policymakers to consider these things to be valuable. But it seems that to have that attitude depends to a large extent on a pre-existing connection with nature that is difficult for many people to achieve if they don’t live within a culture or society which values and supports that connection. Reliance on research on the utilitarian benefits of a connection with nature to promote the necessary policies could be problematic, because it could lead to a further bedding-in of the anthropocentric view of nature as a resource for the benefit of humans, rather than as humans’ habitat and a wider ecosystem of which humans are one individual part.  Nevertheless, this research could be a crucial element to changing the tide and reinvigorating our connection so that we, and our environment, may reap the benefits.

 

[1] See Keniger, L E; Gaston, K J; Irvine, K N and Fuller, R A, (2013) What are the benefits of interacting with Nature? Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 10, 913-935 at 917 for a full range of studies on the benefits.

[2] Though there is some evidence that the degree of biodiversity in the area of interaction is one important factor which affects how significant the benefits are.

[3] The situation in NZ re pigs: https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/102183601/animal-rights-campaigners-present-petition-demanding-an-end-to-pig-crates . The situation re chickens: https://www.safe.org.nz/issue/factory-farming-layer-hens and https://www.safe.org.nz/life-meat-chicken

[4] See e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/dec/13/happiness-growing-wealth-nations-study

[5] See also http://centredestudisafricans.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Brockingtonfinal.pdf

[6] See e.g. https://tocaboca.com/magazine/nature-deficit-disorder/

[7] See e.g. https://www.npr.org/2015/01/03/374629580/a-young-generation-sees-greener-pastures-in-agriculture

 

Bibliography:

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