Why it matters
It may seem obvious why this disconnection – this, extinction of experience – should matter. Clearly, one of its implicit results is that our society is more prone to apathy regarding environmental concerns: we don’t know so we don’t care. Our native wildlife and functioning ecosystems join our experience in the realm of extinction. However, there is even more to the story than this already dramatic context. Let us zoom in to the scale of the individual and again contemplate our own lives. Connecting with nature is not only important to motivate greater environmental conservation and ultimately preserve our species and the resources on which we rely. It seems it is also essential to lead a good life, in the here and now.
Increasingly, science is demonstrating that the benefits of nature for our mental and physical wellbeing are profound and far-reaching. For example, there is strong evidence to suggest that children who spend more time in natural environments develop better motor skills and are less prone to depression as adults.
For us grown-ups, nature can be a restorative force. People who access nearby natural places on a regular basis tend to be healthier overall than those who don’t, or do so rarely. Heck, they even tend to feel more satisfied with their jobs and relationships! A study from the early nineties found that mental fatigue is better relieved by walking in a park than walking in an urban street, or even relaxing on your couch at home – and this was before the incessant stimulation of smart phones became couch essentials. It seems that just looking at nature can make us feel better, with studies showing that people working in stressful environments feel and perform better when they have a view of natural spaces – or even just a desk plant. Perhaps even more exciting is the fact that people recover faster in hospital with a natural view to aid them, whilst the stress of driving is reduced by more natural roadside views.
For some of us, the above benefits may seem like common sense. Indeed, Henry David Thoreau – American philosopher, abolitionist and nature writer – long ago remarked that 'we need the tonic of wildness'. Indeed, the science makes it clear that people generally prefer natural to artificial environments. Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson concluded from this that we humans, being products of the biological world, are intrinsically drawn to that world. Simply put, his Biophillia hypothesis posits that we have evolved to be attracted to certain aspects of nature (such as fresh water, plant life, birds and other animals) because they aid our survival. The story is more complex than that, but the conclusion we can take from the above is really quite simple: we need nature.
How we can fix it
In the opening paragraph of this article, I invited you to contemplate your average day and how much time you spent outdoors in a natural environment. In doing so, you might have been surprised – or even shocked – at how few the minutes were that you managed to squeeze nature into your daily life. But, following this, you may then have thought to yourself in no unjustified terms that, ‘Hey, I’m a busy person – I barely have enough time to do many of the things that I’d like to do or are good for me.’ And that would have been a fair assertion; the rat-race of modernity can seem unrelenting and we all have multiple (and multiplying) priorities to juggle as we run it.
But before you shrug off ‘nature’ as yet another multivitamin or dietary fad you can afford not to buy into, I’d like you to imagine your day once again. This time, rather than imagine your life as it is here and now, in the 21st Century, imagine yourself living sometime earlier in the history of our species – let’s say 100,000 years ago. This is a much more difficult task, I’ll admit, but don’t get caught up in the semantics of how you would wear your hair or complete a workout. Rather, consider how much time – from sunup to sundown – you would spend outside today, surrounded by plants, birds, insects, and of course, your family. The evolutionary circumstances under which modern humans evolved were far from idyllic, but if there is one thing we should be envious of it is this fact: we lived our lives intimately connected with the natural world. In our attempts to distance ourselves from the uncomfortable aspects of this relationship (such as disease, natural disasters, being eaten by things), we have inadvertently removed ourselves from those aspects crucial to our wellbeing.
It may not be possible – or even advisable – to spend our entire lives outdoors removed from modern comforts, but I hope that in contemplating the above scenario you can appreciate just how dramatically different many of our current life experiences are to those of early humans. We need nature and we neglect it to our peril. What’s more is that bringing nature into our daily life does not have to derail our professional and personal goals – if anything, it can support them. As discussed already, nature can have a performance-enhancing effect on our cognitive abilities and for our children it is an essential building block for their confidence and capability. Given this, and given its obvious benefits to our health and happiness more broadly, the question isn’t can we afford to make time for nature, but rather, can we afford not to?