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Will connecting with nature make enough difference?

Connecting with nature on our doorstep can help us feel good – but how good is it for nature?

The idea that connecting with the natural world is good for human health and wellbeing has become of a commonplace, underlined by many people’s experiences during the lockdowns of the last two years. 

’Nature connectedness’ is now influencing thinking among landowners such as the National Trust and healthcare practitioners who are testing how ‘green social prescribing’ can be used as a way of alleviating mental health conditions. 

But is it enough just to connect with nature? With colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University and Shared Assets CIC, it’s an issue we explored in a new paper.

The idea that humans are connected with the natural world and that their wellbeing and that of other species is interconnected is not new – the idea of ‘biophilia’ has been around for decades – but in recent years it has attracted significant public attention. This interest has coincided with increased awareness of the biodiversity crisis that is rapidly unfolding, with one million species threatened with possible extinction. 

It is also linked to a growing realisation among healthcare professionals that the scale of mental health support required in 21st century western society far outweighs the resources currently available. 

Add to that the appreciation of nature and green spaces expressed by so many during the first phase of Covid-19, and you have the makings of a ‘policy window’ – a moment when public and political priorities are realigned. But in this rush to adopt ‘nature connectedness’ as a new way of thinking, there’s a risk that we’ll just focus on encouraging people to feel good in natural environments, without facing difficult choices about land use, diet, equality, and economic priorities in an era of climate crisis.

During the summer after the first Covid-19 lockdowns in the UK, we interviewed people about their experiences of using parks and urban green spaces. Those experiences were overwhelmingly positive. 

One parent who was homeschooling told us: ’It was such a stressful time, you know, no- one knew what was going on . . . Just to be able to actually have somewhere to go and you know, the ducks, there were ducklings and baby moorhens on the pond … it just was so nice. Again, that whole nature thing, to get out and to actually be able to, you know, breathe and sort of, yes, just de-stress really by having somewhere that’s nice to walk around.’

An office worker described how he would walk through his local park to unwind at the end of a day: ‘I went for a walk last night … and felt just invigorated when I got back from that. And a lot of that was walking through the park and, you know, spending time looking at the trees, just absorbing things that I probably wouldn’t normally notice.’

It was clear from these interviews, and others, that many people feel an instinctive connection with the natural world and with green and open spaces. It’s less clear that such connections will lead to changes in the way we collectively behave – changes sufficient to reverse species loss and restore habitats on the scale required.

Much of the recent work on nature connectedness can be credited to a research group at the University of Derby. They have pioneered the use of the ‘nature connectedness pathways’ which specify five modes of connecting with nature: contact, beauty, meaning, emotion and compassion.

A 2017 paper introduces these pathways as a way of operationalising previous research on biophilia in order to show how humans can better connect with the natural world. It highlights the importance of subjective and emotional connections in driving pro-environmental behaviour, instead of relying on scientific knowledge alone. 

Looking at the material gathered from our interviews with park users, we decided to analyse them for evidence of these pathways to nature connectedness. Would real-world experiences show people behaving as described in the pathways framework?

We found plenty of evidence of the importance of time spent in natural environments (contact) and a sense of aesthetic appreciation (beauty and emotion). It was more difficult to establish from the material we had that ‘meaning’ or ‘compassion’ were significant. This matters because to address species loss, humans need to shift from being consumers of nature (seeing the natural world as a good to be enjoyed) to seeing themselves as part of an interdependent web of life in which plants and animals are active participants. 

We were left with the suspicion that cute as the ducklings and moorhen chicks might be, individuals’ connectedness to them might prove less telling than their connectedness to lifestyles and attitudes that continue to harm the more-than-human world. 

We cannot know this for sure, because our work was an analysis of existing material rather than new research specifically designed to explore nature connectedness. But we need to examine more carefully the potential leverage points that shift an individual, or an institution, from simply valuing the natural world to making positive pro-environmental choices. 

If Covid has increased our love of nature, this is welcome. And small changes matter, and can ultimately lead to bigger shifts. But this is only the beginning, and the crisis we face won’t pause while we catch up. 

By Julian Dobson

@juliandobson on Twitter, director of www.urbanpollinators.co.uk, writer and editor on anything to do with place and society. Occasional academic and creative writing too.

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