We Must Protect Nature To Conserve Peoples' WellbeingPublished by Tony Juniper on Fri, 30/08/2013 - 12:00am
Research shows the positive effect of nature on health and happiness. So why does environment remain on the margins of debate?
While for several decades the environmental agenda has been predicated on the goal of protecting nature from people, there is a new and very powerful body of material suggesting that a new storyline is needed: one based on the notion of protecting nature to conserve the wellbeing of people.
Research demonstrating how human health can benefit from exposure to green environments, nature and wildlife, both in relation to both physical and psychological wellbeing, is now very substantial. Some dates back a few decades.
Data collected in a Pennsylvania hospital between 1972 and 1981 showed how recovery after gallbladder surgery was faster when patients could see trees and greenery from their beds. More recent research in the Netherlands looking at more than a quarter of a million people found that those living near to green space rated their health and wellbeing as higher than those who did not. The relationship was consistently found across different neighbourhoods, but green space was found to be especially beneficial for people on lower incomes.
Researchers working in the north of England found a measureable, positive link between the level of species diversity and the psychological benefit expressed by people who used natural areas in the urban environment.
There is evidence to show how exposure to nature is associated with reduced stress and improved work performance. Other studies have demonstrated a link between exposure to nature a and fewer reports of ill-health among prisoners, increased self-discipline among inner-city girls and reduced mortality among elderly people. One study found that for every 10% increase in green space, communities can show a reduction in health complaints equivalent to a reduction in average age of 5 years.
Another found that exercise in green environments can create immediate improvements in self-esteem. Several researchers have demonstrated how office workers experience lower job stress, higher job satisfaction, and fewer illnesses if they have views of natural areas than if they did not. Another piece of research found that children suffering from stressful situations recovered more quickly when they were in areas with access to nature. As is the case with other studies, the benefit is seen most clearly among low income and socially deprived groups.
On top of the gains that individuals can realise from being in nature there is a body of evidence pointing to social benefits too. For example, community cohesion has been found to increase where there are more trees. In one study on a huge Chicago housing estate people knew more of their neighbours when there were more trees where they lived. In areas dominated by concrete, people interacted less. There was also less domestic violence in greener areas.
In the UK there has been some effort to highlight the linkages between health and wellbeing and access and exposure to nature. But while a small handful of conservation groups, health professionals and official agencies have worked to better understand and to spread awareness about such linkages, there has is as yet no coherent government programme of action. It seems to me that this is a considerable missed opportunity.
Clean air acts helped improve the environment and had dramatic beneficial impacts on people's wellbeing. Different controls on industrial pollution and pesticides led to similarly positive outcomes. At the global level progress has been made on at least two key issues (reducing the release of ozone-depleting substances and ending lead additives in petrol) in large part because of human health concerns, in the form of skin cancer on the one hand and brain damage on the other.
While pollution control measures have been positive, it is time to move on and embrace a new nature and health agenda. This could provide an especially powerful narrative if linked to the wider health picture.
The population is growing older, chronic physical diseases are becoming more widespread while mental health problems have also been on the increase. At the same time as demand for certain aspects of health care are expected to rise, there are serious budgetary constraints, arising from both demographic (proportionately fewer taxpayers as more people retire) and on-going pressures on public finances. Given these fundamental challenges, the extent to which nature could improve public health outcomes should be of enormous interest to a range of decision makers, including those whose role is to manage the public finances.
It strikes me that the time is right to launch a campaign to promote health through nature. It could begin with an economic comparison between the cost effectiveness of drugs and other medical approaches in achieving public health outcomes, compared with the contribution that is and could be made by the natural environment. Not only would this demonstrate the potential contribution that could be made toward wellbeing through nature, but also the potential for tackling some of the indicators of inequality. If that were effective in raising awareness and opening debate, then the conservation of the natural environment might be where it belongs: at the centre of national life, not in the margins.
This article was first published by The Guardian, 30th August 2013.