Nature is Central to Wellbeing

World Environment Day provides an excellent moment to reflect on the direction of travel we are collectively embarked upon, and to consider what might be some of the most important questions as we chart our course toward the future.
One thing that is ever more clear is how it is unwise to continue as we are. Climate change, the mass extinction of species and the depletion of different resources have been ever more closely documented and the consequences ever better understood. We know what to do about all that, and have the technologies and policy ideas to make progress right away. So why don’t we change?
It seems to me that a big part of the problem arises from how we have fallen victim to a dangerous misconception that has invaded politics, culture and economics at almost every level. It is the idea that the destruction and degradation of Nature is the price we must pay for progress – an inevitable consequence of improving people’s lives. This misconception even leads to calls to weaken environmental laws, lest they interfere with competitiveness or harm economic growth. So more forests are cleared, soils wrecked and pollution vented to the air, to sustain development, increase comfort and end poverty.
The scale of the error we make day in day out is underlined by a compelling body of evidence, which shows that, far from being a block to human wellbeing, looking after Nature is an essential prerequisite for it. Our food relies on healthy ecosystems, for among other things, nutrient recycling, pollination and pest control. So does the replenishment of freshwater – from the marine plankton that seed clouds to the wetlands that store and purify water, and to the forests that through evapotranspiration send clouds to otherwise dry continental interiors.
Wild species have inspired many of our most common and useful medicines, while wild fish harvests each year provide hundreds of billions of dollars–worth of healthy nutrition. Natural saltmarshes, woodlands, mangroves and coral reefs provide billions of dollars-worth of protection from floods and storm surges. And while we struggle to cut carbon emissions from fossil fuels, forests, wetlands and oceans are soaking up much of what we release, making the job of avoiding dangerous climate change all the more manageable.
At an individual level too there are clearer and clearer connections between the health of people and the health of Nature. This is both in relation to physical and psychological wellbeing, and the extent to which indicators in both of these are improved when we have access to natural areas, watersides and open green spaces. At a time when public health trends - from depression and anxiety to obesity and type-2 diabetes - are taking on alarming (and very expensive) proportions, it is clear we have opportunities to do better for health and at lower cost.
When you add up the value of all this, the economic contribution being made by the on-going flow of benefits provided by Nature are estimated to actually be far bigger than global GDP, demonstrating just how wrong-headed the misconception really is. Part of the issue here is how we measure progress, and the extent to which we’ve become used to measuring growth in the human economy, while ignoring the depletion of Nature’s economy, even when the latter actually enables the former to exist. Not clever.
If we are to continue with the millennia-long human project of ever increased wellbeing for more and more people, then we need to flip our collective perception of the reality we inhabit, to see healthy Nature as a vital ally in achieving health, wealth and security, and to abandon the falsehood that sustaining the vitality and diversity of natural systems is somehow hostile to our interests.
The big question is how best to do this. A positive starting point might be to begin with a simple message, and to point out how a bright future for humankind can not achieved by making choices between people or Nature; it has to be both – or neither. The good news is that it can be done, as demonstrated by many positive examples from across the world.
I have written about many of these in my two recent books – What has Nature ever done for us? and What Nature does for Britain. They demonstrate how the penny is beginning to drop, and that the prize now is in getting that emerging realization into the mainstream.
This article was first published by the Network of Wellbeing.