Nature Connections 2016: Getting Connected to Nature

Nature Connections 2016
2nd Interdisciplinary Conference: Getting Connected to Nature

Improving the links between research, policy and service provision in connection to nature 
University of Derby, Wednesday 15 June 2016
Remarks from Tony Juniper

Deep connections
For several centuries human societies have become progressively more distant from the natural systems that sustain them.
Technology, urbanisation, culture and economics have all to a greater or less extent diminished and removed our connections with the natural world, connections that we as a species had throughout nearly all of our biological history.
The disconnection has been accompanied by the drumbeat of “progress”, as people have sought economic expansion, adopted new technologies and moved to cities. All of these things we have, of course, done for very good reasons, gaining a great many benefits in the process. We are finding, however, that set against the benefits are some important losses.
People with brains like ours first evolved about 200,000 years ago. For the vast majority of the time since then people lived close to Nature. For about 95 per cent of that long period our ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer societies and thus were very close indeed to the day-to-day realities of the natural world. 
About 10,000 years ago humans began to rely on settled farming. They still lived close to Nature, however, with people interacting with animals and plants and were daily embedded in natural cycles. 
And although the first towns were established at about the time that farming began to generate food surpluses, urbanisation in its modern form only began in earnest about 200 years ago. It took from then until 2007 for the point to be reached where half of humankind lived in towns and cities. Even if we take 200 years ago as the point at which humans became urban, then for 99.9 per cent of human history was non-urban.
Great Britain was one of the first modern societies to see a rapid shift from the rural to urban living and today the vast majority of us live in towns and cities. Even here, however, it is in a biological sense a very recent phenomenon and it is thus perhaps unsurprising that the tens of thousands of years that shaped modern humans should still have momentum in influencing how we feel and how we behave.
Effective hunter-gatherers have to be very well tuned-in naturalists, aware of the migratory patterns of important animals, of seasonal change and how food availability changes over the course of the year. Farmers are aware of seasons, soil fertility and water and the animals that help them as well as those that hinder. In both cases people’s survival depended upon being in tune with the world around them. Misreading clues could cost them dearly.
It’s perhaps no wonder then that even though we might now spend more time in cars, shops and houses than we do in the forests and grasslands, our beings are still connected with Nature, because we are Nature, and we are in it as much as the birds and flowers.
Dr William Bird, one researcher who has done so much to understand these continuing connections with Nature derived from our evolutionary past told me that putting modern humans outside Nature is like “…having a computer system that took a year to develop and then someone says at the last minute ‘can you change the whole thing’ and of course there is no way”, he said.
As we gather more information as to our innate psychological responses to Nature, we realise just how much an affinity with the natural world is hard-wired into our beings. And as all of you know that wiring has important implications for our wellbeing.

More and more research confirms how our inherited and biological disposition to interact with Nature is real and has major implications for how we live.
This includes a significant body of evidence from psychologists, medical researchers and ecologists showing how time spent in natural surroundings can increase feelings of pleasure and ‘relaxed wakefulness’ and reduce negative emotions such as anxiety and anger. It has been demonstrated that time in nature helps to reduce stress, which increasingly is linked with a range of other conditions including dementia, depression and cardiovascular problems.
One Dutch study gathered data from more than a quarter of a million people using a questionnaire to understand the possible relationship that might exist between the distance respondents lived from green spaces, including urban parks, natural areas and farmland, and how well they felt.
Some striking findings emerged. If green space was nearby, then people rated their own health as better than those who didn’t have such spaces near their home. For example, in areas where 90 per cent of the local space was green, 10.2 per cent of the residents felt unhealthy. In areas where 10 per cent of the environment was green, then 15.5 per cent of the residents said they felt unhealthy. 
When that kind of fifty per cent difference is scaled up to whole countries then the implications for public health and public health budgets is very significant indeed. A growing body of research highlights the health benefits that come from time spent in Nature and not only includes those for physical wellbeing but also psychological ones. In both cases it is clear that a considerable opportunity exists to do better for people through doing better for Nature.
About a tenth of health problems reported in the West today are psychological disorders and that is expected to rise significantly. There are also rising pressures arising from there being more obese people, with a series of public health challenges flowing from that. There are many complex reasons for these trends but one set of remedies might be found through finding ways for people to spend more time in natural areas.
The mental health charity Mind is one of several organisations that has shown through practical example how these findings can be translated into programmes that can benefit people and in ways that can be more cost effective than some more mainstream alternatives, for example helping people to get outside and doing physical activity in natural environments to treat depression, rather than relying solely on medication.
Its not only individuals that benefit from time in more natural areas, but societies too. The kinds of relationships I just described between access to green spaces and well-being has been found to be consistent across different neighbourhoods, but being outside in more natural environments is especially beneficial for people on lower incomes. Surely a finding of great importance for our ever more divided society. There is also evidence pointing toward other benefits for social cohesion.
For example, a study in a Chicago housing estate found neighbours spoke to each other more when there were more trees. Where there was more concrete and less green then people interacted less. Also where there was more green there was less domestic violence.
Perhaps some of this is to be expected, but until its spelled out it is in my experience not even taken for granted, but ignored, ignored in favour of what appear to be more immediate and tangible benefits. These are often economic in character with short-term opportunities to achieve growth often trumping what are seen as the less clear advantages that flow from keeping wilder and natural environments in good shape.
When, however, the implications of this research are unpacked and subject to economic analysis then some even more compelling conclusions emerge. I note for example with great interest how the Natural Capital Committee that advises the Treasury on the value of Britain’s natural assets to the economy says that the value of woodlands and other green spaces are greatest when close to urban areas. That is where most people live and thus are more accessible to more people there, enabling people to enjoy the benefits of them, especially the recreational benefits. At a time when development pressures are more intense than ever, including upon our Greenbelts, then this is of far more than passing interest.
Given these and related findings I suggested in my recent book ‘What Nature does for Britain’ that the country take a serious look at using one per cent of the National Health Service budget to finance the conservation, enhancement and restoration of natural areas in and around our towns and cities. That would be about 1.3 billion pounds per year and the research we have to hand suggests that the avoided burdens on the health service derived from people being happier and healthier, alongside the potential to treat some conditions more cheaply, would be a very sound investment.
When it comes to economic valuation it is of course not only for health and wellbeing that we can see some strong synergies between what people need and the protection and enhancement of natural environments.  

Public understanding
The set of consequences unfolding from the unsustainable pressures we are collectively placing on our finite Earth, including climate change, ecosystem degradation and resource depletion, are still being made worse by many of the decisions made in business and politics, despite an ever more comprehensive body of research highlighting the compelling case for us to work toward different outcomes.
This is not least because healthy Nature and a stable climate are essential for sustainable food production and for the supply and security of our water. Some natural and semi-natural habitats, such as blanket bogs, also lock up a lot of carbon while protecting communities from the effects of climate change, some of which are already upon us, for example in the form of flooding resulting from more frequent extreme rainfall.
There is a great body of evidence that reveals all of these benefits, and yet we still are trapped in a mind-set that sees environmental protection as a constraint to growth and which places faith in technology, concrete and steel, rather healthy ecology. Why this is the case is in part linked to the same process of disconnection that has caused us to lose sight of the benefits for wellbeing that come through contact with Nature.
I spend quite a lot of my time seeking to raise awareness about these trends but realise that it is not enough simply to share facts and statistics. If the people receiving the information have little or no direct experience of Nature then the chances of them really understanding at an intuitive and gut level of what is being said is much diminished. With a scientific training myself I know how much faith many technically minded people place in facts and stats. It’s of course essential, but also not enough. 
Alongside facts derived from research it is clearly the case that direct knowledge and experience is vital. I sometimes look at my own peers and note with some interest how most conservationists and environmentalists whom I know started out as child naturalists. They weren’t driven primarily by facts, and today are still not, they were driven by experience which led to passion and which then led to facts. As children we got something that a lot of others didn’t get, because of being outside and interacting with Nature while we were young.
If we are to cope with the many environmental challenges coming down the track toward us then it will be vital to rally public support behind the changes needed to deal with them. Getting more people into Nature has to be part of the way we do this.
Our connection with Nature is thus essential at several levels at once. It works in sustaining our health, wellbeing and community cohesion. It works in helping us see that our economic system depends upon healthy Nature and at a political and cultural level in helping pro-environmental policies and behaviours enjoy public support. In societies that are disconnected in an ecological sense, realising all of these benefits is more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to achieve.

So what to do?
It seems to me, therefore, that one of the most important tasks for the conservation community, in all its different forms, is to heal what is an increasingly problematic disconnection between people and Nature.
This can be worked toward at several levels at once.
One is through policy, and in for example how we plan new communities and through health and education policies. Our approach toward water and farming are also important. Can we join up health and environmental policies in more meaningful ways, and can we change the curriculum to get children outside more? Can we incentivise farmers to more effectively promote a multi-purpose countryside, and can we expand the work being done by water companies to improve catchments? All of which could help us to create opportunities for more connections.
The answer to all of that is of course ‘yes’. It will require a more integrated and joined up approach (a notoriously difficult thing to do in public policy) but an outcome that can be achieved should we put our minds to it.
There are many places from which such an integrated ambition could be pursued in policy. One might be via the Government’s new 25 year Environment Plan, intended as the platform from which we will be the first generation to leave Nature in a better state than we found it. 
That plan, it seems to me, requires legal underpinning, much like we have already done in relation to creating a long-term plan on climate change via the 2008 Climate Change Act. With several changes of government occurring over the 25 years of that plan there will be a need for consistency and an on-going commitment to the long-term goal. Without a law we can’t expect that to happen. This is why we need a vigorous and confident campaign for a new law. I for one would be very happy to support such an initiative.
A second heading for action is linked with encouraging more people to make the most of the natural assets we have, and to find ways to use and enjoy them more. To this extent conservation needs to work more toward getting more people into places where Nature is still rich and thriving, as well as continuing with our historic focus on important places and species. We all know this, but I think we could do more. 
One great example is the Wildlife Trusts ‘30 Days Wild’ and ‘Every Child Wild’ initiatives. These mass engagement programmes set out to meet people where they are at, are focussed more on experience than spreading knowledge and it seems to me the kind of initiative we need more of.
Thirdly, and although I would be the first to say that we already have enough information to justify and direct decisive action, I’d add that all of the above would benefit from the right kinds of new research, especially that based on multi-disciplinary approaches, for example involving ecologists, social scientists, economists and planners.
By emphasising these three points I don’t mean to suggest that none of this is going on already, the policy advocacy, getting people outside and joined up research is of course in some places underway. This conference is drawing attention to it. My intention is more to emphasise the importance of this line of strategic thinking and to urge more of it. For in our technological and urbanized society it seems to me fair to expect that we probably won’t succeed in the longer term in achieving conservation and environmental goals unless we can rebuild a more widespread connection with the natural systems and cycles that sustain us.
It’s not a small thing, but at least in understanding the challenges that come with an ever more ecologically disconnected and urbanised society, we might achieve more with our limited resources. After all, what is the main problem we face in finding a sustainable accommodation between what people demand and what our finite Earth can indefinitely sustain? 
Is it a lack of science and data? Is it an absence of good policy ideas? Or is it really a crisis of perception that is the biggest barrier to progress? A crisis of perception borne from the very widespread and deeply mistaken view that we are outside Nature, that we don’t need it and can carry on regardless with business as usual, at best seeking some kind of balance between progress and the environment. From what I’ve seen over many years of campaigning, research and advocacy, the perception that we are outside Nature rather than fundamentally and inextricably embedded within in it – in both psychological and practical senses – is the real problem, and the one we need tackle head on.