Guest article by Osbert Lancaster, written with contributions from David Key.
We are part of nature. But we think and behave as if we are not. This denial of reality matters — to every one of us individually, and as a society.
The majority of us spend most of our time indoors and in urban spaces dominated by buildings, vehicles and other human-made infrastructure. When we think about and discuss ‘nature’ it is as something other, somewhere else: often as a place to visit for recreation and relaxation or an ecosystem that we must manage to provide food, clean water, fresh air and other ‘services’.
Taking the long view, this is not normal. It is only very recently in our evolutionary history that we have come to deny, by the ways we live and think, that we are part of nature. This denial is making us physically and mentally ill, more self-centred and less accepting of others, and it’s diminishing our sense of meaning. It’s also setting us up to fail as we tackle climate change, ecological breakdown and other significant challenges. The good news is that we can change this.
Modernity’s success is a sign of cultural and technological failure
Life started shaping the Earth the moment it began. The earliest forms of life began to alter the acidity of the oceans and later the evolution of photosynthetic organisms began releasing the oxygen we breath today. The rock and sand of the early planet was transformed over time into rich soils by microorganisms and later by fungi, plants, worms and other animals. More recently the co-evolution of grasses and grazing animals kept trees in check, creating prairies and savannahs where otherwise forests would stand.
Humans have been no exception. For example, early humans unintentionally altered the fertility and species mix of rainforests through their role in the extinction of prehistoric megafauna, like the giant armadillos in South America. People have been actively managing — and altering — forests, savannahs and other landscapes for at least 45,000 years1. We can imagine that some human societies overused and degraded their local environment and then died out or moved on to new places, while other cultures found ways of living in harmony with the land, its plants and animals.
It’s usually taken as a sign of success and superiority that our modern way of life, based on agriculture and industrial production, and sustained by fossil fuels, has spread across most of the globe. Given the damage we now know this is causing to the climate and to biodiversity, perhaps it’s time to see this apparent success as failure — failure that we have not (yet?) found a way of living in harmony with the rest of life on earth. It’s no coincidence that one of the richest men on earth is looking to leave this degraded planet and move on to Mars.
It’s also no coincidence that the dominant world view sees nature as separate from us, as something else — as resources, assets or capital — to be managed and controlled for the benefit of humans. This is in complete contrast to the way most indigenous cultures see themselves as part of a community of beings that may even extend beyond plants and animals to include mountains and rivers. Many indigenous cultures have found ways to live in harmony with the rest of nature, including adapting to environmental and climatic change, over many centuries, perhaps millennia. That sounds like real success.
Thinking of nature as separate from us is a trap, setting us up to fail
The dominant world view that we are separate from nature arose recently in terms of the evolution of human culture. The reasons are complex, including the rise of Judeo-Christian traditions where humans are closer to god, in whose image they are formed, than the rest of creation over which god has given them dominion. With the rise of science from around 1500 we have come to analyse and conceive the rest of nature in entirely new ways, as something that could be separated into different pieces to be studied individually, and ultimately controlled to serve humankind. With time, this perspective spread beyond the scientific community to become a central, often unspoken, assumption at the heart of the mainstream world view.
There’s absolutely no doubt that science and technology has brought many real benefits, including significantly reduced maternal and childhood mortality. It’s also true that our physical dependence on ‘the natural world’ and the need to live within ecological limits are now increasingly recognised in the media, politics and policy making. There are many worthwhile initiatives that reflect this dependence and offer real potential for positive change, such as the concept of a circular economy.
But despite this progress, the dominant approaches to the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and more, have fallen into the trap of trying to fix problems by using the same thinking that caused them. Almost invariably government policies, NGO campaigns and business initiatives, argue that we must control and manage nature because of the benefits it brings us. Even when they recognise our ultimate dependence on nature, they tackle symptoms rather than the root cause of our problems which is believing and behaving as if we are separate from nature.
To make real progress, we must shift not only our rational mindset but also emotionally feel, and psychologically believe, ourselves to be part of nature. This doesn’t mean ditching the methods and insights of science; they remain important. But we need to undertake and apply science within the ‘reclaimed’ world view, indeed the reality, that we are truly part of nature. Only this shift will let us act with humility and wisdom to find ways to thrive in harmony with the rest of nature.
Wild places shift our values so we feel in harmony with others and the rest of nature
We can turn to social psychology to explain why time in wild places leads us to be more caring of others, and to have a stronger sense of meaning and purpose. And incidentally, to boost our creativity and make us better able to find solutions to the big problems of time.
Shalom Schwartz has been studying the social psychology of values for several decades at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His work and that of many other researchers, has shown that across all cultures we share the same fundamental values – a total of some fifty or so ranging from ‘unity with nature’ and ‘equality’, to ‘preserving my public image’ and ‘social order’6. Each of us has a predisposition to prioritise some values more than others, but the values we prioritise change, in both the short and long term. This happens in response to the environment in which we find ourselves, such as the media to which we are exposed, and the culture in which we live.
For example, if people are in a calm and beautiful woodland, this will bring to the fore, or ‘engage’, the values of ‘unity with nature’ and ‘a world of beauty’. Conversely, if people are in a situation where they are threatened, values of ‘family security’ and ‘social order’ will be engaged. Research has shown that values are expressed in a recognisable pattern, with groups of related values being engaged together. Values also exist in opposition meaning that certain opposing values such as ‘social power’ and ‘equality’ are never simultaneously expressed and expressing one will actively suppress the other. This makes perfect sense: if someone is strongly driven to achieve power over other people (i.e. social power), they can not at the same time have a deep sense of equality with others.
It seems obvious that the ‘unity with nature’ and ‘a world of beauty’ would be engaged together. But this group also includes values with no direct relationship to nature, including ‘equality’, ‘inner harmony’ and ‘social justice’. This group of values, called ‘universalism’, can not be engaged at the same time as the groups called ‘power’ and ‘achievement’ which includes values of ‘wealth’, ‘authority’, ‘social power’, ‘influential’ and ‘ambitious’. It’s important to understand that the full definition of these values make clear is it the pursuit of authority, power, etc. for their own sake that is being described — after all, a person can have a great deal of authority, influence, etc. without actively seeking them purely to gratify their ego.
From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense that we tend to automatically express different values depending on what’s going on around us. If we are threatened our values lead us to look after ourselves and our immediate family; if we are in peaceful, lush places, which in the deep past would have signified abundance and safety, our values lead us to feel in harmony with ourselves and the rest of creation. (Values associated with creativity are also engaged in this situation, perhaps because we had the freedom to try out ideas without risk of food shortages or attack.)
The social psychology of values offers a plausible explanation why time outdoors, especially in wilder spaces, tends to make us more caring of others and boosts our sense of meaning and purpose. It also explains why many aspects of modern life, such as insecurity and status-driven celebrity culture can lead us to care less about other people and nature.
It’s clear that spending more time outdoors makes us healthier and happier, with potential ripple effects on our families, communities and workplaces.
But as well as helping us cope in the modern world, spending time outdoors has the potential to help us tackle the big challenges of our time.
Modern life isn’t normal and it’s making us physically and mentally ill
There’s a lot of recent research into the relationships between exposure to nature and human health and wellbeing. Most of this research assumes that spending time outside is an exception to normal life that is lived mainly indoors. This assumption highlights how much we have come to accept our disconnected and impoverished lives.
There is a wealth of evidence that spending time outdoors, especially in green places, and indeed by water (sometimes called ‘blue’ places), improves a very wide range of health conditions, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It also helps with depression and anxiety disorders.
Wellbeing isn’t just the absence of physical and mental illness, it’s also how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to others. Studies have found that spending time outdoors, especially longer periods in wilder places, leads people to be more concerned about, and accepting of, other people. It also boosts our sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Stress and anxiety are overstimulating our ‘stone age’ bodies
The evidence of the benefits of spending time outdoors is widespread and longstanding. But to better understand these benefits, it can help to flip the argument around: why is spending time inside and around human-made infrastructure bad for us?
The work of Jules Pretty and colleagues at the University of Essex reminds us that while our way of life has changed radically since modern humans evolved around 200,000 years ago, our bodies and our brain are the same. Pretty argues that this is why we are suffering from our distance from the rest of nature. Humans evolved in environments where the incidence of threatening situations, whether a venomous snake or attack by other groups, was actually very low. When we were threatened, just like other animals, our flight or fight response kicked in. Automatically our attention focussed on the threat and our bodies prepared by raising our heart rate alongside other physiological changes.
In the modern world however, the part of our brain that responds to threat is endlessly over stimulated by stress and anxiety. Our jobs are dominated by pressures to perform, with incessant deadlines and interruptions. Our commutes, whether by car or public transport, are a series of frustrations, antagonisms and delays. Meanwhile we are bombarded via our phones, computers, and TVs (including in public places like dentists’ waiting rooms and train stations) with news of disasters, wars, atrocities, hatred and political strife that stoke our fears.
As a result, in this modern world our ‘stone age’ bodies are constantly on the alert; the various stress-induced neurotransmitters and hormones released far more often than is normal, affecting our guts, our immune system, our hearts and more.
Photo by Will Cornfield / Unsplash