ECOS 24(1), 24(3/4), 26(1), 29(2)
Imagine you had the evidence to present to the Government department with the biggest budget of all, that spending relatively small sums of money nature conservation could actually reduce its overall expenditure and at the same time make people healthier, recover from illness more quickly and live longer.Bird, W. ECOS 24(1) 2009, p29
Health care in the UK has long suffered from the sclerosis of ‘silo-thinking’ inevitably made worse by the negative effects of austerity. How refreshing to go back to some cutting edge cross-disciplinary ECOS articles examining health in an age of plenty, addressed in these pages over the past 15 years. Notable contributions include writing by William Bird , a champion of green-orientated public health, and health scientists Jules Pretty, Murray Griffen and Martin Sellens . It is to the credit of ECOS that its breadth of vision has linked ill-health and behavioural-environmental risk factors, and especially the importance of socially shared physical activities and better psychological experience in conservation settings. One very positive approach to bringing these ideas and practices together has been accomplished in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere through the Green Gym movement, combining public health engagement with nature and strengthening social capital with the organisational strength of the Conservation Volunteers (TCV, formerly the Conservation Corps then the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers).
From a conservation perspective, interest has been pushed along by concern that we have a generation (or two) of people whose lifestyles are detached from direct experience of wild nature. This is in part a consequence of changes to our culture of childhood but may also reflect vertical social divisions including lack of opportunities for people of minority backgrounds. A series of ECOS articles exploring ‘nature deprivation syndrome’ and conversely increasing activity in green settings includes writing by Guy Thompson  and Mike Townsend  who fear that without formative childhood connections the cause of popular conservation itself might wither through ignorance. To highlight one amongst many social complexities involved, Vicki Elcoate and Jessica Nar discuss massive disparities of access to National Parks for people of South Asian heritage . Their view includes a simple economic message which ought to trouble all of us attracted to ‘public money for public goods’: referencing Judy Ling Wong of the Black Environment Network they remind us that the ‘public’ cannot be a select or self-selecting club:
There is recognition that the position must change … ‘People cannot care about what they have not experienced’. Neither will they have much interest in paying taxes or providing the political support which is necessary to maintain viable National Parks for the next 50 years.Elcoate and Nar, ECOS 24 (1) 2003, p23
Everything is connected
So how might health-nature synergy work? Problems of diet, under-activity, addictions, depression and the disabilities of ageing make our health and care services appear top-heavy and overwhelmed. Top heavy through privileging hospital over prevention, primary and social care; over-whelmed as ageing demographics interact with disproportionate health cost inflation. Paradoxically, in taking on Beveridge’s five “giant evils” of disease, squalor, ignorance, want and idleness,  reducing material want has clearly triggered new forms of idleness and disease, not the expected outcome. It is important to stress that this is not an argument in favour of an idealised past, even if the demand for development seems relentlessly biased towards more ‘stuff’ and less nature. In truth we know exactly what needs to be done . The problem with doing more than tinkering is that such wisdom requires a capacity to confront the problems of globalisation, ecological collapse and populist grand-standing, starting with honest conversations with ourselves about how we commit to radical change.
All this being so, the importance of Bird’s work cannot be over-stressed. Without lifestyle contextual history health consultations make little sense, and good primary care is well placed to ensure that wider connections are developed. Extending care through education and democratisation is evidenced by tens of thousands of participants in green gyms and similar projects. Combining shared conservation work with green walks, forest ‘baths’, the pleasure of wild flowers and birdsong is a net source of well-being. Here is evidence that we need to entirely rethink the way we relate to the space we occupy. It is clear that networks of attractive, accessible green spaces with vegetation, animals and water will entice interest, facilitate exercise, reduce BMI, reduce stress, improve mood, restore capacity for attention, and reduce at least some kinds of antisocial behaviour. With these come improved cardiovascular and metabolic health, quality of life and social cohesion. So far so good.
Not taking Nature for granted
If I might offer a qualified reservation for reflexion; the ‘nature’ concept is rarely used critically, largely because well-being discourse has been tautologically anthropocentric. Such an assessment may seem churlish, but to my knowledge only one carefully designed study has demonstrated a clear positive correlation between measures of well-being and biodiversity experience . Being blunt, we cannot say definitively that a richness and abundance of wildlife reduces for example, type 2 diabetes. This risks making biodiversity of marginal interest to health strategists if care is not taken to engage with complexity in whole systems. While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, a lack of easily identifiable linear relationships may be one reason why we have been sluggish in shifting our health and care truly green-ward. Maybe it just stretches our available cognitive resources too much. For interested readers, the need to confront this gap in the available science is thoroughly and accessibly set out by Natalie Clark and her colleagues .
Whatever the gaps in understanding, the precautionary principle suggests we assume linkages. Waiting to see whether continued loss of wildlife triggers more ill-health does not seem wise and although the green gym ethos makes a case for nature services, this alone will not stem decline. The next step is a profound shift away from the ethic of ‘domination’ as a justification for eroding natural capital. Dominance implies asymmetry rationalising nature-estrangement and its risks. Perhaps less self-concern and greater respect for natural environment may yet turn out to be desirable measures of psychological well-being. If so, there might be benefit in exploring the implications of consciously motivated eco-centrism as a scientific hypothesis, in opposition to unsustainable consumption. Almost everyone agrees that whatever its benefits, modern consumption-driven capitalism needs reform – meaning dealing with the problems of externalities and waste, a point not lost on our ECOS authors:
Townsend, ECOS 29 (2), 2008, p6
Consumption defines us: consciously or otherwise we consume in ways which construct our identity. Few, if any, are immune from this.
I suggest that we recall that we owe our success as a species to our social brains. Can we use this relational capacity to negotiate a more mutualistic relationship with nature, providing the ethical impetus for redesigning our economies? I am struck by the language of love adopted in work by Kay Milton, “Loving Nature” in which she develops the idea of nature’s ‘personhood’  and popular adoption of the love imperative by movements such as the Extinction Rebellion. Nature as person and indeed interlocutor neatly legitimates Polly Higgins’ laudable case for making ecocide a crime . Arguably our Pillar 1 agricultural regime and planning laws are ecocidal, and certainly do future generations no favours. Whether a civilisation so deeply dependant on eroding natural capital can accomplish this in the time available is an interesting question. Doing so will require a new ‘natural contract’ defining new duties towards nature, much as appreciation of human rights has done for our view of each other.
Integrating nature and health
Over recent years, writings in ECOS demonstrate that synergies between health and nature are both very real and very complex, requiring a good deal more philosophical, scientific and cultural examination. While a shift towards nature-oriented health will certainly alert us to what nature has to offer over asphalt there is no reason to believe that as presently framed, its impact will be sufficient to halt dangerous rates of decline in wild nature. However, this does not mean that health is not of the greatest significance for conservation. Rethinking and setting new standards for health and especially the driving force of psychological health may be fundamental to achieving sustainability, especially where the need to tackle over-consumption is greatest in developed economies like our own. Such a definition of health will be based on an internalisation of sustainability; how we mentally construct our relationship with the environment and resources which make life possible. Nature will rightly remain central for ECOS readers, but we can be thankful that we are part of a wider forum within which getting ourselves right will make sure that nature can do likewise.
1. Bird, W. (2003) Nature is good for you! ECOS 24(1) pp 29-31.
2. Pretty, J., Griffin, M., and Sellens, M. (2003) Is Nature good for you? ECOS 24 (3/4) pp 2-9.
3. Thompson, G. (2005) A Child’s Place: why environment matters to children. ECOS 26 (1) pp 9-12.
4. Townsend, M. (2008) Natural wonders and well-being: The case for getting closer to nature. ECOS 29 (2) pp 3-11.
5. Elcoate, V. and Nar, J. (2003) National Parks for all. ECOS 24 (1) pp 21-24.
6. Beveridge, W. (1942) The Beveridge Report. His Majesty’s Government: London. p 6.
7. Helm, D. (2019) Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside. William Collins Books, London. ISBN 978000830447-8.
8. Fuller, R. et al., (2007) Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity. Biological Letters 3. pp 390-394.
9. Clark, N. et al. (2014) Biodiversity, Cultural Pathways and Human Health, a Framework. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 29 (4) pp 198-204.
10. Milton, K. (2002) Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion. Routledge, Oxford. ISBN 0415253535
11. Higgins, P., Short, D. and South, N., (2013) Protecting the planet: a proposal for a law of ecocide. Crime, Law and Social Change, 59 (3) pp.251-266.