While technological solutions have significantly helped us to move toward a sustainable economy, these same advances sometimes act as a crutch, enabling us to prolong unhealthy behaviors. As a consequence, humanity continues to distance itself from integration with natural systems. Ultimately, it’s in our best interest to avoid such behaviors in the first place, but education and policy reform can only go so far in achieving that. Instead, to achieve lasting change, we must address how our relationship with the natural world drives our interactions with it. This month, we enter into the realm of ecopsychology to examine what our relationship to nature means for sustainable progress.
In the 1980s, ecologist E.O. Wilson publicly introduced the biophilia hypothesis, suggesting that humans possess a biologically rooted need to connect with natural environments.1 He proposed that severing our connections to nature not only produces negative consequences for the environment but also for our personal well-being. In this vein, Peter Kahn, the editor-in-chief of the journal Ecopsychology, wrote in his opening editorial:2
“What if it’s the case, and there is good reason to believe it true, that the over- arching problem of the world today is that we see ourselves as dominating over nature rather than cohabiting, coexisting, and affiliating with it? There are many different ways to cast ecopsychology. I think this one has merit.”
Despite this, we are becoming more and more disconnected from the natural environment. A 2014 publication from the United Nations reported that the percentage of global population living in unnatural urban environments was 54% and is expected to increase to 66% by 2050.3 Additionally, data shows that employed Americans generally only spend 2% of their time outdoors.4
Is there evidence, then, that our exposure to natural environments is important when it comes to sustainability objectives? A survey of U.S. adults living in urban areas suggests just that. The study found that growing up in natural environments or partaking in nature-related activities as children had a strong influence on positive environmental attitudes during adulthood.5 A more recent study found that even watching nature videos can increase pro-environmental behavior6 as well.
Strengthening our relationship to natural environments can help us engage in environmentally conscious behaviors, but exposure to nature also confers a well-documented number of psychological and health benefits. These include mental health improvements, cognitive benefits (including improved academic and work performance), reduced risk of medical complications, prosocial behavior (such as reduction in crime), and more.7 Framed another way, we incur societal costs by not connecting with nature.
When planning for the future, it is crucial that we use insights from ecopsychology to ensure that we do not undermine the importance of our relationship with nature, both for encouraging sustainable behavior and prospering human life. We are, after all, a part of nature ourselves. As much as we might forget it, societies, economies, and individuals are all nested within ecosystems. What is good for nature ought to be good for us—and vice versa. Ultimately, by reintegrating with our natural environments, we can live reciprocally with nature, improve our wellbeing, and aid in the overall protection of the planet.
- Rogers, Kara. “Biophilia hypothesis.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Jun. 2019, Britannica.com/science/biophilia-hypothesis
- Peter H. Kahn Jr, The Next Phase for Ecopsychology: Ideas and Directions, Ecopsychology 2013 5:3, 163-166
- United Nations, 2014, “Revision World Urbanization Prospects”
- Klepeis, N. “The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants,” Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 2001
- Lohr, V.I.; Pearson-Mims, C.H. “Children’s active and passive interactions with plants influence their attitudes as actions toward trees and gardening as adults,” HortTechnology 2005, 15, 472–476.
- Diessner R., et. al, “Natural and Moral Beauty Have Indirect Effects on Proenvironmental Behavior,” Ecopsychology 2022 14:2, 71-82
- Keniger L., et. al, “What are the Benefits of Interacting with Nature?” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2013