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, and 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 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 brains are the same. 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, 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 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 are released far more often than is normal, affecting our guts, our immune system, our hearts and more. The solution is simple. We need to spend more time outside; the evidence of the benefits for health and wellbeing is widespread and longstanding.
The social psychology of values can help explain why our lack of time in wilder places is making us more self-centred and less accepting of others, and also diminishing our sense of meaning. Among other researchers, Shalom Schwartz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has shown that each of us, across all cultures, 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.’ These are prioritised or engaged in predictable patterns 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.
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 such situations, perhaps because we have the freedom to try out ideas without risk of food shortages or attack.
We can acknowledge that we are part of nature by spending more time outdoors, especially in environments like those in which we evolved. This 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.
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 breathe 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 mega-fauna like the giant armadillos of South America. People have been actively managing - and altering - forests, savannahs and other landscapes for at least 45,000 years. 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 and 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 – the failure to find a way of living in harmony with the rest of life on earth. It’s no coincidence that Elon Musk, one of the richest men on earth, is looking to leave this degraded planet and move to Mars.
It’s also no coincidence that the dominant worldview 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 that we need to emulate.
The dominant worldview that we are separate from nature arose recently in terms of the evolution of human culture. The reasons are complex, but central has been the rise of science from around 1500. As a result we came 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 worldview.
There’s absolutely no doubt that science and technology has brought many real benefits. 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 causes of our problems - 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 do need to undertake and apply science within the ‘reclaimed’ worldview - 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.
The rise of such a worldview across society will require a change in culture and social structures. However, spending extended periods of time in wild places can lead to transformative shifts in individuals’ relationships with nature. Given the long tradition of spending time in wild and remote places to seek new insights and fresh ways of thinking across many cultures, this should come as no surprise.
John Muir famously took President Roosevelt camping in Yosemite. Roosevelt’s direct experience of wilderness was transformative, and led to the creation of the US National Parks and the birth of modern nature conservation. That’s why at Natural Change we create opportunities for transformative experiences of nature for leaders across society. We know from long experience that such leaders go on to use their influence to create the cultural and social change that the world so urgently needs.