I invite you to consider your daily routine. Think about the actions you normally take from the time you wake in the morning to the moment you lay your head back down on your pillow each night. As you imagine the unfolding of your typical day, try to calculate how many minutes you’ve spent outside. Is it 5, 15, 30, or maybe more? You might be surprised by the answer. Now I invite you to consider, of those minutes you spend outside on an average day, how many were spent in a green space (that is, an environment dominated by plant life, be it in the form of mowed lawn or thick forest)?
If you’re like most people living in developed nations, then the answer to the above may well be less than the time you spend sipping coffee. It is a fact of modern life that we are increasingly removed from nature. We spend more time indoors than ever before, and fewer of us live in rural or ‘country’ areas. Most of us do not farm our own food or even garden around our homes, and the urban areas in which we tend to live are increasingly devoid of biodiversity.
Some scientists have dubbed this decline in our exposure to nature as the ‘extinction of experience’ and have pointed out its unfortunate and pervasive repercussions. You see, as we lose touch with the natural world, we inevitably lose our emotional connections to it. As a consequence, we stop caring for and preserving our local environment, and in turn we lose our natural places and the species that call them home. With less nature to go around, we are even less likely to find opportunities for connecting, and so we enter a vicious cycle – we are not connected and so we do not care; we do not care so we do not preserve; we do not preserve so we cannot connect. And ‘so it goes, on and on, the extinction of experience sucking the life from the land, the intimacy from our connections’, as the naturalist, Robert Pyle, so joyfully put it.
Why it matters
It may seem obvious why this disconnection – this, extinction of experience – should matter. Clearly, one of its implicit results is that our society is more prone to apathy regarding environmental concerns: we don’t know so we don’t care. Our native wildlife and functioning ecosystems join our experience in the realm of extinction. However, there is even more to the story than this already dramatic context. Let us zoom in to the scale of the individual and again contemplate our own lives. Connecting with nature is not only important to motivate greater environmental conservation and ultimately preserve our species and the resources on which we rely. It seems it is also essential to lead a good life, in the here and now.
Increasingly, science is demonstrating that the benefits of nature for our mental and physical wellbeing are profound and far-reaching. For example, there is strong evidence to suggest that children who spend more time in natural environments develop better motor skills and are less prone to depression as adults.
For us grown-ups, nature can be a restorative force. People who access nearby natural places on a regular basis tend to be healthier overall than those who don’t, or do so rarely. Heck, they even tend to feel more satisfied with their jobs and relationships! A study from the early nineties found that mental fatigue is better relieved by walking in a park than walking in an urban street, or even relaxing on your couch at home – and this was before the incessant stimulation of smart phones became couch essentials. It seems that just looking at nature can make us feel better, with studies showing that people working in stressful environments feel and perform better when they have a view of natural spaces – or even just a desk plant. Perhaps even more exciting is the fact that people recover faster in hospital with a natural view to aid them, whilst the stress of driving is reduced by more natural roadside views.
For some of us, the above benefits may seem like common sense. Indeed, Henry David Thoreau – American philosopher, abolitionist and nature writer – long ago remarked that ‘we need the tonic of wildness’. Indeed, the science makes it clear that people generally prefer natural to artificial environments. Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson concluded from this that we humans, being products of the biological world, are intrinsically drawn to that world. Simply put, his Biophillia hypothesis posits that we have evolved to be attracted to certain aspects of nature (such as fresh water, plant life, birds and other animals) because they aid our survival. The story is more complex than that, but the conclusion we can take from the above is really quite simple: we need nature.
How we can fix it
In the opening paragraph of this article, I invited you to contemplate your average day and how much time you spent outdoors in a natural environment. In doing so, you might have been surprised – or even shocked – at how few the minutes were that you managed to squeeze nature into your daily life. But, following this, you may then have thought to yourself in no unjustified terms that, ‘Hey, I’m a busy person – I barely have enough time to do many of the things that I’d like to do or are good for me.’ And that would have been a fair assertion; the rat-race of modernity can seem unrelenting and we all have multiple (and multiplying) priorities to juggle as we run it.
But before you shrug off ‘nature’ as yet another multivitamin or dietary fad you can afford not to buy into, I’d like you to imagine your day once again. This time, rather than imagine your life as it is here and now, in the 21st Century, imagine yourself living sometime earlier in the history of our species – let’s say 100,000 years ago. This is a much more difficult task, I’ll admit, but don’t get caught up in the semantics of how you would wear your hair or complete a workout. Rather, consider how much time – from sunup to sundown – you would spend outside today, surrounded by plants, birds, insects, and of course, your family. The evolutionary circumstances under which modern humans evolved were far from idyllic, but if there is one thing we should be envious of it is this fact: we lived our lives intimately connected with the natural world. In our attempts to distance ourselves from the uncomfortable aspects of this relationship (such as disease, natural disasters, being eaten by things), we have inadvertently removed ourselves from those aspects crucial to our wellbeing.
It may not be possible – or even advisable – to spend our entire lives outdoors removed from modern comforts, but I hope that in contemplating the above scenario you can appreciate just how dramatically different many of our current life experiences are to those of early humans. We need nature and we neglect it to our peril. What’s more is that bringing nature into our daily life does not have to derail our professional and personal goals – if anything, it can support them. As discussed already, nature can have a performance-enhancing effect on our cognitive abilities and for our children it is an essential building block for their confidence and capability. Given this, and given its obvious benefits to our health and happiness more broadly, the question isn’t can we afford to make time for nature, but rather, can we afford not to?
I am yet to actually define what I mean by ‘nature’. The reason for this ambiguity is simple: nature is a lot of things to a lot of people, and the components that influence us do so in different ways, penetrating many aspects of our reality. Definitions of nature exist on a spectrum from ‘anything and everything’, to ‘stuff that is green’. It is an umbrella term that encompasses so many nuances that I find it easier to define it not by what it is, but by what it is not. In the context of this discussion it should by now be clear that when I use the word ‘nature’, I am not referring to the Sydney Opera House, a Ferrari, or Apple products (though in each of these examples, the symbology of nature is evident). I am instead referring to natural (as opposed to built) environments, living organisms, and the earthly processes and rhythms of things like weather and the tides.
There is so much of this nature around us and it will cost us nothing but a few moments of our time to stop and connect with these intrinsic aspects of the natural world – our world. These moments – perhaps otherwise spent scrolling through newsfeeds, watching ‘reality’ television, or seeking distraction and stimulation in some other way – may well be worth it. The science supports this notion: we know that finding time for nature in our daily lives has many benefits. So, plan a day trip somewhere off the beaten track, wander the hidden trails of your local creek, get some dirt beneath your fingernails in the garden, and learn the songs of your neighbourhood birds.
In other words: remember the wild.
Why we exist
As you might have guessed by now, we think nature is pretty important. That’s why our mission is to ‘connect people with the natural world’. This is because we recognise that in order to protect and preserve our environment and biodiversity, our society needs to appreciate these things first. Only when people care will they feel motivated to act in pro-environmental ways, and to care people must first connect. Secondly, we appreciate the important role nature can play in promoting human health and wellbeing, and we seek to help the broader community explore some of these potential benefits.
When we talk about connection we are talking about something more than mere understanding. It’s not so much what people think that matters, but how they feel. As scientists-by-training this revelation was somewhat counterintuitive to us, but sure enough the research says just that: emotional connections matter more than cognitive comprehension when it comes to caring for, or seeking experiences in, nature. This logic helps to explain why conventional methods of educating people regarding science and the environment have achieved little in promoting ‘environmentally friendly’ attitudes and behaviour. When I asked a classroom of 14-year-olds if they cared about the fate of the Yarra River – a waterway few of them had much to do with – only a few kids raised their hands. When I asked them if they cared about the fate of their own backyard – a place associated with fond memories and personal growth – all hands shot up. This is the power of connection.
So how do we foster these oh-so-important connections? Well, for a start our charity recognises that people are unique. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to caring for nature and there is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach to connecting with it: individuals matter. This is why Remember The Wild embraces diversity and flexibility in our approach. We employ a wide variety of methods to engage people within our community with the natural world, using everything from digital media to on-ground projects. Above all else, we like to tell stories that resonate with people, and we invite others to share their stories with us. It is our hope that through giving people the tools and motivation they need to connect with nature, we might contribute to a positive shift in the way our society values the natural world – both for its intrinsic beauty and complexity, and its role in our wellbeing.
In other words, we hope to inform so that you might explore.