We have exploited the natural world to build our modern world, but nature is essential for life and is in decline. Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby, looks at the importance of building a new relationship with nature.
This month saw the publication of a landmark health-check of the natural world – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems. It was compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors. The report assesses changes over the past five decades based on the systematic review of around 15,000 scientific and government sources.
The report contains many findings about the decline of the natural world, for example:
- Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history
- One million species are threatened with extinction with ‘grave impacts on people around the world now likely’
- Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment has been significantly altered by human actions
- Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980
- Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before
The report notes that “nature is essential for human existence and good quality of life. That most of nature’s contributions to people are not fully replaceable, and some are irreplaceable.” Yet, nature has been significantly exploited by people and the drivers of change have accelerated over recent decades, “with the great majority of indicators of ecosystems and biodiversity showing rapid decline”.
Clearly, the dominant human relationship with nature has been one of utility and control; food and homes are needed for a rapidly growing population. We have exploited the natural world to build our modern world, but nature is essential for life and is in decline. The report notes that nature is declining less rapidly in the land of indigenous peoples, those with a closer connection to the natural world perhaps.
Goals for conserving and sustainably using nature
The goals for conserving and sustainably using nature cannot be met with the existing relationship with nature. Transformative changes are required across economic, social, political and technological factors to develop a new relationship. To foster transformative change towards sustainability, the report notes that efforts need to be directed at key leverage points – where these efforts can yield exceptionally large effects. These key levers are:
- Visions of a good life
- Total consumption and waste
- Values and action: unleashing existing widely held values of responsibility to effect new social norms for sustainability, especially by extending notions of responsibility to include impacts associated with consumption
- Justice and inclusion in conservation
- Externalities and telecouplings
- Technology, innovation and investment
- Education and knowledge: promoting education, knowledge generation and maintenance of different knowledge systems, including the sciences and indigenous and local knowledge regarding nature, conservation and its sustainable use
The importance of nature connectedness
Nature connectedness, and the work of our Nature Connectedness Research Group, can inform several of these key efforts. Nature connectedness helps describe our current relationship with nature and the social context. We can measure it. We’ve developed interventions to improve it. We know it’s associated with a good life. It’s associated with values and actions that link through to consumption and waste. It can help examine the value-action gap. It’s inclusive and accessible across the population. It can inform innovative new approaches to urban infrastructure. To foster nature connectedness research shows that the focus of education needs to change.
In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth, Sir Bob Watson, lead scientist of the report, said we need to ask how do we become more in tune with nature? What makes us happy? How do we relate to nature? How do we enjoy nature? The science of nature connectedness can help answer these questions.
We know that the ‘pathways to nature connection’ developed at Derby can help people tune in, as can our ‘Three Good Things in Nature’ intervention. We know from our work on the 30 Days Wild campaign and on the Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature project that improved nature connectedness brings happiness – two types of happiness, both feeling good and functioning well as shown in our recently published systematic review.
Our research has also shown that increased nature connectedness is associated with pro-nature behaviours. We’re developing the first measure of pro-nature conservation behaviours. The work of others has shown that nature connectedness explains 30 times more pro-nature behaviour than knowledge-based environmental education. We need to live and foster a closer relationship, a new relationship, a tuned in and happier relationship with the rest of nature.
A new relationship with nature
Our new relationship with nature needs to recognise that we are incredibly integrated into the ecosystems and connected to the secret network of nature. We can’t survive without it. We’re happier when tuned in to it. We need to accept that we have destroyed much of the natural world and that the dominant exploitative relationship with nature has failed.
The answer lies not in looking back, but forward to a new relationship with nature incorporated into decision-making, business, agriculture, social and cultural life – into every part of our lives because it is our lives. A new social norm of deep nature connectedness based on tuning in with the senses, letting nature manage our emotions and wellbeing, cultural celebrations of the meaning and beauty of nature – and above all treating nature with respect. Research shows that these are the pathways to nature connectedness, the types of relationship needed for nature’s recovery.