Nature can affect human well-being in more ways than you might think

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Humans have long benefited from the gifts of nature. But beyond being an essential source of food, water and raw materials, the natural world can contribute to people’s overall well-being through a host of intangible effects – and, according to new research, it There are many more critical connections between humans and nature than one might think.

After reviewing hundreds of scientific papers on “cultural ecosystem services” or non-material benefits from nature, researchers have identified 227 unique pathways through which people’s interactions with nature can positively or negatively affect well-being. , according to an article published Friday in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.

The paper is considered the first of its kind to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding and quantifying the complex ways in which people and nature are linked. And its findings could have significant real-world implications, said Lam Thi Mai Huynh, lead author of the paper and a doctoral student at the University of Tokyo.

“For the modernized world, people tend to disconnect from nature,” she said. “For ecosystem management, the best solution, the most sustainable solution, is to reconnect people to nature and let local people be the ones to help maintain and manage ecosystem services.”

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For Huynh, the ambitious research – an undertaking that even his academic supervisor initially thought impossible – stemmed from a desire to improve understanding of the complex underlying processes behind how the intangible effects of nature – such as the possibilities of leisure and spiritual fulfillment – have an impact on well-being. A major challenge, however, is that much of the existing scientific literature on cultural ecosystem services has been “very fragmented”, the study notes.

“You have all kinds of different people watching [the intangible benefits of nature] through a different lens,” said Alexandros Gasparatos, associate professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Future Initiatives and co-author of the paper. While it’s essential to have diverse searches, he said, “it gets a bit difficult to bring it all together.”

But the new study, a systematic review of about 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers, creates “an excellent knowledge base,” Gasparatos said.

“The point of this exercise is to understand the connection,” he added. “We give names to phenomena.”

The review breaks down the hundreds of possible links between individual aspects of human well-being (mental and physical health, connectedness and belonging, and spirituality, among others) and cultural ecosystem services, such as recreation and tourism, value aesthetics and social relations. The researchers then went further and identified more than a dozen distinct underlying mechanisms by which people’s interactions with nature can affect their well-being.

The researchers found that the highest positive contributions were seen in mental and physical health. Recreation, tourism, and aesthetic value appeared to have the greatest impact on human health through the “regenerative” mechanism, or experiencing restorative effects of being in nature, such as stress relief, according to the report. ‘article. Meanwhile, the most significant negative effects relate to mental health through the “destructive” mechanism, or direct damage associated with the degradation or loss of cultural ecosystem services, the researchers wrote.

“You really don’t have just one path,” and the effects aren’t always positive, Gasparatos said. “It’s not that if I go to the forest I get a thing.”

A well-designed park, for example, can be a place for leisure and recreation as well as a place to connect with other people. You might also find yourself enjoying the sight of towering trees and lush vegetation or birds and other wildlife. On the other hand, a poorly maintained natural space could lead to an ugly or visually threatening landscape that could make you feel uncomfortable or afraid to be there.

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The document can provide a kind of roadmap, Huynh said, to help people, especially policy makers, understand that there are not only various intangible benefits to interactions with nature, but also how to try to achieve them.

“If we understand the underlying process, we can help design better interventions for ecosystem management,” she said. “We can help improve nature’s contributions to human well-being”, in addition to potentially improving sustainable management practices and eliminating some of the negative effects on well-being.

The research was widely applauded by several outside experts who were not involved in the work.

“It’s been a long time to have a study like this that makes some of those connections a little clearer,” said Keith Tidball, an environmental anthropologist at Cornell University. “These things have been scattered all over the place for a long, long time, and this document takes a big step forward in sorting out what was previously quite confusing.”

Anne Guerry, director of strategy and chief scientist of the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, agreed. “They’ve done a really good job of bringing together an extraordinarily diverse literature,” she said. It has been a challenge, she noted, for researchers to be able to present science in a way that reveals where and how nature provides the greatest benefits to people, which in turn could help “inform and to motivate investments in conservation and restoration that lead to better outcomes for people and nature.

For example, the research could have an impact on the role that nature potentially plays in human health. “What this is going to be seriously helpful is being able to continue to work to make the case that physicians and clinicians can actually prescribe outdoor time, outdoor recreation, even outdoor spaces because of these pathways that they identified in this article,” Tidball said.

In one scenario, elements of this work could eventually be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, said Elizabeth Haase, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health.

“It allows us to say that when we facilitate this type of interaction with nature, you see this type of benefit, and then prescribe these type of natural experiences, or have policies that say that you are really depriving someone of their sanity if you destroy these natural landscapes,” she said.

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But the review has limitations, prompting some experts to caution against overinterpreting or overemphasizing its findings.

A potential problem is that the existing research included in the review focuses disproportionately on individuals rather than groups.

“There are many times when something can be really good for an individual, but overall for the community it might not be very good at all,” said Kevin Summers, senior research ecologist at the Environmental Protection Research and Development Bureau. Agency.

“In many cases, there can be unintended consequences for things that look like very simple, straightforward decisions,” Summers added.

Other research gaps also need to be considered, Guerry said. Although the review suggests that some links between certain characteristics of human well-being and cultural ecosystem services seem stronger than others, that does not mean that these other relationships might not be significant, she said. .

“We have to be careful not to oversimplify the results and think that a lack of documented relationship in this paper means something isn’t important,” she said. Instead, it may mean that “it hasn’t been studied and we haven’t found ways to quantify it and bring it into the scientific literature and out of our kind of implicit understanding.”

The researchers addressed the limitations of their work, noting in the paper that future research “should explore in depth how these pathways and mechanisms manifest in less studied ecosystems and understand their differentiated effects on different stakeholders.”

In the meantime, however, the findings serve as an important reminder of nature’s necessity.

“It may very well justify a mindset like, ‘Let’s invest in nature because it has all these benefits,'” Gasparatos said.

With such positive benefits related to creativity, belonging, regeneration and more, “it is easy from this document to feel that your constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness requires a country to preserve the spaces natural,” added Haase.

At a time when many people are increasingly separated and alienated from “our ecological selves”, efforts to connect humans and nature are not only interesting in terms of science, philosophy or ethics, a Tidball said, but “there are also human security implications here.” which are significant. And, he said, if steps are not taken to reconnect people with nature, the consequences could be disastrous.

“If we continue down a path as a species of being in a state of ecological amnesia,” he said, “we’re going to find ourselves out of habitat and out of time and, therefore, no chance.”

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