How Nature Affects Mental and Economic Health
Interacting with the environment teaches us about ourselves as people - how life works as a whole, where we fit in, and how to take care of ourselves in the natural world. Studying how the natural environment works has helped us design many of our products as well - making life more interesting and comfortable for humankind.
A recent study conducted by the UK government showed a high correlation between contact with nature and quality of life. This is not surprising, since we humans are an organic part of the universe, having evolved from nature, and being dependent upon it for our health and sustainment. We need the comfort and the lessons that nature has for us.
When we don't have regular, quality interactions with nature we starve ourselves emotionally and intellectually, but mostly spiritually. Children especially show it. They become flighty, easily distracted, always pushing for attention when they don't get enough time outside to play and relax in natural settings.
Psychological Health Benefits
In February, 2009, a Newsweek interview of Peter Kahn, environmental psychologist from the University of Washington, discussed a test he ran to see what kinds of benefits office workers might receive from exposure to technological versions of the earth. In windowless offices they erected plasma TV screens, framed like windows, through which they projected a variety of nature scenes for almost four months. They found that workers sitting near the scenes of parklands and mountain ranges had a "greater sense of well-being, clearer thinking, and a greater sense of connection to the natural world."
Kahn then tested the difference between technological views of flora and fauna and the real thing. This time he found that the real thing gave the same benefits but also reduced stress in workers, whereas the plasma image did not.
Finally his team tested to see if just getting outside the office was enough to reduce stress. They found a distinct difference between those who walked down a busy street and those who walked in a corner of the local arboretum. Those who took the nature walk brought back to the office a better, more relaxed focus and a clearer concentration on their work. This matches studies that have been done with children in schools.
Nature Deficit Disorder in Children
In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv describes how children are affected when they have no contact with the natural world - when they are constantly talking on the cell phone, watching TV, or playing games on the computer.
He stated that humans do not have the capacity to live without nature, which is hardwired into us, and children who do not get out on a regular basis develop a plethora of problems with attention, anxiety, depression, and obesity.
When I was a child there were no cell phones or computers. My seven siblings and I played outside on sand piles, explored the woods, picked wild blackberries, swam in the ocean, or climbed trees. We had a ton of adventures that taught us about ourselves, whetted our curiosity about life, and helped us learn better in school.
Our school also took us out on regular nature walks as part of the curriculum. This gave us a sense of wonder about the world in general, stimulating us to ask questions that teachers could lead into lessons about biology, wild animals, conservation, and similar topics. The following video shows a great, educational opportunity for school children that India offers.
Mother Earth Helps Us Stay Alive
In addition to becoming better humans, we need the natural world to help us stay alive and be healthy. We need the food it produces, the insects that pollinate and make plants fruit, the birds that keep the insects in balance (especially mosquitos) and the little microbes and fungi that break down rocks, chemicals, and soil into compost, so the plants we harvest and eat are healthy.
We need rain and oxygen and sunlight, and we need them to function in a balanced way. We need wolves, lions and tigers, vultures and condors, sharks and whales, and all the other predators to keep the smaller animals in check. We need grass to feed our cattle and pigs and chickens (grain is not enough), and wild stock to interbreed with our own when a species grows weak.
We need to know we belong to something bigger than ourselves, something to keep us touring and exploring, forever expanding. We need the challenges and lessons nature provides us - mountain climbing, sailing, swimming, hunting, spelunking. We need its security and its unpredictability. And we need its systems of survival to show us how to effect our own survival in more comfortable and sustainable ways.
Healthy Lessons of Life and Well Being
When I was two years old I was caught by the sight of sunlight streaming through red, green, and gold maple leaves that overhung the country road down which my parents drove. Colored sunbeams lit dust motes floating in the air and filled my eyes and heart with wonder. That was the day I learned about the soul nature of Beauty.
When I was four years old I stood alone on a bridge at the San Diego Zoo in southern California, entranced by elegant white swans swimming in circles below me. When my mother came to fetch me for chocolate cake I didn't want to go. I was busy absorbing Grace and Dignity.
When I was 11, body-surfing alone in Hawaii, I was caught by a fierce riptide and nearly drowned. Tumbling over and over in the ocean, unable to breathe and on the verge of panic, I heard a voice inside me say, "Relax. You don't need to breathe. You'll know when it's time to get up." I relaxed until I felt my knees scrape bottom, and soon lay on the warm sand of the beach - with an intense clarity to the scene around me I had never seen before. I now knew to be respectful and careful of Power.
When I was 13 at a girls' church camp in the mountains, I climbed a hill alone behind my cabin. I lay down in the meadow on top of the hill and immersed myself in the sun, the smell of the earth, the buzzing insects, and the calls of birds. Time drifted. I felt myself merge with everything around me and knew the safety of Belonging.
Continuing into my adult years, I learned lesson after lesson through interactions with nature. Even at 51, I learned to dissolve Fear into Trust when the cliff ledge I was hiking at Devil's Punchbowl in the San Gabriel Mountains petered out and I couldn't turn around.
Technological Inventions from the Natural World
These are the types of spiritual and psychological lessons we learn from nature. In addition, humans have learned practical lessons from nature that have helped us to develop products - countless products that make our lives easier and more fun:
We learned about composting, fertilizing, companion planting, and permaculture from the balance existing in a thriving ecosystem.
We made electricity using the power of the waterfall and storage capacity of dams; from natural hot pools we created spas and jacuzzis.
In imitation of our bodily functions we created :
- cameras (eyes)
- microphones (the eardrum)
- windshield wipers (eyelids)
- ball joints (the ball of the shoulder)
- knives (incisors)
- mortar and pestle (molars)
- plumbing and hydraulic systems (our circulatory system)
- hydraulic shock absorbers (knee joints)
We got suction cups from the octopus, inboard (boat) propulsion from the squid, anesthetics from venoms and poisons, sonar from bats and dolphins.
We created architecture in the shapes of mountains, icebergs, stalagmites, caves, cliffs, and low hills. We've imitated nature in countless sounds of music and objects of art.
Using the aerodynamics of the albatross we created airplanes and drones. From the hummingbird came the helicopter. And the deep-water glide of a whale turned into submarines, complete with the occasional surfacing for air.
And who hasn't seen a long train hugging the ground, winding up and down and around a mountain, like a giant, segmented caterpillar?
New Technologies To Increase Quality of Life
These are only a very few of the thousands of inventions we've created already from observing and experimenting with the natural world. And we have more to learn. Every time we run out of ideas, we turn back to nature.
Phil Gates' book, , shows the connection between many of the products I listed above and their counterparts in nature. Colorful illustrations make it interesting reading for older kids, as well as adults. They help bring the concepts home that nature inspires human invention, and that we should preserve ecosystems we don't know much about, in case they have unknown processes we can create new products from. Nature Got There First
Here are some of the issues that scientists and engineers are looking to the earth to help us with now:
- How can we solve our energy crisis?
- How can we absorb and translate the heat of the sun into heat for ourselves and our houses, or turn the spiral energy of whirlpools, tornados, and hurricanes into energy for running machines? What about converting wave energy or collecting from volcanoes or even earthquakes?
- How can we mimic the ability of mushrooms and algae to break down rock, oil, chemicals, and other throwaway toxins?
- How can we set up complete life cycle systems in our manufacturing processes, so that nothing is wasted - where one factory's discards become another's raw materials?
We humans could not live without nature for many, many reasons. We need regular connection with nature in order to thrive psychologically and spiritually, practical support from it to thrive physically, and ideas from it to develop more effective technologies that create comfortable, sustainable lifestyles. It's time to recognize the extent of our need for Mother Earth and to make her health a more conscious center of our lives, rather than a sometime, occasional side thought.
"Kia hora te marino, kia whakapapa pounamu te moana, kia tere ai te karohirohi i mua tonu i o koutou huarahi."
"May the calm be widespread, may the sea be as the smooth surface of the greenstone (jade), and may the rays of sunshine forever dance along your pathway."
- Maori prayer