The human race has spent a large proportion of its existence as a wild species, embedded in the natural world. However, with the rapid and unprecedented transformation that humanity has undergone since the industrial revolution, our bond to nature has been rapidly eroded
We are in the midst of an environmental crisis (we’ve lost 50% of wild animals on earth in just 40 years) and the most powerful man in the world just made the unfathomable decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. With increasingly large portions of the human race so distant as to be ignorant of the natural world and our place within it, the need to reconnect with nature is more important that it’s ever been.
A Modern Reality
Although humanity’s distancing from nature has been a long, attritional process, the start of the 21st century, with the dawn of social media and accelerated urbanisation, has kicked it into hyperdrive. Let’s look at the statistics. Researchers estimate that the average North American child spends less than 30 minutes a day playing outside, but more than seven hours in front of a TV, computer or smartphone screen. The average millennial picks up their phone 150 times per day, whilst Snapchat receives 3 billion snaps per day from its 166 million active daily users. Meanwhile we are in the midst of the greatest migration ever witnessed, with an estimated additional 2 billion more people set to become urban dwellers within the next 20 years, as people flock to the city in pursuit of its energy and opportunities.
We are living in a world in which we have fewer people exposed to nature on a daily basis, which means it is subjugated to the periphery of society. As a result, fewer people are able to build memories of the natural world, to appreciate its value, and to foster and nurture the connection to nature that we are all born with.
The importance of nature
So why does this matter? Are we perhaps just ushering in a new era of humanity, in which we draw emotional and physical sustenance from alternative sources? I’d say no, our current trajectory should not be welcomed for the following reasons:
– Mental Health.
The substitution of nature (which is associated with numerous benefits around well-being, happiness, and educational capability) with excessive use of digital technologies has been identified as a contributing factor to the recent mushrooming of mental health related issues experienced across the world. In the UK today, 1 in 4 people are affected each year by mental health issues alone, whilst Instagram and Snapchat, the most popular social media channels amongst young people, have been recently linked to a host of mental health issues, notably depression and anxiety. It doesn’t take a complex feat of logic to identify the correlation between the two.
– The Global Environmental Crisis:
A lack of connection to nature dramatically limits our ability to engage and collectively deal with the environmental crisis we face. It is an innate characteristic of human nature, as explained by philosopher Peter Singer, that we are less likely to be sympathetic towards situations that don’t noticeably impact our personal lives. The reality that we are on the cusp of triggering significant, irreversible damage as a result of climate change, that we lose 18 million acres of forest due to deforestation each year, or that we are set to have more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050, is unlikely to impact on people who are not exposed to nature, let alone directly dependent on it for survival. Without people empathising with the loss of the natural world, we will continue to mindlessly destroy it.
Technology is part of the solution
It’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, technological advancement is not at odds with our connection to nature and can even be part of the solution. Technology, for example, has an ability to connect people with nature in ways that were not previously impossible. Without technology for instance, and the visibility it has provided of the inhumane and harmful practices of the meat industry, would we now have such a strong movement towards veganism and its associated environmental benefits? Technology is also enabling us to design smart cities, allowing us to integrate nature into our urban lives.
The role technology can play in supporting our reconnection to nature has been recognised as part of this year’s UN World Environment Day, which takes place today. The theme, ‘connecting people to nature’, encourages us to revive our attachment to the natural world by taking photos of our favourite and most intimate moments within it, and share them via social media using the #WithNature hashtag.
From our local parks and gardens to our wonderful national parks, nature is accessible. I would encourage you, this week, this World Environment Day, to find a way to connect to the nature on offer to you.