This amazing, spinning ball of rock and water, hurtling through space at more than 100,000 kilometres an hour, provides us with everything we need to live and be healthy. It’s a delicate balance, with various interconnected natural systems — hydrologic and carbon cycles, ocean and atmospheric currents among them — creating ideal conditions for human life.
If the balance is upset, natural systems will correct and the planet will endure, but those corrections may hinder or halt the ability of humans to thrive, or even survive. You’d think this would be incentive enough for us to learn about and care for natural systems, but recent news sometimes makes me feel as if there’s a huge disconnect between people and the planet.
We’ve altered the physical and chemical properties of the biosphere to the point where we are now the dominant factor influencing Earth’s natural systems. That’s led some scientists to dub this era the Anthropocene. We’ve created so many goods and technologies and so much waste that researchers now label the 30-trillion-tonne spread of human creation as the “technosphere”. This represents 50 kilograms for every square metre of Earth's surface and is 100,000 times greater than the human biomass it supports!
With global temperatures rising precipitously as we burn more fossil fuels, destroy forests and wetlands and emit more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, humanity faces its biggest crisis ever. Climate change threatens our very existence.
Yet, we still hear people arguing that we can’t afford to implement environmental safeguards or that jobs and the economy take precedence over protecting the very systems that keep us healthy and alive. We’ve become disconnected. What can we do about it?
The best way to overcome disconnection is to connect. The eminent American ecologist E. O. Wilson refers to the innate kinship humans feel toward other living beings as “biophilia.” We are more likely to care for the things we love and see as important, he argues. If we are to protect the biosphere that keeps us alive, we have to rediscover this innate connection.
The theme of this year’s World Environment Day is “Connecting People to Nature.” It’s an important challenge, especially when you consider that children in the developed world spend less time outdoors than any previous generation. 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. Adults aren’t much better. We spend a lot of time in cars, at work, shopping and at home, but very little outdoors. It’s time for more green time and less screen time!
The benefits of spending time outdoors are wide-ranging. Studies show that time in nature can reduce stress and symptoms of attention deficit disorder; boost immunity, energy levels and creativity; increase curiosity and problem-solving ability; improve physical fitness and coordination; and even reduce the likelihood of developing near-sightedness!
Encouraging children to spend more time in nature — and spending more time outside with them — is especially beneficial. A David Suzuki Foundation survey found people who spend time outdoors when they’re young are 20 per cent more likely to take part in outdoor programs or to explore nature on their own when they’re older.
Nature also builds great memories. I was fortunate in many ways to have grown up before televisions, computers, smartphones and other electronic distractions. My greatest memories are of fishing with my dad, exploring swamps and bogs to collect bugs, frogs and salamander eggs, and hiking in the mountains. Even the time my family spent in an internment camp in the British Columbia wilderness during the Second World War holds fond memories of playing by rivers filled with fish and exploring forests with wolves, bears and deer.
In Japan, they have an ancient term for the beneficial effects of spending time in nature, shinrin-yoku, which means “forest bathing,” or “taking in forest air.” Japanese research conducted in the 1990s found that people who spend time breathing forest air lowered their risk of diabetes and experienced improved mood and lower stress hormone production compared to people exercising on indoor treadmills.
Even getting dirty is good for people. Alan Logan, author of Your Brain on Nature – along with experts from a range of disciplines at the Natural Environments Initiative workshop at Harvard School of Public Health – found people who live in areas with rich plant diversity have more diverse microbiomes, the microbial communities on and in our bodies. Beneficial microbes break down food and produce vitamins in our guts. They coat our skin, protecting us from attacks by harmful microbes. The air we breathe, the soil we dig and the outdoor plants we come into contact with include a variety of microbes that may be absent in indoor and built environments.
A microbe common to mud and wet soils, Mycobacterium vaccae, influences brain neurotransmitters so as to reduce anxiety and improve cognitive functioning. Another microbe encountered in natural environments, Acinetobacter lwoffii, benefits the human immune system, preventing asthma, hay fever and other ailments in children who have been exposed to it — although it can also cause infections and gastric problems for people with compromised immune systems. And research by Ilkka Hanski and colleagues at the University of Helsinki found microbe diversity reduced the incidence of allergies.
Playing in the soil or gardening is fun and relaxing, but it also helps us stay healthy. And whether you’re planting pollinator-friendly local plants in your garden, making a mud pie, taking photos of wildlife in the forest or sleeping under the stars, you’re developing connections with the natural world and opening your eyes and heart to the amazing, intricately interconnected biosphere of which we are all a part.
What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves. When we harm natural systems, they become unhealthy and, in turn, so do we. Connecting with nature is the best start to restoring the health of our planet and ourselves. There’s no better time to get outside!