Our relationship with nature: A powerful force for change


Date: 29/06/23

Ahead of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) the UN Secretary-General delivered a landmark speech on the state of the planet: “we are facing new heights of global heating, new lows of ecological degradation and new setbacks in our work towards global goals for more equitable, inclusive and sustainable development. To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken.”

What has brought us to be here? What has allowed us to degrade our planet that we depend on? And what one thing could be more powerful than anything else in helping us to change this?

The technology and progress triggered by the Industrial Revolution has enabled humanity to be phenomenally successful in our domination and exploitation of nature, resulting in a system of economic growth based on consumption. For some, this economic growth has driven high incomes, education, quality infrastructure, living longer, and has lifted people out of poverty. High incomes allow us to consume more, fuelling more economic growth and allowing us to consume more, and so the cycle continues with our societies and economies depending on, indeed addicted to, never ending growth that draws on the limited resources of the natural world.

Additionally, we have developed a way of assessing a nation’s success in terms of the financial flows of the economy - GDP. However, GDP gives no way of accounting for the shared resources (clean water, pollination of crops, fertile fishing grounds, healthy communities) on which businesses and the economy depend, or the costs of pollution that comes from production and waste. We call these ‘externalities’ – unaccounted-for and unpaid-for resources, where local environments and communities regularly pay the price for their exploitation. And it turns out that GDP ignores many crucial ways that humanity is thriving: clean air, health, happiness, life span, gender equality, education. Ultimately, and this is the main flaw in the system, you cannot have infinite consumption-based growth on a finite planet.

But has all of this made us happy?

As we separated ourselves from nature, as we have insulated ourselves from our environment, from nature and its impacts, as we became more able to dominate, degrade and exploit nature, every indicator suggests this has been to the detriment of our own mental wellbeing as well as our understanding of and attitudes towards nature.

But this system is not inevitable. There are increasingly alternative economic models being proposed. Doughnut economics recognises that the economy operates within the framework of society and the planetary boundaries. It is an economic system that uses alternative measures of wealth, beyond GDP and towards social and environment markers that account for the things that genuinely bring us quality of life and prosperity. Frameworks such as The Human Development Index (HDI), The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) or the UK’s Thriving Places Index (TPI) measure indicators like physical health and years in education and subtract factors such as resource depletion and environmental degradation.

Within business we are seeing new business paradigms - a shift in perspective from the organisation as a machine to one where externalities are a material concern, and in some cases where businesses are a living system that interrelate with the living systems of society and environment, and the emergence of the circular economy. These businesses take inspiration from living systems to help us with this.

And there is a renewed understanding that there is a clear link between increased personal connection to nature and transformational change – change in environmental attitudes and indeed our likelihood to think and behave in sustainable ways, as well as improvements in wellbeing and health. Because the truth is we are all physiologically and psychologically adapted to live within our natural habitat, to be responsive to the signals that nature gives us, to need and desire to affiliate with nature (known as the Biophilia Hypothesis).

Influenced by a resurgent indigenous view of “Pachamama” or Earth Mother, Bolivia and Ecuador have passed laws granting all nature equal rights with humans. And in New Zealand, a Maori tribe has successfully fought to have their river - and ancestor - given the same legal rights as a person. But this extends to all of us, research has long shown that spending time in nature leads to enhanced wellbeing and happiness, comparable to established factors such as income and education. But there is now a growing body of research that shows that people who are better connected to nature have more pro-environmental values and behaviours.

We need a new relationship with nature, one that sees ourselves as intricately interconnected with nature. Research shows there are things we can all do that will enhance our connection to nature – not just by being in proximity to nature but by “sensing nature, noticing its beauty and the emotions evoked. These can develop into deeper explorations of the meaning we find in nature as we develop compassion for nature”. Following World Environment Day (5th June), and during World Wellbeing Week (starting June 26th), we can all make a commitment to nurture our relationship with nature. This can start today – you can go outside into your closest ‘natural space’. Write down ‘three good things’ in nature. Take time to really see and feel what's around you... the changing seasons, the movement and appearance of the plants, the fading of the light, the effect of these on wildlife and on you. Bring something from nature home, or plant something in your own house or garden.

Earthwatch Learning aims to reconnect people with the natural world, to generate positive behaviour change and develop business practices that are viewed through the lens of nature.

Author: Abi Jermain, Senior Learning Manager Abi has consulted on, designed and delivered a wide variety of experiential learning programmes for partners such as HSBC, Shell, Microsoft and DHL. Through her design work Abi embraces the opportunity that Earthwatch programmes allow, blending knowledge sharing, reflection, networking and coaching towards action. Abi has trained as a co-active coach and Action Learning facilitator and co-leads a team of learning managers.

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