We may be able to leverage the threats posed by environmental degradation in a way the could contribute to human health and galvanize action on climate change. The deteriorating state of our environment has prompted research that shows how the preservation of the natural world augments our physical and mental wellbeing. Adverse health impacts from climate change combined with the benefits of a healthier natural environment may be the best inducement we have to catalyze action.
While climate change causes both physical and psychological sickness, exposure to healthy natural environments can foster health. Emerging research confirms what we intuitively know to be true, environmental health benefits us both physically and mentally. As this understanding grows, it may spur a global movement focused on environmental protection.
Contrary to the obviously detrimental physical health effects of pollutants and toxins, contact with the natural world appears to have a beneficial effect. In a CBC article, Alan Logan, co-author of Your Brain on Nature, indicated that exposure to nature increases the natural killer cells that defend us against a wide range of physical ailments ranging from the common cold to cancer. Logan cites a Japanese study in which a group who spent three days in a forest setting produced significantly more natural killer cells in their bodies than a group that spent three days sightseeing in the city. The positive results were found to persist for at least a month.
One of the possible pathways by which this effect is achieved is through something called phytoncides. These are chemicals secreted into the air from trees, especially evergreens. They have been shown in the lab to stimulate the production of killer cells. They hover in greatest concentrations in natural settings, such as forests, about four feet off the ground.
The interdependence of psychological and physical states has been widely documented. So it should come as no surprise that states of psychological wellness contribute to states of physical health and vice versa.
Nature not only has a positive effect on physical health, it is also a major factor in psychological wellness. It is intuitively obvious that being in nature is emotionally uplifting and this view is supported by research, which shows that green spaces not only improve psychological well being, they can also provide a number of far ranging societal benefits that include reducing crime.
A study by a research team from Herriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, shows the benefits of nature through real-time measurements of brain activity. They monitored the brain wave patterns of people in three different environments—an urban shopping district, a park with a lush green environment, and a busy commercial zone.
When people were in green spaces, their brain-wave activity was more relaxed. In such environments, the test subjects showed lower levels of frustration and higher meditative states. These effects ended when they exited from these green spaces. These benefitial psychological states were not present when people were in a busy commercial street or a shopping district.
The researchers also found that kids do better on cognitive tests after spending time in nature. Biochemical changes have also been observed in a person’s saliva after they spend time outdoors.
In The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, researchers Rachel Kaplan and Steven Kaplan found that exposure to nature lifts people out of a state of mental fatigue and induces what they call “restorative experiences.”
There are a number of studies which show the psychological value of urban parks. Experiencing nature can uplift people's emotional state and restore mental balance. Research suggests that green spaces induce a reflective mood and reduce stress. Not only can living near a park make people happier, living near green spaces has been shown to significantly increase life expectancy.
According to a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology by Ian Alcock of the University of Exeter Medical School, people moving to towns with more parks and gardens report greater well being than those without access to those amenities.
According to Julia Africa of the Centre for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health, there are specific design features of parks that promote health. They include trees, flowers, a rolling topography, and winding paths. Diversity also appears to be critical.
These findings prompled Logan to conclude that, "access to green space is clearly a public health issue." These are particularly interesting findings in light of the increasing rates of urbanization.
Taken together, these findings suggest that protecting and expanding green spaces can be a low cost, drug-free way of promoting public health.
The interdependence of natural environments and human health have spawned some interesting research on healing. Epidemiologist Christopher Golden has conducted research which explores the relationship between environment and human health. He has also shown how the right interventions can heal both sick people and sick ecosystems.
Using his understanding of the interrelationship between the environment and human health, Golden has created an organization called HEAL (Health and Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages). This program is a consortium of 25 institutions led by the Wildlife Conservation Society that aims to restore a more harmonious balance between humans and the biodiversity in which they live.
As reported in a Grist article, Glenn Albrecht, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Newcastle has developed some nomenclature that help us to better understand the relationship between nature and human health. He coined the term “endemophilia” — the love that people have for what’s distinctive about the place they live or come from. He also created the term Soliphilia — a state that results in positive energy to collaborate, heal, and work together. Basically, it refers to people who see the cumulative damage of climate change and work together to make repairs.
Efforts to achieve states of physical and psychological health may even prove to be a catalyst for wider environmental action. In China, environmental toxicity, (specifically issues related to air quality) are causing people to speak out and forcing the government to take action.
Psychiatric epidemiologist, Helen Berry of the University of Canberra has documented the enthusiasm for re-connecting with the land as a means of lessening the anxiety associated with climate impacts. As she explains, this attitude energizes people to engage in environmental action.
“Climate change and associated weather-related disasters could be such a serious threat that they could actually propel people to come and work together,” Berry said.
These realizations could entice the growth of social capital, which contributes to health.”Climate change might make people willing to take some kind of concerted action, to do something useful for their community,“ she said. This tendency towards action is what she describes as “the pearl in the oyster.”
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Harry Koopman, courtesy flickr