New study finds that nature affects our lives in more ways than you think


Humans have long benefited from nature’s offerings. But in addition to being an essential source of food, water and resources, the natural world can also contribute to people’s general well-being through a host of intangible effects — and according to new research, there are many more crucial connections between humans and nature than there would be. one can think.

After reviewing hundreds of scientific papers on “cultural ecosystem services,” or the non-tangible benefits of nature, researchers have identified 227 unique pathways through which people’s interactions with nature can positively or negatively affect well-being, according to a paper published Friday. published in the peer. -reviewed journal Science Advances.

The document is considered the first of its kind to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding and quantifying the complex ways in which humans and nature are linked. And the findings could have significant real-world implications, said Lam Thi Mai Huynh, the paper’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at the University of Tokyo.

“For the modernized world, people tend to detach from nature,” she said. “For ecosystem management, the best solution, the most sustainable solution, is to connect people back to nature and let the local people be the ones who help maintain and manage the ecosystem services.”

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For Huynh, the ambitious research – an undertaking that even her academic supervisor initially thought was not possible – arose from a desire to gain more insight into the complicated underlying processes behind nature’s intangible effects – such as opportunities for recreation and free time or spiritual fulfillment – affect well-being. A major challenge, however, is that much of the existing scientific literature on cultural ecosystem services is “highly fragmented,” according to the review.

“You have all kinds of different people who go to [the intangible benefits of nature] through a different lens,” said Alexandros Gasparatos, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Future Initiatives, who co-authored the paper. While having diverse research is critical, he said, “it’s getting a little difficult to put it all together.”

But the new study, a systematic review of about 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers, creates “an excellent knowledge base,” Gasparatos said.

“The whole point of doing this exercise is to understand the connection,” he added. “We give names to phenomena.”

The review highlights the hundreds of possible links between individual aspects of human well-being (including mental and physical health, belonging and connectedness, and spirituality) and cultural ecosystem services, such as recreation and tourism, aesthetic value, and social relationships. The researchers then went a step further and identified more than a dozen different underlying mechanisms through which people’s interactions with nature can influence their well-being.

Researchers found that the highest positive contributions were seen in mental and physical health. Recreation, tourism and aesthetic value seemed to have the greatest impact on human health through the “regenerative” mechanism, or experiencing restorative effects of being in nature, such as stress reduction, according to the paper. Meanwhile, the greatest negative effects are linked to mental health through the “destructive” mechanism, or direct harm related to the degradation or loss of cultural ecosystem services, the researchers wrote.

“In reality, you don’t have just one path,” and the effects aren’t always positive, Gasparatos said. “It’s not that when I go to the forest, I receive one thing.”

For example, a well-designed park can be a place for recreation and relaxation, but also for connection with other people. You may also find yourself appreciating the sight of towering trees and lush greenery or birds and other wildlife. On the other hand, a poorly maintained natural space can lead to an ugly or visually threatening landscape that makes you feel uncomfortable or afraid to be there.

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The paper could provide some sort of roadmap, Huynh said, to help people, especially decision-makers, understand that interactions with nature not only have several intangible benefits, but also how to achieve them.

“If we understand the underlying process, we can help design better ecosystem management interventions,” she said. “We can help improve nature’s contributions to human well-being,” in addition to potentially improving sustainable management practices and eliminating some of the negative effects on well-being.

The research was widely praised by several outside experts who were not involved in the work.

“It’s going to be a long time before there’s a study like this that makes some of these connections a little bit clearer,” said Keith Tidball, an environmental anthropologist at Cornell University. “This stuff has been spread all over the place for a long time and this paper is taking a huge step forward in sorting out what was previously quite confused.”

Anne Guerry, chief strategy officer and chief scientist at the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, agreed. “They’ve done a really good job of bringing together extraordinarily diverse literature,” she said. It has been a challenge, she noted, among researchers to be able to present the science in a way that reveals where and how nature provides the greatest benefits to humans, which in turn could help inform and motivate conservation investments and recovery that leads to better results for people and nature.”

For example, the research could influence the role nature may play in human health. “What this will be seriously helpful for is to be able to continue working to ensure that doctors and clinicians can actually prescribe outdoor time, outdoor recreation, and even outdoor space because of these pathways they identified in this article,” Tidball said.

In one scenario, elements of this work could eventually be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, said Elizabeth Haase, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Climate Change and Mental Health Committee.

“That allows us to say that when we facilitate this kind of interaction with nature, you see this kind of benefit, and then prescribe these kinds of natural experiences, or have policies that say you really care about someone’s mental health if you do this.” destroying natural landscapes,” she said.

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But the review has limitations, prompting some experts to warn against over-interpreting or over-emphasizing the results.

One potential problem is that the existing research included in the review disproportionately focuses on individuals rather than groups.

“There are multiple times when something can be really good for an individual, but in general it may not be all that good for the community,” said Kevin Summers, senior research ecologist in the Office of Research and Development at the Environmental Protection Bureau.

“In many cases, there can be unintended consequences for things that look like very simple, straightforward decisions,” Summers added.

Other research gaps also need to be taken into account, Guerry said. While the review suggests that some links between certain features of human well-being and cultural ecosystem services seem stronger than others, that doesn’t mean those other relationships might not be significant, she said.

“We have to be careful about oversimplifying the results and thinking that a lack of a documented connection in this paper means something isn’t important,” she said. Instead, it could mean that “it hasn’t been studied and we haven’t found ways to quantify it and bring it into the scientific literature and beyond our species’ implicit understanding.”

The researchers addressed the limitations of their work, noting in the paper that future research “needs to explore in depth how these pathways and mechanisms manifest in less studied ecosystems and understand their differentiated effects for different stakeholders.”

In the meantime, however, the findings serve as an important reminder of nature’s necessity.

“It may very well justify a mindset like, ‘Let’s invest in nature because it has all these benefits,'” Gasparatos said.

With such strong positive benefits related to creativity, belonging, regeneration and more, “it’s easy from this article to feel that your constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness requires a country to preserve natural spaces,” Haase added.

At a time when many people are becoming increasingly separated from and distancing themselves from “our ecological selves,” efforts to connect humans and nature are interesting not only in terms of science, philosophy or ethics, Tidball said, but “there are also impact on human security. that are important.” And, he said, if steps are not taken to reconnect people with nature, the consequences could be serious.

“If we continue on a path as sort of being in a state of ecological amnesia,” he said, “we’re going to find ourselves out of habitat and out of time and so out of luck.”

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