After reviewing hundreds of scientific articles on “cultural ecosystem services” or the non-material 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 published paper. Friday in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.
The paper is believed to be the first of its kind to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding and quantifying the complex ways in which people and nature are connected. And its findings could have significant real-world implications, said Lam Thi Mai Huynh, lead author of the paper and PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo.
“For the modern world, people tend to disconnect from nature,” he said. “For ecosystem management, the best solution, the most sustainable solution, is to reconnect people to nature and let local people be the ones who help maintain and manage ecosystem services.”
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For Huynh, the ambitious quest – a feat that even his academic supervisor initially thought might not be possible – was born out of a desire to improve understanding of the complicated processes underlying nature’s intangible effects – such as opportunities for recreation and recreation. recreation or spiritual fulfillment – impact well-being. A major challenge, however, is that much of the existing scientific literature on cultural ecosystem services has been “highly fragmented,” the review notes.
“You have all kinds of different people watching [the intangible benefits of nature] through a different lens, “said Alexandros Gasparatos, associate professor at the Institute of Future Initiatives at the University of Tokyo, co-author of the paper. While having different research is key, he said,” it gets a little difficult to put it all together. ” .
But the new study, a systematic review of some 300 peer-reviewed scientific articles, creates “an excellent knowledge base,” Gasparatos said.
“The main purpose of this exercise is to understand the connection,” he added. “We give names to phenomena”.
The review breaks down the hundreds of possible links between the individual aspects of human well-being (mental and physical health, connection and belonging and spirituality, among others) and cultural ecosystem services, such as recreation and tourism, aesthetic value and social relationship. . The researchers then went a step further and identified more than a dozen distinct underlying mechanisms by which people’s interactions with nature can affect their well-being.
The researchers found that the greatest positive contributions were seen in mental and physical health. According to the paper, recreation, tourism and aesthetic value appeared to have the greatest impact on human health through the “regenerative” mechanism, or by experiencing restorative effects from being in nature such as stress relief. Meanwhile, the greatest negative effects are related to mental health through the “destructive” mechanism, or direct damage associated with the degradation or loss of cultural ecosystem services, the researchers write.
“Actually, you don’t just have one path,” and the effects aren’t always positive, Gasparatos said. “It’s not like if I go to the forest, I get a thing.”
A well-designed park, for example, can be a place for recreation and recreation, as well as connecting 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 could lead to an ugly or visually threatening landscape that could make you feel uncomfortable or scared of being there.
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The paper can provide a kind of road map, Huynh said, to help people, especially decision makers, understand that there are not only various intangible benefits in interactions with nature, but also how to try to achieve them.
“If we understand the underlying process, we can help design better ecosystem management interventions,” he said. “We can help improve nature’s contributions to human well-being,” as well as potentially improving sustainable management practices and eliminating some of the negative effects on well-being.
The research was widely applauded by several outside experts who were not involved in the work.
“It takes a long time to have a study like this that makes some of these connections a little clearer,” said Keith Tidball, an environmental anthropologist at Cornell University. “This stuff has been scattered all over the place for a long, long time, and this document takes a huge step forward in solving what was previously pretty confusing.”
Anne Guerry, chief strategy officer and chief scientist of the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, agrees. “They have done a great job of putting together an extraordinarily diverse literature,” she said. It was a challenge, he noted, among researchers to be able to present science in a way that reveals where and how nature offers the greatest benefits to people, which in turn could help “inform and motivate investment in conservation and restoration that lead to better results for both people and nature ”.
For example, research could have an impact on the role potentially played by nature in human health. “What this will be really useful for is that we can continue to work to argue that doctors and doctors can actually prescribe outdoor time, outdoor recreation and even outdoor space thanks to these pathways they have identified in this paper,” 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 Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health.
“This prepares us to be able to say that when we facilitate this type of interaction with nature, you see this type of benefit and then prescribe this type of natural experience, or you have policies that say that you are really depriving someone of their mental health if you destroy these. natural landscapes, ”he said.
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But the review has limitations, prompting some experts to warn of over-interpreting or over-emphasizing its results.
A potential problem is that existing research included in the review focuses disproportionately on individuals rather than groups.
“There are multiple times when something could be really good for an individual, but overall for the community, it might not be good at all,” said Kevin Summers, a senior research ecologist at the Office of Research and Development at Protection. Environmental Agency.
“In many cases, there can be unintended consequences for things that seem like very simple and straightforward decisions,” Summers added.
Research gaps should also be taken into account, Guerry said. While the review suggests that some connections between some characteristics of human well-being and cultural ecosystem services appear stronger than others, that doesn’t mean those other relationships may not be meaningful, she said.
“We have to be careful in terms of oversimplifying the results and think that the lack of a documented report in this document means that something is not important,” he said. Instead, it could mean that “it hasn’t been studied and we haven’t found a way to quantify it and bring it into the scientific literature and out of our kind of implicit understanding.”
The researchers addressed the limitations of their work, noting in the paper that future research “should explore in depth how these pathways and mechanisms manifest in less studied ecosystems and understand their differentiated effects for various stakeholders.”
In the meantime, though, the findings serve as an important reminder of nature’s need.
“It can very well justify a mentality like: ‘We invest in nature because it has all these advantages,'” said Gasparatos.
With such strong positive benefits linked to creativity, belonging, regeneration and more, “it’s easy from this document 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 more and more separated and removed from “our ecological self,” efforts to connect humans and nature are not only interesting in terms of science, philosophy or ethics, Tidball said, but ” there are also human security implications here that are significant. ”And, he said, if steps aren’t taken to reconnect people with nature, the consequences could be dire.
“If we continue on a path as a kind of being in a state of ecological amnesia,” he said, “we will find ourselves out of habitat and out of time and, therefore, unlucky.”