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

Written by Javed Iqbal

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Humans have long benefited from nature’s offerings. But in addition to being a major source of food, water and raw materials, the natural world can contribute to people’s general well-being through a wide range of intangible effects – and according to new research, there are many more critical connections between people and nature than you might think.

After reviewing hundreds of scientific papers on “cultural ecosystem services,” or the non-material benefits of nature, researchers have identified 227 unique pathways through which human interaction with nature can positively or negatively affect well-being, according to a paper released 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 humans and nature are connected. And its 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 disconnect from nature,” she said. “For ecosystem management, the best solution, the most sustainable solution, is to connect people back to nature and let local people be the ones to help maintain and manage the ecosystem services.”

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For Huynh, the ambitious research – a task that even her academic supervisor initially thought was not possible – arose from a desire to improve understanding of the complicated underlying processes behind how nature’s intangible effects – such as opportunities for recreation and leisure or spiritual fulfillment – have an influence on well-being. A major challenge, however, is that much of the existing scientific literature on cultural ecosystem services has become “highly fragmented,” the review noted.

“You have all sorts of different people watching [the intangible benefits of nature] through a different lens,” said Alexandros Gasparatos, an associate professor at the Institute of Future Initiatives at the University of Tokyo, who co-authored the paper. While having diverse research is critical, he said, “it becomes a bit difficult to bring everything together.”

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

“The whole point of doing this exercise is to understand the context,” he added. “We name phenomena.”

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

Researchers found that the highest positive contributions were seen in mental and physical health. Recreation, tourism and aesthetic value appeared to have the greatest impact on human health through the “regenerative” mechanism, or experiencing restorative effects from being in nature, such as stress relief, according to the paper. Meanwhile, the highest negative effects are associated with mental health through the “destructive” mechanism, or direct damage associated with 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 like if I go into the woods I receive one thing.”

A well-designed park, for example, can be a place for recreation and leisure 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 can lead to an ugly or visually threatening landscape that can make you feel uncomfortable or afraid to be 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 of interactions with nature, but also how to try to achieve them.

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

The research was widely applauded by several external experts who were not involved in the work.

“It’s a long time coming 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 paper takes a big step forward in sorting out what has previously been quite confused.”

Anne Guerry, Chief Strategy Officer and Principal Scientist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, agreed. “They did 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 people, which in turn could help “inform and motivate investment in conservation and restoration that leads to better outcomes for both people and nature.”

For example, the research can have an impact on the role nature potentially plays in human health. “What this will be seriously helpful for is being able to continue working to make it the case that doctors and clinicians can actually prescribe outdoor time, outdoor recreation, even outdoor space because of these pathways that they’ve 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 Disorderssaid Elizabeth Haasechairman of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health.

“It sets us up to be able to say that when we facilitate this kind of interaction with nature, you see these kinds of benefits, and then to prescribe these kinds of nature experiences or have policies that say you’re really depriving someone of their mental health if you are destroying these natural landscapes,” she said.

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But the review has limitations, prompting some experts to caution against over-interpreting or overstating the findings.

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

“There are times when something may be very good for an individual, but overall for society it may not be very good at all,” said Kevin Summers, a senior research ecologist in the Environmental Protection Bureau’s Office of Research and Development.

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

Other research gaps should also be considered, Guerry said. While the review suggests that some links between certain human well-being characteristics and cultural ecosystem services appear stronger than others, that does not mean that these other relationships may not be significant, she said.

“We have to be careful about oversimplifying the results and thinking that a lack of a documented relationship in this paper means something is not important,” she said. Instead, it might mean that “it hasn’t been studied and we haven’t found ways 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 differential effects for different stakeholders.”

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

“That may 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 paper 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 further separated and distanced from “our ecological selves,” 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 are not taken to reconnect people with nature, the consequences could be dire.

“If we continue on a path as a species of being in a state of ecological amnesia,” he said, “we will find ourselves out of habitat and out of time and therefore out of luck.”

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Javed Iqbal

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