Human civilization has become increasingly urbanized over the past 100 years. More than half of the Earth’s human population now lives in cities and urban environments, and by 2050 this will increase to 70%  Because of this, many people now have fewer opportunities to interact with nature . This rise in urbanization and separation from nature supports that we are experiencing what Robert Pyle coined an “extinction of experience.” . For this blog, I will define ‘nature’ as habitats that support living organisms, including plants and non-human animals. For example, an urban green space that has a mix of native plants, trees, birds, and/or squirrels that call it home. By this definition, a tree in an inner-city backyard classifies as nature.
“As cities and metastasizing suburbs forsake their natural diversity, and their citizens grow more removed from personal contact with nature, awareness, and appreciation retreat.” Robert Pyle
Never before throughout history has such a large percentage of humanity been so far removed from nature and more so deep wilderness . Deep wilderness can be defined as nature that exists in a non-urban environment and without any human interference on the landscape. Despite urban planner’s desire to create more green space in the cities of tomorrow, modern civilization as a whole is losing the opportunity to immerse themself in not only a city park but true deep wilderness.
Is this what modern living is all about? Have the majority of humans forgot that we ARE nature?
There is growing concern that modern living, particularly in western cultures, undermines our sense of belonging and that this may be contributing to increased rates of mental and emotional ill-health. I had the pleasure of meeting with historian and author Graham Hancock at an event in Toronto, Ontario. I would have to agree with his statement that “it is no surprise we are a species with amnesia when corporate interests (and the latest upgrade of the iPhone) have ravaged the precious remnants of our forgotten past.” Have we forgotten our ecological self, the self that extends to other living plants, animals, and landscapes? Research involving youth’s time spent indoors would support this loss of self-identity and data collected on American youth shows social media and personal computer use has been on the rise, while time spent in nature is on the decline . Furthermore, those who spend more time indoors tend to spend that time being sedentary compared to being physically active outdoors. It is almost as if we are trading time outdoors connecting with nature for sedentary time indoors connected online.
In general, individuals in western society spend far less time in nature than in past decades, and a 2017 study by Kellert et al.  surveyed 11,817 American adults and children nationwide and reported on 5 society-wide elements that fuel this physical detachment and psychological disconnection from nature;
- Location of home, work, or school
- Available time, attention, and money
- Less dependence on nature for survival
- Distraction of technology (i.e. smart-phones, media, etc.)
- Lesser expectations for contact with nature to gain satisfaction
Urbanization along with the activities and technologies we are trading time in nature for may have indeed played their role in enriching our lives. However, for this blog, I will highlight that urbanization, sedentarism, and time spent indoors on screens are associated with increased levels of ill mental health, such as anxiety and depression [7,8]. Urbanization and the extinction of experience are also having an impact on the diversity of microbes in the Earth’s soil as well as in our microbiome, which could also be leading to increasing rates of disease . The leading cause of the non-fatal burden of disease is mental ill-health and there is high co-morbidity for chronic disease and mental ill-health [10,11]. This is especially alarming when considering how government health agencies and regulatory bodies like the WHO are now discouraging the idea of shutting down the economy for the pandemic because of the detrimental impact it is now known to have on mental health .
This begs the question, if the pros of urbanization, along with so-called “advancements” in medicine and technology, actually outweigh the cons of urbanization that are associated with negative mental health? The big problem here is, do we want to wait and see what the outcome of increased separation will be? We are potentially losing forever the ability to immerse ourselves and strengthen our connection or relationship with nature – is faster internet and fast food (which is becoming as disconnected from nature as we are) at the press of a button something we should be designing our lives around?
If you are reading this far, I assume you also share my belief that the cons of separation outweigh the pros. But does that mean we should just abandon cities and head for the countryside to live off-grid? No, and it is probably highly unlikely that this is even a possibility given the way the world currently operates. Furthermore, modern humans lack the knowledge, skills, and abilities to safely immerse themselves in deep wilderness or let alone live off-grid.
To be honest I do not have a one size fits all answer. Given the upcoming election, you might be inclined to hear people say, “get out and vote” – however, it would be disingenuine for me to suggest such a strategy in 2020 as a means to stop the extinction of experience and high levels of mental illness modern civilization are faced with. My best attempt at a generalizable answer would be to just start small and try to fit nature immersion and connection into your daily life. For starters, to connect with nature and strengthen our relationship we need to be in contact with nature. Many barriers exist that keep people from being in direct contact with nature and being able to feel safe and secure in nature or deep wilderness. Like any new skill we are trying to build self-efficacy in, we need to gain mastery over small tasks before moving on to more complex skills and tasks. This could be something like understanding how to layer our clothes and what clothes help keep us dry and warm so we can stay immersed in nature for longer – thus receiving more health benefits. This could also mean learning your local land and what berries, mushrooms, and greens are edible – thus strengthening our connection with nature via food procurement. This could even be something like making a fire from friction with a bow drill or building a bushcraft shelter – thus increasing confidence which can be transferable to the attainment of other life goals.
Individual desire to increase self-efficacy in nature is part of the reason we see a rise in eco-therapy like forest therapy, garden therapy, and animal therapy to name a few. Also increasing self-efficacy is part of the reason I started this blog and podcast. To help by interviewing experts in various fields of nature connection and rewilding with the aim of giving you the tools you need via knowledge, skills, abilities to feel confident and continually go deeper and fully explore your relationship with nature; to explore yourself as nature and become the best version of you. Through connecting with nature, we are in essence connecting with ourselves to become a more whole version of ourselves – truer to our ecological self. We are taking care of ourselves when we commit to being in nature – just as we are taking care of ourselves when we exercise, drink clean spring water, brush our teeth, and get plenty of sleep. In my experience, nature contact and nature connection can have one of the most profound impacts on one’s ability to heal at a deep cellular level. Our connection with nature and the living Earth is as upstream as we can get when it comes to healing the root of ill health in human civilization. This is in part because strengthening our connection with nature does not only benefit human health but also the health of the Earth as those who are more connected to nature also shows the tendency toward more pro-environmental behaviors .
There is immense potential to influence human health if we can not only physically immerse ourselves in nature but also psychologically reconnect ourselves with nature and no longer see ourselves as separate from the rocks, trees, birds, and bees. In the next installment of this blog, I will lay out some of the theories behind the health benefits of contact with nature as well as some techniques to help us connect with nature so we can get the most out of our time spent in nature and the deep wilderness. Stay tuned for upcoming nature-based meditations that will be released via the podcast platform. These meditations are created to help you stay centered and strengthen your connection with Earth.
- Dye, C. (2008) Health and urban living. Science 319(5864):766–769.
- Maller C, Townsend M, Pryor A, Brown P, St Leger L (2006) Healthy nature healthy people: ‘Contact with nature’ as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations. Health Promot Int 21(1):45–54.
- Miller, J. R. (2005). Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience. Trends in ecology & evolution, 20(8), 430-434.
- Turner WR, Nakamura T, Dinetti M (2004) Global urbanization and the separation of humans from nature. Bioscience 54(6):585–590.
- Pergams, O.R.W.; Zaradic, P.A. Is love of nature in the US becoming love of electronic media? 16-year downtrend in national park visits explained by watching movies, playing video games, internet use, and oil prices. J. Environ. Manag. 2006, 80, 387–393.
- Kellert, S. R., Case, D. J., Echer, D., Witter, D. J., Mikels-Carrasco, J. & Seng, P. T. (2017) ‘Disconnection and Recommendations for Reconnection.’ The Nature of Americans National Report, pp.1-364.
- Lederbogen F, et al. (2011) City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature 474(7352):498–501.
- Peen J, Schoevers RA, Beekman AT, Dekker J (2010) The current status of urban-rural differences in psychiatric disorders. Acta Psychiatr Scand 121(2):84–93.
- Prescott, S. L., Wegienka, G., Logan, A. C., & Katz, D. L. (2018). Dysbiotic drift and biopsychosocial medicine: How the microbiome links personal, public and planetary health. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 1, 7.
- Whiteford, H.A.; Degenhardt, L.; Rehm, J.; Baxter, A.J.; Ferrari, A.J.; Erskine, H.E.; Charlson, F.J.; Norman, R.E.; Flaxman, A.D.; Johns, N.; et al. Global burden of disease attributable to mental and substance use disorders: Findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. Lancet 2013, 382, 1575–1586.
- Prados-Torres, A.; Calderon-Larranaga, A.; Hancco-Saavedra, J.; Poblador-Plou, B.; van den Akker, M. Multimorbidity patterns: A systematic review. J. Clin. Epidemiol. 2014, 67, 254–266.
- Retrieved October 29th, 2020 from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/this-is-the-psychological-side-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-that-were-ignoring/
- Mayer, F. S., Frantz, C. M., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Dolliver, K. (2009). Why Is Nature Beneficial?: The Role of Connectedness to Nature. Environment and Behavior, 41(5), 607–643.