After reviewing hundreds of scientific articles on “cultural ecosystem services” or the non-material benefits of nature, the researchers identified 227 unique pathways through which people’s interactions with nature can positively or negatively affect well-being, according to an article published Friday in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.
The document is believed to be the first of its kind to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding and quantifying the complex ways that people and nature are connected. And their 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,” he said. “For ecosystem management, the best solution, the most sustainable solution, is to reconnect people with nature and let local people be the ones to help maintain and manage ecosystem services.”
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For Huynh, the ambitious research—an undertaking that even her academic supervisor initially thought might not be possible—stemmed from a desire to improve understanding of the complicated underlying processes behind how intangible effects of nature, such as recreation opportunities and leisure or spiritual fulfillment, have an impact on well-being. One major challenge, however, is that much of the existing scientific literature on cultural ecosystem services has been “highly fragmented,” the review noted.
“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 for Future Initiatives at the University of Tokyo, a co-author of the paper. Although having diverse research is critical, he said, “it gets a little difficult to pull it all together.”
But the new study, a systematic review of about 300 peer-reviewed scientific articles, creates “an excellent knowledge base,” Gasparatos said.
“The goal of doing this exercise is to understand the connection,” he added. “We give names to phenomena.”
The review breaks down the hundreds of possible links 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 relationship. The researchers then went a step further, identifying more than a dozen different underlying mechanisms through which people’s interactions with nature can affect their well-being.
The researchers found that the highest positive contributions were seen in mental and physical health. Recreation, tourism and aesthetic value appear to have the greatest impact on human health through the “regenerative” mechanism, or experience restorative effects of being in nature, such as stress relief, according to the paper. Meanwhile, the highest negative effects are linked to mental health through the “destructive” mechanism, or direct harm associated with the degradation or loss of cultural ecosystem services, the researchers wrote.
“Actually, you don’t just have one path,” and the effects aren’t always positive, Gasparatos said. “It’s not that if I go to the forest, I get 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 appreciate the view 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 afraid to be there.
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The document can provide a kind of roadmap, Huynh said, to help people, particularly decision-makers, understand that there are not only various intangible benefits to interactions with nature, but also how to go about achieving them. .
“If we understand the underlying process, we can help design better ecosystem management interventions,” he said. “We can help enhance nature’s contributions to human well-being,” as well as potentially improve sustainable management practices and remove 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 sheds some light on some of these links,” said Keith Tidball, an environmental anthropologist at Cornell University. “This material has been scattered around for a long, long time, and this document goes a long way in resolving what was previously quite confusing.”
Anne Guerry, director of strategy and senior scientist at the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, agreed. “They did a very good job of bringing together an extraordinarily diverse literature,” she said. It has been a challenge, he 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 investments in conservation and restoration that lead to better outcomes for both people and nature.”
For example, the research could impact the role nature potentially plays in human health. “What this is going to be very helpful for is being able to continue to work to show that doctors and clinicians can prescribe outdoor time, outdoor recreation, even outdoor space because of these pathways that 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.
“That prepares us to be able to say that when we facilitate this type of interaction with nature, do you see this type of benefit and then prescribe these types of natural experiences, or do you have policies that say 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, leading some experts to warn about overinterpreting or overemphasizing its results.
One potential problem is that the existing research included in the review disproportionately focuses on individuals rather than groups.
“There are a number of times when something might be really good for an individual, but overall for the community, it might not be that good at all,” said Kevin Summers, a senior research ecologist with Environmental Protection’s Office of Research and Development. . Agency.
“In many cases, there can be unintended consequences for things that seem like very simple, straightforward decisions,” Summers added.
Other gaps in the research should also be noted, Guerry said. While the review suggests that some connections between certain features of human well-being and cultural ecosystem services appear stronger than others, it doesn’t mean those other relationships aren’t significant, she said.
“We have to be careful in terms of oversimplifying the results and thinking that the lack of a documented relationship in this paper means that something is not important,” he said. Instead, it may 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 further explore how these pathways and mechanisms manifest in less studied ecosystems and understand their differential effects for various stakeholders.”
In the meantime, however, the findings serve as an important reminder of nature’s need.
“It can very well justify a mentality 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 is easy from this document to feel that its constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness requires a country to preserve wilderness,” Haase added.
At a time when many people are becoming increasingly separated and distanced from “our ecological selves,” efforts to link humans and nature are not only interesting in terms of science, philosophy or ethics, Tidball said, but also “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 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.”