Happy Earth Day from the ORP Team!
Earth Day is a chance for all of us to take some time and reflect on our relationship with the natural world. Many of us will be marching in the streets today, demanding action on pressing environmental issues like climate change and habitat destruction. Some communities are gathering together (socially distanced, one can hope), cleaning up litter, planting trees, or establishing community gardens. If you can get around to any of these activities, please do. If you still have time after doing any of these good acts, we invite you to spend your next 2 minutes reading this blog and engaging in the more contemplative side of Earth Day. Today we want to talk about the role nature plays in bringing about human flourishing.
The thesis that nature improves human well-being is so well established that it’s almost banal. In the words of Donald Trump, who is no doubt observing this holiday with gusto, “You know it, I know it, everybody knows it.” And in fact, Cyrus the Great showed us that he knew it way back in the 6th century BCE, when he built a community garden in his capital city for the health of his subjects. Slightly more recently, Paracelsus, the 16th century “father of toxicology,” wrote, “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.”
The idea that humans need nature for sustaining health and wellness has received significant theoretical and scientific support in more recent years as well. The renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson has written extensively on what he calls “biophilia,” the innate emotional connection with non-human nature. In Japan, forest bathing is a government policy that prescribes extended walks in nature as a remedy for individuals experiencing city fatigue. Numerous studies have shown that spending time in forests lowers our blood pressure and reduces stress hormones.
This all makes sense when you take the long view of human evolution. Our brains developed in a world filled with birdsong and rustling leaves. We started and ended our days with the natural rhythm of the sun, which nurtured us with Vitamin D, regulating our moods and keeping our immune systems strong. And yeah, some of us got eaten by lions or died slowly from minor skin lesions, but let’s set that aside for now. I’m trying to build a paradise lost here.
Today, we have traded our forest homes for boxes. We are surrounded by 90 degree angles, knowing full well nature has no straight lines. In zoos, we take pains to meticulously recreate “natural” habitats in the animal’s enclosures, but rarely do we think to extend ourselves the same courtesy. The soundscape is even bleaker. In place of bird song, we are inundated with a cacophony of car horns, helicopters, and sirens. In the EU alone, noise pollution from rail and road transportation disrupt people’s sleeping patterns. These two factors alone have been linked to 50,000 fatal cases of cardiac arrest per year. The synthetic world we have built for ourselves is doing more than depressing us; it’s killing us.
This is all pretty sad, but that’s the price we pay for paying attention. In the words of Aldo Leopold, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” As we go forward, navigating the world of wounds known as the anthropocene, it’s important to remember where we came from. We must remember the neurological hardware we are working with, and make efforts to clean out the urban sludge whenever possible.
The inextricable link between human well-being and nature should inform our approach to conservation. Preserving nature, particularly forest environments, is more an act of housekeeping than of charity. Yes, we need forests for clean air, fresh water, and healthy ecosystems. But we also need forests to attain those esoteric qualities that make life worth living; namely health, happiness, and peace. Happy Earth Day from all of us at the Open Reforestation Protocol. Now go find a forest and get yourself a bath!