By Heidi Hoppe, Little White House intern
When was the last time you have been at the zoo? Do you remember, how it was divided into different climate zones, equivalent to the different parts of the world the animals would naturally inhabit? You would have the lions, giraffes and elephants running around in huge enclosures that are supposed to imitate the African Savannah – with big rocks, sandy grounds and native plants. The penguins and polar bears would have settled in an utterly different surrounding. They get lots of water to swim around and are sometimes accompanied by other species they would naturally live with peacefully.
Now, we can all agree that every animal deserves to be provided with a habitat that fits their basic needs, right?
So how come that the majority of humans on this earth are piled up in concrete blocks, sometimes spending days of commuting back and forth without seeing a single tree? How come city planners take into account an overwhelming amount of variables when designing streets and districts, but forget to ask themselves one important question – what living environment is it, that human beings actually need? “Need” not in terms of an even more efficient way of getting from A to B, of saving time and resources so we can invest them elsewhere to make economy grow. I am talking about the very basic needs we got met thousands of years ago when a creature formed that is now known as the Homo Sapiens.
Modern civilisation is enabling most of those living in the global north a quite comfortable life. Food can conveniently be found in the nearest supermarket, many life-threatening diseases can be treated or prevented with modern medicine and law and order ensures safe living conditions. But a modern, industrialised country often exists at the expense of the environment. And it is not only due to climate change that we should reconsider the direction we are heading in. Every single one of us originates from one human species that for thousands of years had one constant in their life. Unspoiled nature.
There are many aspects of our lives that suffer from the increasing exploitation of nature. One that gets too little attention is the human psyche.
Having grown up in a Waldorf-Kindergarten, I spent most of my childhood out in nature. But as I grew older, most events in my life have been moved inside buildings. At school eight hours a day I was sitting in classrooms – occasionally interrupted by sports lessons which were normally given in the gym. Coming home, the rest of the day would be planned around indoor activities as well.
Our modern life takes place inside. Wouldn’t you agree? But wait a second, read it again. Our life takes place inside. Although for thousands of years it did not. And since our bodies and minds take a bit longer than a couple of centuries to adapt to the profound changes our everyday lives have gone through since industrialisation, we now suffer from a bunch of consequences. Psychological Research largely supports this assumption. A widely known study comes from Roger S. Ulrich, who in 1984 discovered that patients, whose hospital rooms overlooked trees, had an easier time recovering than those, whose rooms overlooked brick walls. Patients able to see nature got out of the hospital faster, had fewer complications and required less pain medication than those forced to stare at a wall. And further findings indicated that this does not only apply to real nature. Mere pictures of nature scenes reached a similar effect. Ulrich’s study led to the creation of a whole new term called “Healing Architecture” which focuses on the healing aspects of hospital design. And of course, research has not stopped since 1984. The healing effects of a nature-like surrounding also applies to workspaces. A study from 1993 found that office workers with a view of nature liked their jobs more, enjoyed better health and reported greater life satisfaction (Kaplan, 1993). While this study does not exclude the possibility that a greener work environment often co-occurs with a more conscious type of business leadership, the amount of data suggesting a health-benefit of a green environment is overwhelming. And it makes sense, right? Most of us can feel the calming effect of a quick walk in the park and the soothing effect of hearing the wind rattle through a tree’s leaves.
And it is not just adults that benefit. It is also our children. In a study from 2002, children were put through a battery of tests to compare the performance of those living in buildings near a green spot and those living in buildings surrounded by barren concrete. It turned out that girls who lived in greener environments had greater capacity for paying attention, and they were better able to delay gratification and inhibit impulses. Those results did not count for boys, because they tend to simply spend less time at home and therefore be less exposed to possible benefits of surrounding nature.
But the closeness to nature goes beyond strengthening our and our children’s personal well-being. Another important benefit of experiencing natural environments is the so-called connectedness to nature. The more time we spend out in nature, the stronger our emotional and cognitive bond to it grows, which makes us feel more connected to nature and causes us to care about it more. But what would that be an argument for? Who would benefit from a sense of connection and care between humans and their natural surroundings? Well, I am thinking about our very endangered planet itself. About all the hundreds of thousands of species we have not yet eradicated. Is it just me presuming that a stronger bond between us and nature might make us more aware of possibly harmful behaviour, that it might make us more aware in our consumption and our everyday choices, simply because we would realise how much there is at stake?
The ease that a connection to nature can bring to us, is not just a personal one. With a growing bond to our natural surroundings, we are likely to reconsider our daily choices in favour of this planet we’re living on.
But is all of this really so easy to implement? If I have never really cared about plants and trees, it is not going to change from one day to the other, right? Actually, there is no need to make big plans. Start small and pay your local plant shop a visit. Can you find anything that you enjoy looking at? Great, take it home and see what it does to the atmosphere of your room. Next time you are at a green spot, try to consciously look around. Try to notice how the current season shows itself in colours, smells and sounds. And be scientific about it. Notice which action leads to which change. Chances are, you will spot a few.
Kaplan, R. (1993). The Role of Nature in the Context of the Workplace. Landscape and Urban Planning, 26 (1-4), 191-201.
Mayer, F.C. & Franz, C.L. (2004). The Connectedness to Nature Scale: A Measure of Individuals’ Feeling on Community with Nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24 (4), 503-515.
Taylor A.F. , Kuo F.E. & Sullivan W.C. (2002). Views of Nature and Self-Discipline: Evidence from Inner City Children. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22 (1), 49-63.
Ulrich, R.S. (1984). View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery. Science, 224 (4647), 420-421.