“Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
- Leonardo da Vinci
Nothing is constant – everything evolves. And so did our human species. It has evolved from a species living in nature-based systems to one living in busy urban environments. Nevertheless, human connection with nature is still embedded in our DNA because our species disconnected from nature so recently. Therefore, we still feel at home when back in nature. This mystic union carries generous benefits for our bodies and minds. And connecting with nature is, so far, free of charge. As long as we are able to perceive the world that lies around us and feel the spirit of nature, we are alive. However, it is also in our nature to pursue never-ending progress. And the way we are living our lives mirrors that inevitable change. Civilized society has learned to employ industrial agriculture. This has led to a more comfortable life that permits safe and easy access to food, including everything attainable from a fridge, from a click, or from a thought. There is no more need for risky hunting or harvesting. There is not even the need to cook if you do not feel like it. Everything is ready for us, which permits us to spend our time in more meaningful ways. Despite all these privileges that we may enjoy daily, a growing number of individuals are realizing that what nurtures our life also nurtures our purpose. This link goes both ways. In other words, what does not genuinely nurture our life removes purpose from it. Whether we have disconnected from our natural selves, or whether we miss the opportunity to explore our true potential, the point is that our disconnection from nature has happened. Most people live or wish to live in big cities. Most people work or wish to work in a glossy office building. Most people study or wish to study more rational fields. But even if we achieve those goals, we still need nature to thrive, because it is in our genetic code. No matter how many fancy cars, houses, clothes, and pieces of technology we possess, it likely will never satiate our hunger for more. We are great creators, thinkers, and builders, but what if instead of connecting cities and people we approached something that is bigger than ourselves and has always been there? Exploring our inner connection with nature goes beyond its material richness; it connects us with everything in a natural way.
Scientific Evidence on Human–Nature Interconnectedness
According to the biologist E.O. Wilson,[i] humans are born with an inherent sense of connection to nature. As a result, his theory suggests that biophilia is in our genetics, and that our desire to connect with nonhuman beings is rooted in our ancestral past, in which humans evolved as part of nature, not separated from it. More importantly, by staying connected with nature – which constitutes the foundation to ecopsychology – we can simultaneously foster our mental health and maintain a healthy planet. This mutual benefit is caused by our awareness of our connection with nature, which encourages us to live in more balanced, mindful, and ecologically harmonious ways.[ii] Prior work on veganism concludes that plant-based dieting connects us with nature. This connection has a positive impact on environmental wellbeing since we reduce our human footprint on nature.[iii] However, the link goes the other way as well. Accordingly, Nisbet and colleagues conclude that individuals connected to nature engage more in vegetarianism, humanitarianism, animal defence, and environmentalism.[iv] On the other hand, and due to the predominance of urban lifestyles, people are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature, and are experiencing the consequences of that disconnection. Indeed, this has a role to play in how people perceive and protect the natural environment. When their connection to nature is interrupted, individuals tend to care less for the planet. Consequently, they engage less in pro-environmental behavior. And what’s more, they also feel less happy.[v] In this vein, our health, encompassing the physical and psychological aspects of individual wellbeing, is connected to the state of the environment and time we spend in nature.[vi] Therefore, evidence shows that our interconnectedness with nature is reflected in our ecological identity, which includes the self, human, and non-human community. Consequently, if we deteriorate the planet, we also harm ourselves.[vii]
Compared to disconnected individuals, people who live in greener environments can harness the advantages of improved levels of individual wellbeing. Accordingly, individuals who connect more with nature experience increased openness and awareness.[viii] This ecopsychological perspective provides us with a strategy to create more meaningful lives.[ix] Nature connection is a basic human need.[x] Therefore, if we combine our basic human need for food (that can be improved with plant-based diets) together with our basic need to stay connected with nature, we may find new routes to pursue a higher goal than oneself for the wellbeing of all human and nonhuman life forms.[xi]
In the introduction, I have referred to the purpose that has been removed from our lives and pointed to a possible cause: our disconnection from nature. Here, the scientific evidence on human–nature connectedness reveals possible ways we can reconnect with our true nature, and with what nurtures our psychological and physical health, all while helping keep our planet alive. Should we take advantage of this ultimate knowledge? It is the knowledge of our ancestors; it is what has constituted our life form; it is what has made us evolve and progress to become a distinct species. Shall we appreciate the immense power of staying connected with nature for the sake of all? Would that help us lead more meaningful lives?
Dr Jana Krizanova. Wellbeing & Veganism working group and Researcher Network member.
[i] Wilson, E. O. Biophilia. Harvard University Press 1984.
[ii] Scott, B. A., Amel, E. L., & Manning, C. M. In and of the wilderness: ecological connection through participation in nature. Ecopsychology 2014; 6(2), 81-91.
[iii] Fox, M. A. Vegetarianism and planetary health. Ethics & the Environment. 2014; 5(2), 163-174.
[iv] Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Murphy, S. A. The nature relatedness scale: Linking individuals' connection with nature to environmental concern and behavior. Environment and Behavior. 2009; 41(5), 715-740.
[v] Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Murphy, S. A. Happiness is in our nature: Exploring nature relatedness as a contributor to subjective wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies. 2011; 12(2), 303-322.
Soga, M., & Gaston, K. J. Extinction of experience: the loss of human–nature interactions. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 2016; 14(2), 94-101. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1225
[vi] Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Murphy, S. A. Happiness is in our nature: Exploring nature relatedness as a contributor to subjective wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies. 2011; 12(2), 303-322.
[vii] Clayton, S. Environmental identity: A conceptual and an operational definition. Identity and the natural environment: The psychological significance of nature. MIT Press. 2003; 45-65.
[viii] Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Murphy, S. A. The nature relatedness scale: Linking individuals' connection with nature to environmental concern and behavior. Environment and Behavior. 2009; 41(5), 715-740.
[ix] Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Murphy, S. A. Happiness is in our nature: Exploring nature relatedness as a contributor to subjective wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies. 2011; 12(2), 303-322.
[x] Howell, A. J., & Passmore, H. A. The nature of happiness: Nature affiliation and mental wellbeing. Mental Wellbeing. 2013; 231-257.
Baxter, D. E., & Pelletier, L. G. Is nature relatedness a basic human psychological need? A critical examination of the extant literature. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne. 2019; 60(1), 21.
[xi] Fox, N., & Ward, K. Health, ethics and environment: a qualitative study of vegetarian motivations. Appetite. 2008; 50(2-3), 422-429.