COVID-19 has made the value of our social connections clear. Distancing from friends and family has been important to avoid a virus, but breaking these ties takes a toll on the brains of social animals like us.
The pandemic has also highlighted the value of another connection. Social-distancing has given many of us a chance to make stronger connections with the natural world. More time to walk in parks and explore local trails. More time to stare out the window at bird feeders.
As we make our way back to pre-pandemic life, it is important that we continue to foster these connections to nature. Because ecological distancing is taking a toll on our health and our planet.
For most of our human history, we were all deeply connected to the natural world. We all have farmers, gatherers, herbalists, hunters and healers in our collective family trees. Earlier versions of ourselves who lived in close contact with nature. Earlier versions of ourselves who could tell the time and season by looking at the sky and deeply knew the lives of plants and other animals.
These connections still exist in Indigenous cultures. But for many people from western traditions, our connection with nature has been co-opted. Our innate abilities to quickly process shapes and colours that once made us all experts in plant and animal identification are now used to distinguish corporate logos. The personal reflection that a walk through the forest once brought is now a multibillion-dollar wellness and mindfulness industry. Our sense of place has been replaced with product placements and an urge to seek out familiarity in franchises.
Unfortunately, disconnecting our lives from nature is not turning out well.
Nature is much more than a part of our lives. It is our lives. And it’s not just air, water, food and climate security. Being in nature — having a connection to nature — physically alters your mind and body. Walking through a forest will change what’s happening in your brain. Spending time in nature changes the bacteria that live in your gut and makes us more creative and better problem-solvers.
The evidence is very clear. Being in nature makes us better people. Ecological distancing risks disconnecting us from a part of ourselves that we need to thrive.
Nature has fared much far worse in the current disconnect between humanity and ecology. Our human influence now permeates the planet. Up to one million species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. Technology has provided us with many wonderful advances that make our lives better, but it has also created an illusionary curtain between people and nature. As a result, many of us have lost our connection to the natural world. Sadly, when we lose our connection to nature we are less likely to care for nature. While we blame the loss of nature on threats like habitat loss or pollution, these are all rooted in ignorance and apathy. Symptoms of an increasingly ecologically distanced world.
There is progress in stopping ecological distancing. Solutions to close the gap between the nature we have and the nature we need. The World Health Organization is calling for the protection of nature as the source of human health. The Wildlife Conservation Society is one of the leading organizations behind One Health, a movement to recognize the links between people, wildlife and the environment. Doctors across Canada are now prescribing nature to their patients.
Opinion: The pandemic has given many of us a chance to make stronger connections with the natural world, writes Dan Kraus @WCS_Canada. #WeStandForWildlife #WildForAll
At a personal level, there are simple steps we can all take to rediscover the benefits of having a connection with the natural world.
Spending just 20 minutes in nature will lower stress levels.
Watching birds can contribute to your happiness.
Even just looking at pictures of nature can help to focus your thinking.
Make nature part of your life. Get dirt under your fingernails. Identify wildflowers. Pee in the woods. Get mud on your boots. Breathe deep in the company of trees. Eat and drink with friends by a bonfire. Close the distance between you and nature. Take a moment to celebrate the wonders of evolution or the glory of creation. There are many paths to connecting with nature, and all are welcome.
Connecting with nature makes us better people. People who don’t want to see nature disappear.
Dan Kraus is the national director of conservation at Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. He has over 25 years of experience in ecology, environmental planning and conservation in the public, private and NGO sectors. Kraus teaches about wildlife extinction and recovery at the University of Waterloo.