The Valuable Benefits Of Being Connected To Our Natural Environment

The Valuable Benefits of Being Connected to our Natural Environment

The concern is kind of obvious really. Our consumption patterns across the world are using up resources more rapidly than the world can supply them and unless we make some changes it’s going to put us in a pretty difficult pickle if we aren’t there already. – Professor Jules Pretty

What does sustainability mean?

Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Science and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex in the UK says “sustainability” means living within limits.

There is only one Earth. It was only fifty years ago Apollo 8 astronauts took the first picture of the green and blue planet, inhabited by humans and isolated in the darkness of space. There is no one waiting in the wings to come and rescue us if we create problems – we are the solution.

Sustainability is about living within absolute limits and taking responsibility for our actions. It’s about finding practices of food production, energy supply and manufacturing not unsustainable for the planet.

Prof Pretty says it is difficult to be categorical about where the planet stands. We could look at climate change, which is a serious problem, and be very pessimistic. On the other hand, people are beginning to get the message that action is needed. Policies are beginning to change.

A key question is:

Can we make those changes quickly enough, allowing the planet to recover in our lifetimes, our children’s lifetimes, without a serious disruption?

Our consumption habits have increased, has our happiness levels?

Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is a measure of a country’s economic performance. Consumption drives this. The more consumed, the greater the GDP. As an economic model, it is flawed as it only measures consumption of goods and services, which is only part of the picture.

The things really important are not accounted for. When life satisfaction, or the happiness levels of populations are measured, there is no change in how people are feeling today compared to fifty years ago. In affluent countries such as the UK, America and Australia, people have more money to spend than they ever have in the past, yet happiness levels have flat-lined. They have not shown the same upward trend as our spending habits.

Stopping to enjoy the simple pleasures in life is not included in the GDP. Being present in nature allows us to find calm amongst the anxieties of the world. This consumption produces vital benefits for humans, creates enjoyment in the day and gives us memories to share with others.

Buying the latest gadget provides only short-term enjoyment. Our dissatisfaction with material items places strain on the planet. This type of enjoyment doesn’t come from within; it is manufactured by companies designed to keep us consuming.

Indicators taking more into account than how much we spend, are also flawed as they cram too much information into a single indicator. It is more useful to look at what countries are doing well. Common satisfaction can be found in countries where government policies encourage expenditure on things important to us.

We should be thinking about the world in a slightly different way; measuring the benefits and the cost of the choices we make. Take the food system, for example, we excel at measuring how much food we can produce, but we also need to take into account the negative impacts of our food production methods on nature. When we put a cost to this, it is easier to encourage investment in more sustainable alternatives.

Why cheap food is expensive

In the sixties and seventies, the development of agricultural systems substantially increased food production per hectare. The Green Revolution contributed to the reduction of hunger worldwide. However, a price has been paid. These forms of agricultural production are still being used in most affluent countries. Whilst appearing to be productive it is only achieved due to externalising some of their costs.

Prof Pretty explained:

Let’s take one example; if you use a pesticide to control your insect pests and this pesticide gets in the water system and the water company then has to pay to remove it before it delivers drinking water to you; the water company isn’t paying for this, the consumer is paying because they’ll pass on the costs to the drinking water consumer…the farmer is not paying. That’s externalising the costs elsewhere into the food sector.

When you think about food production like this, people are paying three times for their “cheap” food:

  1. At the till at the shop
  2. Costs to clean up the environment
  3. Taxes and subsidies paid to farmers to encourage them to continue to use certain forms of agricultural systems

Prof Pretty says food is not cheap, it’s expensive. It appears cheap relative to other goods and services because we’ve hidden some of those other costs.

Designing a system with less damage and greater resilience

Microbiome diversity is essential for building resilience whether you are talking about the gut, mouth or soil. Soil diversity is another element affected by the Green Revolution. It is one of the costs of simplifying agricultural systems to focus on core crops.

When you remove biodiversity by growing only selected crops, or removing the wild biodiversity close to fields and farms, you lose a range of natural environmental services with monetary value to farmers. Part of the movement around sustainability in agriculture has been to deliberately redesign agricultural systems to make them more diverse and to create awareness of the services diverse systems provide.

It is possible to remove the need to buy insecticides. It is cheaper for the farmer and less toxic for the environment. It is possible to design an agricultural system to deliver substantially more food with less damage and with greater resilience. Biodiversity gives you a buffer against shocks and stresses.

Changes are difficult. There will always be individuals and groups resistant to adopting new ways of farming. There will always be winners and losers in any transformation. We all have an agency and can foster change. Farmers need to know the new system will work and they will have support through the process.

Prof Pretty said:

The relations of trust, reciprocity, obligations, mutual support that will allow farmers to make changes together…gives them a greater kind of strength and motivation and indeed confidence to engage in doing something quite different.”

The manifesto for the green mind – a way to reconnect to nature

People are moving away from nature. Prof Pretty has proposed a way for us to reconnect with our natural environment, calling it “The Manifesto for the Green Mind”. It is based on fifteen years of research around “green exercise” – activity in natural places. Prof Pretty and his team have observed benefits for people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and social groups exercising in all kinds of green environments, both urban and rural.

He has questioned how these benefits come about and how can we encourage more of it? There are substantial challenges due to the changes in the world’s economies and the fact we are generally less active than we could be due to the use of motor vehicles.

Prof Pretty’s “Manifesto for the Green Mind” promotes improving access to green spaces, making them part of our daily lives, based on some fundamental things people should be doing.

For example, children should play outdoors every day. Between the ages of five and eleven, we begin laying down continuous memories; we explore the world, take risks and create stories we carry for life. If our children don’t do this in natural spaces they may not see the benefit of protecting the environment when they grow up.

Professor Jules Pretty is optimistic about the future of the planet

Prof Pretty says that his optimism comes from years of working around sustainability in food systems and seeing some substantial improvements in the understanding and practices across the world.

There is an important narrative around nature and health beginning to shape policy and behaviours. People must be aware of and acknowledge evidence the current practices in farming, consumerism and health, are damaging to the planet. We should also be optimistic about the future by focusing our attention on things such as green exercise and sustainable food systems.

Individual choices and behaviours can shape the economy. There are things we can do to benefit our well-being in the short term and the long term.

The food you choose to buy shapes farming systems. Your choices around activities in nature give value to natural places and the planet as a whole, whilst receiving health benefits. Spending time outdoors in the park, on the beach, in the garden, or on the farm encourages people to look after the land.

Our relationship with nature is an important one and we need to engage with our natural environment. Not just getting out in it and enjoying the connection, but being aware of the choices we make.


Contributor: Professor Jules Petty

Prof Pretty is a Professor of Environment and Science and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex in the UK. He has written a number of books and done a great deal of research over the years.

He sheds light on the topic with his 2010 papers “Dose of Nature” and “One Hundred Top Questions for Agriculture and Food”. Human well-being and the health of the planet rely on people approaching the way they live with a “green mind”.

Original Article Source: Professor Jules Pretty – Manifesto of a Green Mind


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