Can’t go outside? Even seeing nature on a screen can improve your mood



Damon Hall/Unsplash, CC BY

Cris Brack, Australian National University and Aini Jasmin Ghazalli

Are you feeling anxious or irritated during the coronavirus lockdown? Do you constantly want to get up and move? Maybe you need a moment to engage with nature.

Getting into the great outdoors is difficult at right now. But our research soon to be published in Australian Forestry shows you can improve your mood by experiencing nature indoors. This could mean placing few pot plants in the corner of your home office, or even just looking at photos of plants.

Our work adds to a compelling body of research that shows being around nature directly benefits our mental health.

Virtual images of nature have similar effects to being in the physical presence of nature.
Kishoor Nishanth/Unsplash, CC BY

Biophilia

Public gardens and parks, street verges with trees and bushes, and even rooftop gardens bring us a broad range of benefits – boosting physical health, reducing air pollution, and even lowering crime rates.




Read more:
Biodiversity and our brains: how ecology and mental health go together in our cities


But inside, in your hastily constructed home office or home school room, you may be unable to take full advantage of urban nature.

Natural products such as wooden furniture can also improve working conditions.
Noemi Macavei Katocz/Unsplash, CC BY

Embracing the notion of “biophilia” – the innate human affinity with nature – while locked down inside may improve your productivity and even your health.

The biophilia hypothesis argues modern day humans evolved from hundreds of generations of ancestors whose survival required them to study, understand and rely on nature. So a disconnection from nature today can cause significant issues for humans, such as a decline in psychological health.

In practice at home, connecting with nature might mean having large windows overlooking the garden. You can also improve working conditions by having natural materials in your office or school room, such as wooden furniture, natural stones and pot plants.

Indoor plants

Our research has demonstrated that even a small number of plants hanging in pockets on along a busy corridor provide enough nature to influence our physiological and psychological perceptions.

These plants even caused behavioural differences, where people would change their route through a building to come into contact with the indoor plants.

We surveyed 104 people, and 40% of the respondents reported their mood and emotions improved in the presence of indoor plants.

They felt “relaxed and grounded” and “more interested”. The presence of indoor greenery provides a place to “relax from routine” and it made the space “significantly more pleasant to work in”.

Our study showed the benefits of indoor greenery.
Author provided

As one person reported:

When I first saw the plants up on the wall brought a smile to my face.

Whenever I walk down the stairs or walk past I mostly always feel compelled to look at the plants on the wall. Not with any anxiety or negative thoughts, rather, at how pleasant and what a great idea it is.

Looking at wildlife photography

Our research also explored whether viewing images, posters or paintings of nature would make a difference.

We photographed the plants from viewpoints similar to those the corridor users experienced. Survey responses from those who only viewed these digital images were almost the same as those who experienced them in real life.

While we can’t say for sure, we can hypothesise that given the importance of vision in modern humans, an image that “looks” like nature might be enough to trigger a biophilic response.




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However, physically being in the presence of plants did have some stronger behavioural effects. For example corridor users wanted to linger longer looking at the plants than those who viewed the photographs, and were more likely to want to visit the plants again. Maybe the other senses – touch, smell, even sound – created a stronger biophilic response than just sight alone.

So the good news is if you can’t get to a nursery – or if you have a serious inability to keep plants alive – you can still benefit from looking at photographs of them.

Looking at photos of nature can improve your mood.
Bee Balogun/Unsplash, CC BY

If you haven’t been taking your own photos, search the plethora of images from wildlife photographers such as Doug Gimesy, Frans Lanting and Tanya Stollznow.

Or check out live camera feeds of a wide range of environments, and travel to far-flung places without leaving the safety of home.

While we haven’t tested the mood-boosting effects of live videos, we hypothesise their physiological and psychological effects will be no different than digital photographs.

Here are seven places to help you get started.

  • The Bush Blitz citizen science app launched a new online tool today. The species recovery program encourages children to explore their backyard to identify different species.

  • “From the bottom of the sea direct to your screen”: watch this underwater live stream of Victoria’s rocky reef off Port Phillip Bay

  • The Coastal Watch website offers live camera feeds on beaches around Australia.

  • Watch the running water, trees and occasional fauna in California’s Redwood Forest River.

  • In pastoral Australia, go on a four-hour drive through the country side along tree-lined roads.

  • Zoos Victoria has set up live cameras that show its animals in natural (and nature-like) environments from Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Open Range Zoo.

  • Yellowstone National Park may be closed right now, but webcams are stationed in various locations throughout the park.




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The Conversation


Cris Brack, Associate Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Aini Jasmin Ghazalli, Graduate student

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

3 ways nature in the city can do you good, even in self-isolation



Lucy Taylor, Author provided

Lucy Taylor, University of Melbourne; Dieter Hochuli, University of Sydney, and Erin Leckey, University of Colorado Boulder

Spending time at the beach or taking a walk in the park can help us recover from the mental and physical impacts of life’s stresses. But physical distancing measures to contain COVID-19 have included closing beaches, playgrounds and parks, adding to the challenges to our mental health. When we stay home to flatten the curve, how can we help ourselves by taking advantage of the benefits associated with nature?

Public playgrounds have been closed to encourage distancing and limit infection.
Peter Lead, Author provided

The evidence for nature supporting human well-being has grown in recent decades. We researched the links between nature and urban residents’ well-being and found there are benefits of nature that we can still enjoy now, even in lockdown.
Our findings point to some of the ways we can improve our well-being by engaging with everyday nature close to home.




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1. A room with a view

We reviewed the evidence, collected survey data on self-reported well-being and biodiversity indicators, and organised focus groups in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, and Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand, to better understand participants’ relationship with urban nature.

If you’re stuck at home, the good news is there is plenty of research that suggests a view through a window of vegetation or a body of water can provide a micro-break. A view of nature through a window has even aided hospital patients’ recovery from surgery. A short, 40-second glance at a green roof supports cognitive restoration better than a view of concrete.

Our research found urban residents had greater self-reported well-being when they had nature nearby or visible from their homes. Participants valued a view of vegetated areas – green space – and bodies of water – blue space. One participant said:

I could live in something that was pretty grim if it had a balcony that looked out [at nature].

Participants in our focus groups also highlighted the importance of seeing changes in the natural world, such as change in the weather or the seasons. Even if your view does not have a lot of vegetation or water, a view of the sky can allow engagement with nature’s dynamism.

A view out a window at nature’s dynamism can improve our well-being.
Lucy Taylor, Author provided



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2. Gardening – indoors and out

If you’re lucky enough to have a yard or balcony, now may be a good time to do some gardening. Gardening can offer benefits such as reductions in stress, anxiety and depression. As a physical activity, gardening can also improve physical fitness and support weight loss.

Gardens can also provide habitat for wildlife, potentially introducing you to new plants, pollinating insects and birds. Urban biodiversity benefits us too.

Our study found strong links between gardening and self-reported well-being. If you don’t have a yard, gardening on a balcony or tending to indoor plants also has benefits. One participant explained:

Having a small vegetable garden and flowers in pots makes me feel happy and content … It is wonderful to see things grow in the city.

Gardening in a yard, on a balcony, or even tending indoor plants does us good.
Peter Lead, Author provided



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3. Green exercise

We know exercise is good for physical fitness and mental health. “Green exercise”, or exercise that takes place in and around nature, can improve your mood and self-esteem.

Our study found strong links between how often urban residents exercised and their self-reported well-being. One participant described how important green exercise is to them:

Being able to walk my dog down at the beach or go up into the hills is a great stress relief and keeps me fit and healthy and, best of all, it’s free.

Another participant described exercising in a public park:

I feel significantly calmer, [my] breathing rate goes down. I love the feel of that moist air going into my lungs from all the trees and I really do feel different.

To limit infection, residents of cities around the world are subject to a range of national and local constraints on when and how they leave the house to exercise. It is important to follow physical distancing guidelines, but it is also important to exercise rather than be both isolated and sedentary.




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Urban nature now and for the future

Nature can support our well-being now, when we all could use the help, but we need to protect it. Climate change talks have been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is clear climate change has not stalled, even taking into account the effect of lockdown on emissions.

There are lasting ways to reduce our emissions and create low-carbon and cooler cities. And the earlier we act, the better the outcomes will be.

If you have a yard, planting trees might be a good lockdown activity now and will ultimately benefit your future.




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Taking time to notice nature – via a glance outside, tending plants in pots or gardens, or via green exercise – will improve your well-being. Appreciating nature and having access to it has never been so important.The Conversation

Appreciating urban nature has never been more important.
Lucy Taylor, Author provided

Lucy Taylor, Assistant Researcher, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne; Dieter Hochuli, Professor, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney, and Erin Leckey, Research Scientist, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Where the wild things are: how nature might respond as coronavirus keeps humans indoors



AP News

Sarah Bekessy, RMIT University; Alex Kusmanoff, RMIT University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; Casey Visintin, University of Melbourne; Freya Thomas, RMIT University; Georgia Garrard, RMIT University; Katherine Berthon, RMIT University; Lee Harrison, University of Melbourne; Matthew Selinske, RMIT University, and Thami Croeser, RMIT University

Intriguing things sometimes happen in places deserted by people. Plants creep back, animals return and, slowly, birdsong fills the air.

The coronavirus pandemic means public spaces the world over have been temporarily abandoned. Major roads are all but empty and public squares are eerily quiet.

In response, nature is in some cases “taking over towns”. Some reports – such as dolphins spotted in Venice – are fake news. But others are legitimate.




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A puma has been spotted roaming the streets of Santiago and wild turkeys are gallivanting in Oakland, California. Monkeys have reclaimed city streets in Thailand and deer are wandering through train stations and down roads in Japan.

Of course, COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on humanity, and this is nothing to be celebrated. But as Australians stay at home and our streets fall quiet, let’s consider how wildlife might respond.

Animals the world over are creeping back into cities deserted due to COVID-19.
SOHAIL SHAHZAD/EPA

The resilience of nature

Throughout history, nature has shown a propensity for reclaiming land once humans have departed.

At Chernobyl, for instance, radiation has not been enough to suppress populations of gray wolves, raccoon dogs, Eurasian boar and red fox.

Likewise the Korean demilitarised zone has become a refugia for numerous threatened species, including red-crowned cranes.

Ecological succession can occur when humans abandon cities. This is where short-lived “pioneer” species initially occupy sites and are replaced over time by shrubs and trees, ultimately supporting more diverse wildlife.

It’s hard to predict exactly how healthy and biodiverse these systems can become, but they will almost certainly be examples of “novel ecosystems”, having crossed irreversible thresholds due to human impact, such as vegetation reclaiming an abandoned building.

A butterfly on a floor in front of visitors in protective shoes at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 2018.
SERGEY DOLZHENKO/EPA

Quieter, darker, greener cities

Cities can be hostile places for urban wildlife due to fragmented habitat, pollution, road collisions and disturbance from and conflict with people. But under a coronavirus lockdown, these threats are greatly reduced.

For example, decreases in economic activity in Europe and China have led to improvements in air pollution, which is known to badly affect urban birds. However, this effect might not last long enough to allow for recovery of sensitive bird species; emissions in China are already rising again.




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Light pollution may also fall in cities as a result of coronavirus – such as if office buildings turn off overnight lighting and sportsgrounds are empty.

This would benefit nocturnal species such as moths and bats. Artificial light can interfere with reproduction, predator and prey interactions, and migration.

At the end of March, traffic congestion in Sydney and Melbourne was reportedly down more than 30% on last year. Fewer cars and trams would benefit species that communicate acoustically (such as frogs and birds).

Empty roads near Circular Quay in Sydney on March 27 this year.
JAMES GOURLEY/AAP

Fewer people actively using city spaces may mean less disturbance of urban bird nesting sites, especially those that are routinely removed from commercial properties.

Depending on whether authorities see weed control as an “essential service”, streets may soon look a bit greener.

Weeds often get a bad rap for taking over gardens and roadsides. However, some, such as dandelions, provide excellent flowering resources for native bees, butterflies and birds.

Deserted roads could potentially add to existing wildlife “corridors” or strips of vegetation along rivers and streams. This would allow species to move from one place to another – potentially recolonising areas.

What next?

Once traffic returns to levels observed before the pandemic, we should preserve observed animal movements using safe passage strategies such as vegetated overpasses that connect bisected habitat or adequately sized underpasses to allow wildlife to safely cross under large, busy roads.

Nature can reclaim places that have been totally abandoned for years, creating novel ecosystems.
Pixabay, CC BY

In the longer term, this crisis may bring innovation in business communication and human behavioural change – including reduced work travel. This could influence land-use changes in cities, potentially giving space back to nature.

The current need for people to stay at home might be triggering a human disconnection from nature. In some cases, this can lead people to become emotionally distanced from what happens to their natural environment. This could be ameliorated by exercising in local parks or other natural environments.

You can also use your time at home to positively contribute to wildlife in your urban area. If you’re looking to keep kids entertained, try developing a “renaturing” plan that aims to care for, or bring back, a species or ecosystems.

There are also many ways to retrofit your home, garden or balcony to help plants and animals.

Or discover the incredible species living alongside us by simply paying attention to nature near your home.




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The Conversation


Sarah Bekessy, Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning, Leader, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICON Science), RMIT University; Alex Kusmanoff, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Inter-disciplinary Conservation (ICON) Science Research Group, RMIT University; Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Casey Visintin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Freya Thomas, Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Georgia Garrard, Senior Research Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group, RMIT University; Katherine Berthon, PhD Candidate, RMIT University; Lee Harrison, Honorary Associate, University of Melbourne; Matthew Selinske, Postdoctoral research associate conservation science, RMIT University, and Thami Croeser, Research Officer, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lots of people want to help nature after the bushfires – we must seize the moment



Dan Mariuz/AAP

Denise Goodwin, Monash University; Abby Wild, Monash University, and Melissa Hatty, Monash University

As the devastation of this season of bushfires unfolds, many people have asked themselves: what can I do to help? Perhaps they donated money, left food out for wildlife or thought about joining a bush regeneration group.

Big, life-changing moments – whether society-wide or personal – provide unique opportunities to disrupt habits and foster new behaviours. Think of how a heart attack can prompt some people to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

For many Australians, the bushfire disaster could represent such a turning point, marking the moment they adopt new, long-term actions to help nature. But governments and environmental organisations must quickly engage people before the moment is lost.

Creatures of habit

Human behaviour is generally habitual, resistant to change, and shaped by context such as time of day, location or social group. But when this context is disrupted, opportunities emerge to foster change.

Take the case of taking action on climate change. Research into public perceptions, including in Australia, suggests most people see climate change as not personally relevant. In other words, they are “psychologically distant” from the problem. This means they are less likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviors.




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But the bushfire crisis was personally relevant to millions of Australians. Some tragically lost loved ones or homes. Thousands were forced to evacuate or had holidays cut short. And the smoke haze which engulfed our cities badly interfered with daily life.

Such ruptures are described in psychology and behavioural science as a moment of change, which means the time is ripe to encourage new behaviours.

Where there’s a will

Even before the fire crisis, many Australians were primed to act for nature.

In 2018 we conducted a survey which found 86% of Victorians support pro-environmental and pro-social values, 95% are aware of the condition of Victoria’s environment and the importance of biodiversity, and more than 64% feel connected to nature.

Experience of previous natural disasters provides further insights into why people might volunteer.




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After the 2011 Rena oil spill in New Zealand, communities came together to quickly remove oil from the coastline. Subsequent research found people volunteered for a range of reasons. This included a sense of collective responsibility for the environment for both current and future generations, and to connect with others and cope with their negative response to the spill.

One model of behaviour change theory suggests if people have the motivation, capability and opportunity, they are more likely to act.

Australians have shown motivation and capability to act in this bushfire crisis – now they need opportunities. Governments and environmental organisations should encourage easy behaviours people can perform now.

Bush regeneration groups are keenly awaiting new volunteers to help with bushfire recovery.
Flickr

Putting it into practice

Timeliness is essential in promoting new behaviours. Organisations should limit the time that passes between a person’s first impulse to help – such as signing up to a volunteer organisation – and concrete opportunities to act.

Volunteering groups should communicate early with volunteers, find out what skills and resources they can offer then provide easy, practical suggestions for acting quickly.

In the short term, this might mean suggesting that concerned citizens keep their cats indoors and dogs under control, particularly near areas affected by the fires; take a bag on their beach walk to pick up litter and debris; or advocate for the environment by talking with family and friends about why nature needs protecting.




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In the longer term, these behaviours could be scaled up to activities such as encouraging people to fill their garden with native plants to provide new habitat for wildlife; regularly volunteering for nature, and participating in citizen science projects.

Governments, councils and other organisations should provide information that guides the activities of volunteers, but still gives them control over how they act. This can lead to positive initiatives such as Landcare, which allows local people to design solutions to environmental problems.

Analysis of natural disaster response overseas has shown that decentralised approaches which incorporate local communities work well.

The long-term picture

There is a danger that once the immediate shock of the bushfire crisis passes, some people will return to their old behaviours. However research has shown when people undertake one pro-environmental behaviour, they are more likely to repeat it in future.

Encouraging people to help nature, and spend time in it, can also improve a person’s physical and mental well-being.

After the New Zealand oil spill cleanup, for example, most volunteers reported a sense of satisfaction, better social ties and renewed optimism.

This summer’s east coast bushfires are a tragedy. But if the moment is harnessed, Australians can create new habits that help the environment in its long process of recovery. And perhaps one day, acting for nature will become the new social norm.The Conversation

Denise Goodwin, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Abby Wild, Research fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University, and Melissa Hatty, PhD candidate, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Our nature laws are being overhauled. Here are 7 things we must fix



A koala mother and joey seeking refuge on a bulldozed log pile near Kin Kin in Queensland. Federal environment laws have failed to prevent widespread land clearing across Australia.
WWF Australia

Jan McDonald, University of Tasmania

Environment Minister Sussan Ley yesterday announced a ten-yearly review of Australia’s national environmental laws. It could not come at a more critical time, as the environment struggles under unprecedented development pressures, climate change impacts and a crippling drought.

The laws, formally known as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, have been in place for 20 years.




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Announcing the review, Ley said it would “tackle green tape” and reduce delays in project approvals. She said the laws must remain “fit for purpose” as our environment changes.

Serious declines in most biodiversity indicators strongly suggest the laws are not fit for purpose. Some 7.7 million hectares of endangered species habitat has been destroyed since the Act was established and the lists of threatened and endangered species continue to grow.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley pats a koala during a National Threatened Species Day event at Parliament House in Canberra in September 2019.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

The review should ensure Australia’s environmental law achieves what it was designed to do – protect our precious natural places.

The list below reflects the EPBC Act priorities of 70 environmental lawyers and practitioners who were polled by the National Environmental Law Association. Collectively, they have more than 500 years experience of the Act’s operation.

1. Independent decisions with clear criteria

Under the laws, proponents of activities likely to have big impacts on so-called “matters of national environmental significance” must get federal approval. The minister or a representative makes this decision and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, grants approval.

This approval power should be vested in an independent body to take the politics out of decisions. Criteria for deciding on approvals should be clearer, including thresholds for when applications must be refused on environmental grounds.

2. Take stock of cumulative impacts

A search of the EPBC Act will not find any reference to cumulative impacts, or the need to consider whether approval of one proposal is likely to lead to a raft of new projects being proposed. There is little scope to consider cumulative impacts that might happen in future — only when a new proposal constitutes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The Act must do better at considering both how proposed activities and future plans will interact, and the background processes of environmental change and decline.

Suburban sprawl north of Brisbane. Environment law experts say the EPBC Act does not take account of cumulative impacts of developments.
Dave Hunt/AAP

3. Provide funds for proper enforcement

Improving the content of the Act is one thing, but monitoring, compliance and enforcement are critical. There is little point imposing tough conditions if no one is there to ensure they are met. This demands an ongoing sustainable funding base that is not dependent on political budget priorities.

4. Better data and transparency

Access to information about environmental decisions is essential for good governance. Not all documents and decisions are publicly available. It is very difficult to track down detailed aspects of approval conditions – for example, the detail of the groundwater management and monitoring plan for the Adani coal mine. This is especially important when the department’s capacity to oversee compliance is so constrained.




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The Act should consider the need for public registers of all documents and data collected as part of decision-making and monitoring processes, including decisions, approvals, conditions, offset locations, compliance reports and monitoring data.

5. Expand scope of national environmental impact assessment

Commonwealth involvement in environmental approvals is limited to specific “matters of national environmental significance”. Land clearing and climate change are not included in the list of such matters, and are usually considered under state laws.

This means activities that may damage native vegetation or lead to rising emissions are only scrutinised under federal law if they might affect other things, such as threatened species or world heritage places.




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Also, the Act only seeks to protect water resources when the proposed project is a large coal mine or coal seam gas venture. New triggers are needed to require federal assessment and approval for all activities that might significantly affect water, native vegetation and climate change.

Rare black cockatoos in Victoria. The number of threatened species has grown while the EBPC Act has been operating.
THREATENED SPECIES RECOVERY HUB

6. Deal with land clearing

Habitat loss is recognised as the primary driver of species decline in Australia. Rates of land clearing have increased dramatically in recent years, despite the operation of the Act.

Stronger protections are needed. These must prevent further clearing of vegetation types that are not adequately conserved in Australia’s system of protected natural areas. In cases where a proponent plans to offset damage caused by their project by restoring land elsewhere, construction should be delayed until work has begun on the restoration project and conservation benefits are occurring.

7. Make strategic assessments truly strategic

Conservation planning and environmental assessment are complex. Major new initiatives can involve interacting influences and trade-offs. The Act’s so-called “strategic assessment” process to some extent accounts for this — for example it might consider development plans across a region, rather than project-by-project.

But strategic planning must occur for a wider range of activities that may have long-term impacts on conservation: for example, the Tasmanian government’s desire to open up the Tarkine region to further mining. The planning must also better consider spatial conflicts and account for future change.

This list is just the tip of the law reform iceberg, but addressing these priorities would be a good start. With only one environmental law expert and no environmental scientist on the newly announced panel, it remains to be seen how these priorities will be addressed, if at all.The Conversation

Jan McDonald, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why a sense of kinship is key to caring about the living world



Framing nature in terms of kinship can motivate people to care about the loss of biodiversity.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Matthew Hall, Victoria University of Wellington

Leading thinkers in environmental economics and conservation are asking a pressing question. Why are we ignoring the destruction of the living world?

Recently, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published a global assessment of biodiversity that set out alarming statistics: a million species at threat of extinction, 75% of terrestrial environments severely altered by human activity, and a 30% reduction in global habitat integrity.

Despite all this, practical solutions to redress an ecological crisis — land use and economic reform, action on climate change and improvements to environmental governance — are not prioritised. One key reason for this is how we frame our relationship to the living world.

Instrumental nature

An endangered baobab species in Madagascar.
Bernard Gagno/Wikimedia Commons

Our prevailing relationship with nature is instrumental – that is, we predominantly frame the living world as a set of natural resources, apart from humans, for our privileged use.

Such framing is so deeply embedded, and our material dependence on nature so total, that it can seem strange even to question the idea of nature as natural resource. In Western nations, this position has deep philosophical and religious roots.

My latest book, The Imagination of Plants, highlights the role of the creation story in Genesis and the philosophy of Aristotle in rendering plants, the living beings that make up the visible bulk of most terrestrial ecosystems, as existing for the sake of animals, and both for the sake of humans.




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Such accounts have powerfully shaped a human-centred, utility-based worldview that has silenced the needs of plants and animals. They form the philosophical basis of our claims to “own” other species.

If plants and animals exist for the sake of humans, why take action to conserve them when they’re not useful? Why care when their numbers are going down, as long as we can still get what we materially need from them?

Conservation concepts and strategies that place the living world within this frame, including ideas of natural capital, ecosystem services and the protection of the living world for our enlightened self-interest, are destined to fail because they do not address this underlying framing. Indeed, as researchers have pointed out, by not addressing such framing they perpetuate the very drivers of biodiversity loss.




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Intrinsic value

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Albrecht Dürer, 1504.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

Environmental thinkers have warned for decades that such a view of nature is at the root of our ecological crisis. More recent research has argued against this instrumental view, criticising its value as a basis for conservation action.

Since the 1980s, discussions of the intrinsic value of nature – “valuing it for what it is, not only what it does” – have happened across a number of environmental disciplines. This led to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), founded on the cornerstone of the intrinsic value of biological diversity.

In some countries, such as New Zealand, the concept of intrinsic value appears in major pieces of resource management and conservation legislation. It has been instrumental in recent legal battles over land use.




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Recent work by environmental philosopher Michael Paul Nelson shows people acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature. He argues that the only reason we make decisions inconsistent with this value is because we don’t believe the general populace shares this belief.

But the concept of intrinsic value does not demand a move away from a dominant use-based frame. In the preamble of the CBD itself, intrinsic values sit alongside a raft of use-based values, including economic, scientific, educational, cultural and aesthetic values. The power of the use-based frame dominates the concept of intrinsic value.

A highly resolved tree of life demonstrates the kinship of all life on Earth.
Ivica Letunic/Wikimedia Commons

All our relations

There is an alternative to the dichotomy of a purely instrumental relationship and the concept of intrinsic value.

In many Indigenous cultures, such relationships are built on fundamental kinship with the living world, a kinship that actually blurs and subverts the very concepts of nature and culture.

Within these kinship relationships, the needs and capacities of living beings are acknowledged, not left in the background. This is what the late anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose called the Indigenous ethic of connection, or what is also called kincentric ecology.

Kinship offers a way of connecting to nature that acknowledges our need to use plants and animals, but constructs relationships beyond use. Where the concept of intrinsic value can be difficult to engage with, kinship relationships naturally extend to care, respect and responsibility.

Framing nature in terms of kinship can motivate people to care and make the loss of the living world real for people. Ever since Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, science has known of our fundamental kinship with nature. Yet we don’t frame (or live with) nature in a way that honours this.

A recent example gives me hope. At the school climate strike, a young Brazilian Indigenous woman addressed a crowd in New York, speaking in terms of kinship about the human children of a mother Earth, fighting to save their mother from destruction. Framing nature in terms of kinship noticeably energised the crowd of young people.

The challenge to reframe the living world in terms of kinship is massive. A good step would be to convene a human-nature kinship platform as a way of influencing the UN Biodiversity Conference in China next year. Another step could be to enshrine our fundamental kinship with other species in all major environmental governance frameworks, including the CBD and national environmental legislation.

Both could provide the springboard for us to undergo the hard work of talking about, and living with, other species in ways that acknowledge them as our earthly relations.The Conversation

Matthew Hall, Associate Director, Research Services, Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We know contact with nature makes you feel better. Can virtual contact do the same?



There is a link between exposure to natural settings and better psychological well-being.
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Navjot Bhullar, University of New England

You might have noticed that being in nature can improve your mood. Whether it’s walking in a beautiful rainforest, swimming in the ocean or a moment of wonder at the plants and animals around you, nature offers a respite from daily routines and demands.

In 1984, the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson described this innate desire to connect with natural environments – and the positive experiences we derive from this connection – as the “biophilia hypothesis”:

Biophilia, if it exists, and I believe it exists, is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.

There is evidence to back up the link between exposure to natural settings and better psychological well-being.

And my own research suggests that virtual exposure to nature via film (videos) or virtual reality can mimic this effect.




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Why being in nature makes us feel better

Studies on the psychological benefits of exposure to nature show spending time in natural settings can result in:

Two major theories help us understand how exposure to nature increases mood and psychological well-being.

First, Attention Restoration Theory is the idea that natural environments restore attention. We can only focus our attention for a certain period of time before feeling mentally fatigued. A short break in natural environments helps restore it.

This sense of “restorativeness” improves our sense of well-being, and breaks the routine of our every day life. Restorativeness explains some of the association between nature experience and psychological well-being.

Then there is Stress Reduction Theory. This suggests that natural environments promote recovery from stress, which is different from attention fatigue.

Non-threatening, natural environments would have increased the chances of survival for our ancestors because they provided opportunities for reproduction, food and shelter. As a result, we’ve evolved to respond positively to such settings.

Emotional responses to aesthetically pleasing stimuli, such as green spaces, also tend to decrease physiological arousal, thus making us feel relaxed.




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Virtual contact with nature mimics this effect

In a meta-analysis of 32 studies, researchers compared the effects of exposure to both natural and urban environments. Results showed that exposure to natural environments showed a moderate association with higher positive mood.

This exposure doesn’t have to take place in-person. Research I conducted with my colleagues at the University of New England’s Applied Psychology Lab showed that while people got the most psychological benefit from physical exposure to nature, exposure to simulated natural environments – such as film or virtual reality – had a comparable effect.

One study showed that taking part in a virtual reality experience of a natural environment resulted in higher levels of positive affect and greater attention restoration compared to a virtual reality experience of an urban environment.

Psychological benefits seem to be dependent on the type of nature experience. Another study found that a virtual experience of wild nature (defined as natural settings, such as wilderness with little human interference) improved positive mood. By contrast, a virtual experience of urban nature (such as parks in urbanised areas) exerted its beneficial effect by reducing negative mood.

The studies also showed that simulated natural environments providing realistic representations of nature, such as interactive virtual reality, resulted in greater psychological benefits than less immersive mediums such as photographs of natural settings.




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Increasing our daily contact with nature

In a modern world increasingly characterised by built environments, it’s not always possible to spend time in nature every day. Promoting exposure to virtual natural environments seems like an effective way of improving psychological well-being.

Simulated representations of nature can help improve urban and indoor environments where access to nature is limited, such as hospitals, urban offices, apartments, and inner city schools.

That might mean displaying photographs and moving videos of natural colours and patterns, installing living green walls, or placing potted plants in areas people move through everyday.The Conversation

Navjot Bhullar, Associate Professor – Faculty of Medicine and Health; School of Psychology, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.