Date of the last update: 17.05.2023
The personal benefits of spending time in nature are well understood, including reducing our levels of stress, boosting our creativity, and plenty more. However, the benefits of practising ecotherapy don’t stop there, and they go beyond the ‘personal’: people spending time in nature is mutually beneficial, and does as much good for the planet as it does for us. In the face of increasing climate change, connecting with nature is a key element of climate change action, especially for those who spend the majority of their time in urban environments.
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The biggest obstacle to climate change action is people’s feeling that environmental destruction is something abstract that’s taking place ‘far away’ from their daily lives. Whilst people can relate to the suffering of fellow humans, it’s not easy for people to be impacted by the destruction of a habitat that they have never seen, and therefore have no relationship with. Research has shown that people who grow up surrounded by nature are more likely to instinctively adopt environmentally friendly consumption habits, and – giving us hope for the future of our increasingly urban planet – people who reconnect with nature later in life, generally find that their new-found appreciation for nature makes climate change and environmental destruction seem relevant to their lives, inspiring them to reconsider their personal consumption habits, and adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.
This argument is supported by a 2021 study by De Ville et al. in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, who argue that “Urbanisation, screen dependency, and the changing nature of childhood and parenting have led to increased time indoors, creating physical and emotional distancing from nature and time spent in natural environments. Substantial evidence from observational and intervention studies indicates that overall time spent in nature leads to increased perceived value for connectedness to nature and, subsequently, greater pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.”
The evidence is clear. Connecting people with nature – the basis of ecotherapy – is essential to the global effort to mitigate climate change. Now is the time to expand the practice of ecotherapy, and spread this currently niche practice until it becomes a basic part of school curricula across the world, and until spending time in nature is an accessible activity for everyone, everywhere.
In 2011, two professors of psychology from the College of Wooster (Thomas Doherty and Susan Clayton) published an article on the psychological impacts of climate change, warning that psychotherapists must be prepared for a new mental phenomenon that has been termed ‘eco-anxiety’. As the phenomenon began to increasingly manifest itself in recent years, the American Psychology Association finally defined eco-anxiety as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations”. In 2022, the University of Harvard claimed that more than two-thirds of Americans experience some climate anxiety, with 84% of children and young adults aged 16 to 25 at least moderately worried about climate change, and 59% very or extremely worried. How can we address this mental health challenge, and build a robust society that is capable of carrying out the necessary actions to face the environmental challenges that lie ahead, without being paralysed by anxiety? You may have guessed the answer: connecting with nature, and using its therapeutic power to calm our nerves and restore peace of mind.
Planet Earth needs us to take action, now. It is abundantly clear that one of the most effective ways of mitigating climate and environmental destruction is to restore people’s connection to nature, and to make sure that we transform the emotion that lies behind eco-anxiety into a passion that inspires action rather than fear.
Now, stop reading and get off into the woods!
- Lingos, A. et al. (2022) Ecotherapy Against Climate Change. In Skanavis C. & Papanis Eds. Environmental Education and Health Promotion: pp 115-128.
- De Ville et al. (2021). Time Spent in Nature Is Associated with Increased Pro-Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
- Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (2011). The psychological impacts of global climate change. American Psychologist, 66(4), 265–276.
- Collier, S. (2022) If climate change keeps you up at night, here’s how to cope. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School.