After reviewing hundreds of scientific papers on “cultural ecosystem services,” or the non-material benefits of nature, researchers have identified 227 unique ways in which people’s interactions with nature can positively or negatively affect well-being, according to a paper published Friday in the journal. -reviewed journal Science Advances.
The paper is believed to be the first of its kind to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding and quantifying the complex ways in which humans and nature are connected. And the findings could have significant implications in the real world, said Lam Thi Mai Huynh, the paper’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at the University of Tokyo.
“For the modernized world, people tend to disconnect from nature,” she said. “For ecosystem management, the best solution, the most sustainable solution, is to reconnect people to nature and let local people be the ones who help maintain and manage the ecosystem services.”
Humanity’s greatest ally against climate change is the earth itself
For Huynh, the ambitious research – an undertaking that even her academic supervisor did not initially believe was possible – stemmed from a desire to improve understanding of the complicated underlying processes behind how nature’s intangible effects – such as opportunities for recreation and leisure or spiritual fulfillment – have an impact on well-being. A major challenge, however, is that much of the existing scientific literature on cultural ecosystem services has been “highly fragmented,” the review noted.
“You have all kinds of different people watching [the intangible benefits of nature] through a different lens,” said Alexandros Gasparatos, an associate professor at the Institute of Future Initiatives at the University of Tokyo, who co-authored the paper. While having diverse research is critical, he said, “it becomes a bit difficult to bring it all together .”
But the new study, a systematic review of roughly 300 peer-reviewed scientific articles, creates “an excellent knowledge base,” Gasparatos said.
“The whole point of doing this exercise is to understand the context,” he added. “We give names to phenomena.”
The review breaks down hundreds of possible links between individual aspects of human well-being (mental and physical health, connection and belonging, and spirituality, among others) and cultural ecosystem services, such as recreation and tourism, aesthetic value and social relation. The researchers then went a step further and identified more than a dozen distinct underlying mechanisms through which people’s interactions with nature can affect their well-being.
Researchers found that the highest positive contributions were seen in mental and physical health. Recreation, tourism and aesthetic value appeared to have the greatest impact on human health through the “regenerative” mechanism, or experiencing restorative effects from being in nature such as stress relief, according to the paper. Meanwhile, the highest negative effects are linked to mental health through the “destructive” mechanism, or direct damage associated with the degradation or loss of cultural ecosystem services, the researchers wrote.
“In reality, you don’t have just one path,” and the effects aren’t always positive, Gasparatos said. “It’s not that if I go to the forest, I get a thing.”
A well-designed park can, for example, be a place for recreation and leisure, as well as connecting with other people. You may also find yourself appreciating the sight of tall trees and lush greenery or birds and other wildlife. On the other hand, a poorly maintained natural space can lead to an ugly or visually threatening landscape that can make you feel uncomfortable or afraid to be there.
Here’s what you can do to tackle climate change anxiety
The paper could provide a kind of road map, Huynh said, to help people, especially policy makers, understand that there are not only various intangible benefits of interacting with nature, but also how to try to achieve them.
“If we understand the underlying process, we can help design better interventions for ecosystem management,” she said. “We can help improve nature’s contribution to human well-being,” as well as potentially improving sustainable management practices and eliminating some of the negative effects on well-being.
The research was widely applauded by several external experts who were not involved in the work.
“It’s a long time coming to have a study like this that makes some of these links a little clearer,” said Keith Tidball, an environmental anthropologist at Cornell University. “These things have been scattered all over the place for a long, long time, and this paper takes a big step forward in sorting out what has previously been quite a mess.”
Anne Guerry, chief strategy officer and principal researcher at the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, agreed. “They did a really nice job of bringing together extraordinarily diverse literature,” she said. It has been a challenge, she noted, among scientists to be able to present the science in a way that reveals where and how nature provides the greatest benefits to people, which in turn can help “inform and motivate investments in conservation and restoration that lead to better results for both people and nature.”
For example, the research can have an impact on the role nature potentially plays in human health. “What this is going to be seriously useful for is being able to continue working to prove that doctors and clinicians can actually prescribe outdoor time, outdoor recreation, even outdoor space because of these pathways that they’ve identified in this paper,” said Time ball.
In one scenario, elements of this work could eventually be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, said Elizabeth Haase, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health.
“It sets us up to be able to say that when we facilitate this kind of interaction with nature, you see these kinds of benefits, and then prescribe these kinds of nature experiences, or have guidelines that say you’re really robbing someone of their mental health if you destroy these natural landscapes,” she said.
Doctors in Canada can now write national park passes for patients
But the review has limitations, prompting some experts to caution against over-interpreting or overemphasizing the results.
A potential problem is that the existing research included in the review disproportionately focuses on individuals rather than groups.
“There are many times where something may be very good for an individual, but overall for society it may not be very good at all,” said Kevin Summers, a senior research ecologist in the Office of Research and Development at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“In many cases, there can be unintended consequences for things that look like very simple, straightforward decisions,” Summers added.
Other research gaps should also be considered, Guerry said. Although the review suggests that some relationships between certain human well-being characteristics and cultural ecosystem services appear stronger than others, that does not mean that the other relationships may not be significant, she said.
“We have to be careful about oversimplifying the results and thinking that the lack of a documented relationship in this paper means something is not important,” she said. Instead, it might mean that “it hasn’t been studied and we haven’t found ways to quantify it and bring it into the scientific literature and out of our kind of implicit understanding.”
The researchers addressed the limitations of their work, noting in the paper that future research “should explore in depth how these pathways and mechanisms manifest in less studied ecosystems and understand their differentiated effects for different stakeholders.”
In the meantime, however, the findings serve as an important reminder of nature’s necessity.
“It can justify, very well, a mindset like, ‘Let’s invest in nature because it has all these benefits,'” Gasparatos said.
With such strong positive benefits related to creativity, belonging, regeneration and more, “it’s easy from this article to feel that your constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness requires a country to preserve natural spaces,” Haase added.
At a time when many people are becoming further separated and distanced from “our ecological selves,” attempts to connect humans and nature are not only interesting in terms of science, philosophy or ethics, Tidball said, but “there are also implications for human security here. which are important.” And, he said, if steps are not taken to reconnect people to nature, the consequences could be dire.
“If we continue on a path as a species of being in a state of ecological amnesia,” he said, “we will find ourselves out of habitat and out of time and therefore out of luck.”