By 2050, 66 per cent of the world's population will live in urban environments. Regular engagement with nature is becoming increasingly less common, but it’s something that we’re biologically programmed to desire. In this extract from his book, Hilton tells us why it’s so important that we restore this essential part of our humanity
There’s a classic speech that American park rangers deliver whenever they catch a child trying to make off with a ‘natural’ souvenir. ‘You are supposed to calmly kneel down and say, “I saw you picking the flower. That is so pretty! Now think about what would happen if every child picked a flower,”’ explains Matthew Browning, a former park ranger at North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell State Park. ‘And then they are supposed to have this moment of guilt.’ One day in 2009 Browning saw a fellow ranger give the speech to a boy, about eight years old, in the park’s restaurant. Instead of picking flowers, the boy had picked up a small handful of ‘rocks’. In fact, it was gravel that the rangers had bought at the local supply store to spread over the road. Browning had an epiphany. ‘It made me sick. The boy was crestfallen. He was so excited about coming to the park that he wanted to take a little memento back with him. More than feeling empowered or excited to protect the natural world, now he is going to associate going to state parks with getting into trouble.’
But it’s not just picking flowers and rocks that get you into trouble. Mount Mitchell – and most parks, for that matter – prohibit all sorts of things: going off the official footpath, climbing trees, shouting, playing with sticks, digging holes … you name it. Disillusioned, Browning left the park and enrolled in graduate school to study the recreational use of natural areas. Hearing about so-called nature play areas in Europe where children are allowed to play with abandon, he set off to Sweden to observe some first-hand. He ended up finding one near just about every primary school he visited (Sweden has a lot of forests). ‘They all had plenty of forest and plenty of kids playing in the woods.’ Browning didn’t interact much with the children, preferring to observe rather than interrupt. But one day he met a twelve-year-old boy. ‘He was talking about how he would break branches and build forts and throw rocks,’ Browning said. ‘He had a knife with him. He said: “I carve sticks into spears and stuff like that.”’ So Browning asked him whether he would ever stick the knife into a tree. The boy was shocked: ‘“No! It would hurt the tree; it would hurt the tree just like it would hurt me.”’
This twelve-year-old’s instinct highlights the human instinct of wanting to connect with nature. In 1984 the world’s leading evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson introduced the biophilia hypothesis: the human ‘urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. He uses it to explain the fact that for much of human history, we’ve surrounded ourselves with plants and animals, either domesticated in our homes, gardens and communities, or close by in adjacent parks. You even see it in zoos, where animals exhibit unnatural behaviour when their pens don’t mimic the natural environments from which they come. It’s an inborn desire we all share.
Indeed, study after study has substantiated the important beneficial effects of nature on human health and well-being. Views of nature and natural settings reduce stress and improve attention – walking in it even more so. Though running reduces anxiety and depression wherever it is done, Swedish researchers have found the effects are amplified when it is done in nature. In a Pennsylvania hospital, patients with a view of trees had shorter stays, by almost a day on average, and required fewer pain medications than those in rooms facing a brick wall.
In a Pennsylvania hospital, patients with a view of trees had shorter stays, by almost a day on average, and required fewer pain medications than those in rooms facing a brick wall.
Despite nature’s great importance to us, for most of our history we’ve gone out of our way to conquer the natural world. We’ve tilled the land, hunted and then domesticated animals, cut down forests, dammed rivers, mined mountains, built cities. Now we’re manipulating genetics with biotechnology and even toying with the idea of engineering the climate – to fix the damage we ourselves have inflicted. We have tried to bend nature to human will. We have tried to make nature … more human.
Humanity’s hubris – our hubris – was thinking that we could endlessly extract from nature with little or no adverse consequences. Our fundamental mistake, according to the influential twentieth-century economist E. F. Schumacher, was to treat nature like an infinite bank account from which we could forever make withdrawals. But such an adversarial relationship is a fallacy: if man won his battle with nature, ‘he would find himself on the losing side’. Despite our best efforts, there’s just no way to bend all of nature’s vast, incomprehensible complexity to our human rules and institutions. We have to realise that nature isn’t just humanity’s support structure; humanity is a part of nature. Our careless manipulation of it is not only unnatural; it is irrevocably harmful both to nature and, ultimately, to ourselves.
Throughout this book I’ve discussed how we need to make our world more human. But when it comes to nature, we’ve already made the world too human. We’ve distorted our idea of what nature is and should be because we’ve misunderstood our part in it. So now we need to fundamentally rethink humanity’s relationship with the natural world and move the pendulum back towards the system of our ancestors, in which we benefit from nature while simultaneously giving back to and coexisting with it.
Both campaigns are treating people like simpletons. In More Human, read the truth about Brexit, from someone who really knows.
In this powerful manifesto, Steve Hilton argues that the frustrations people feel with government, politics, their economic circumstances and their daily lives are caused by deep structural problems with the systems that dominate our modern world – systems that have become too big, bureaucratic and distant from the human scale. He shows how change is possible, offering us a more human way of living.
Find out more about the author