This morning, just as I was heading off to a brushcutter course down the road at the Rural Skills Centre here in Cirencester, I felt a pain in my back that has put me out of action for the rest of the day. Having sought advice I have been undertaking various exercises and I’m on painkillers which should hopefully resolve the problem in the short term. However, something that most interested me in my conversations with the nurse and chiropractor was the potential cause of the problem. It is potentially a combination of physical reasons (spending far too much time typing away on this laptop for example, sitting in a far from preferable manner etc) and mental reasons (a result of overworking – a particular strength of mine). On reflection it could be a case of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ (NDD), something I never thought I would get to the stage of contemplating, but clearly the result of too much time spent indoors. NDD refers to the phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods that people are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of mental health issues.
Whilst I am an agricultural student and a great advocate for getting outside I have been spending surprisingly little time outdoors recently. Certainly not as much time as I should be or as I would like. The reasons for this are many but particularly at the moment I have taken on several projects that result in me doing a lot of office work and before I know it the day has gone, it’s dark outside and the opportunity to get out and about has disappeared. I am certainly going to draw lessons from it and it has forced me to take a good long look at my lifestyle.
Above: Cirencester Park with Lord Bathurst’s mansion house in the foreground.
When I do actually get outside I try to make the most of it. My highlight of the last week was taking a long walk through Cirencester Park on the Bathurst Estate, just opposite the university here in Cirencester. The expanse of the place is awe inspiring. There is something very special about the act of walking and connecting on such a basic level with your surroundings. It was a beautifully cold and crisp winter afternoon (we haven’t had nearly enough of those so far this winter) and I was able, for the first time all week, to truly relax. I remind myself now as I write this post that I must make far more time for this kind of activity, even if it means not getting quite as much done in the library or the office.
It seems to be that there is certainly a connection between being outside, connecting with the natural world and a positive wellbeing. Indoors life, no matter how old one is, is a key issue of our times and it is vitally important that we address it.
In October 2014 the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB published a green paper which made the case for a ‘Nature and Wellbeing Act’. The document put forward the argument that whilst the natural environment has a certain intrinsic value it also has a distinct value in terms of its benefits on the economy as well as people’s health and wellbeing. The paper called for an Act of Parliament, based loosely on the Climate Change Act of 2008, which would legislate to protect the environment specifically because of its beneficial effects on human wellbeing. Specifically, the Act would place obligations on future governments to protect the natural world. Targets would be set for the recovery of species and habitats, an ‘Office for Environmental Responsibility’ would be formed which would ensure that all government departments work to defend the natural world in an integrated manner. Further, ‘Local Ecological Networks’ would be created – putting local communities at the heart of working towards improving the state of nature on a local level for local people.
Now, generally I’m not a great believer that legislation is enough to encourage the real change in focus and momentum required. However, in this case I can see value in terms of shifting the structure of how issues to do with the natural world are dealt with in government. It would encourage a more holistic approach and place nature as a category of analysis in the minds of all government departments – currently it is probably low to non-existent in the minds of many politicians and civil servants. I think that we need to continue to contact our MPs to keep the idea on the agenda.
For me, experiencing the natural world has a huge influence on the way I think. I become more motivated, alert, I feel generally healthier and it improves my mental state. All of us go through periods when we have to reanalyse our lives but what I am trying to encourage here is something bigger. Not only is it vital that we think about our individual lifestyles in relation to the outdoors but we need to generate a collective response to managing the natural world in a way that improves people’s mental health. For there not to be a divide between ‘nature’ on the one side and ‘people’ on the other we need to integrate people’s needs into our plan for improving the state of nature. A healthy environment should go hand in hand in hand with a healthy, happy human population.
For more information on the connection between contact with the natural world and positive wellbeing visit this page from the University of Minnesota or to find out about ‘health and wellbeing’ projects visit this page from the Wildlife Trusts.