In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams makes a comprehensive case for nature and our health at almost every level. Each chapter is filled with her insights as she is included in one study after another, and also the best ways of making the most of nature – including the minimum time per month you should be outside (5 hours, if you were curious).
This book was brought to my attention by Dumfries and Galloway’s OWL group. As a list of reasons to get out in nature, you can’t do much better, although at times the anti-technology agenda gets a little boring, even though it remains understandable.
The first point that resonated with me was that:
“We don’t experience natural environments enough to realise how restored they can make us feel […] it’s important to call out just how radically our lives have shifted indoors.”
I love nature and the outdoors. I struggle to live even in towns. But even so, I’m not sure I get much more than the five hours a month that’s recommended as a minimum.
Although Williams hails from America, she goes all over the world with her research, including Japan – where they’ve spent $4 million since 2003 for research into Forest Therapy Trails – South Korea, where they have (at the time of writing) 3 healing forests and 34 more planned, and Singapore, where 6% of the national budget is spent on ‘developing scenery’.
Thanks to the research these countries have carried out – countries which are more or less at peak stress from the long working hours – we do know that nature provides plenty of benefits, and even sometimes how nature provides them.
There’s still a long list of what we don’t know, and this is typically around the specific mechanisms that again and again seem more important – because they can then be shown to reduce the burden on healthcare, increase productivity, and so on.
What are some of these specific benefits discovered?
· Our natural killer cells (an important part of the immune system, especially against tumours) get boosted in response to the smells of most trees (the chemicals responsible are phytoncides).
· Patients with windows that have good nature views recover faster.
· Fractal patterns (which are repeating patterns at different scales, such as clouds, waves, coastlines) help us recover from stress because they are so pleasing to the eye.
· Greener neighbourhoods have lower death rates – cardiovascular related deaths drop by 4-5% and are a social leveller in that it most benefits the most deprived (interestingly, Glasgow bucks this trend - researchers believe it is because the green spaces have been massively vandalised).
· 40 minutes of moderate walking per day protects the aging brain from cognitive decline.
Williams digs deeper into topics like hearing and vision. Apparently, there less than 12 places in the US where you can’t hear human made noise for at least 15 minutes at dawn. I don’t know what the UK’s rates are, but to me that seems miserable. I’m thinking of the road outside my house that I’ve almost got used to hearing – according to Williams, your body and brain still reacts to these interruptions quite a lot. The stress response is activated for a very short time to each loud noise, because throughout human history that would have saved us. Now it just results in negative impacts on our bodies as our sympathetic nervous system is switched on again and again.
And there is some truth to the idea ‘you can’t hear yourself think’. For every 5 decibels increase in noise, Williams says, reading scores drop by the equivalent of a two-month delay in schools. This can build up to quite a difference between loud and quiet schools – such as those under flight paths and those that aren’t.
But what about the good sounds? Water is scored as one of the best natural sounds, even when it is very loud. It’s being used more and more in town planning to obscure traffic noises. Birds are another good sound, and Williams points out that we actually share more genes governing speech with songbirds than with primates.
Moving on, there is discussion throughout the book of virtual nature doing the job, but it typically scores less in every study than real nature does, though it often scores better than no nature at all. However, Williams is typically dismissive of this, chalking it up under the column of ‘technology’, which in this narrative is always the bad guy. Even in Singapore, with the 6% of national budget is spent on ‘scenery’ (nature), she does not approve. All of the nature is extremely cultivated and as far from wild as nature can be, and Williams is not a fan.
I think this is where her narrative stumbles. Singapore may be dismissed by Williams, but there is no other option for one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, and in actual fact, this is what other cities need to copy. Singapore is exactly what is needed – green cities are cooler, nature does in fact do well in them (comparatively speaking, anyway), and it is hardly like we can take steps backwards in urban sprawl and growth to make fully wild nature spaces inside them.
Well, in an ideal world, we could and would. In a more realistic world, Singapore is the schematic other cities are more able to follow.
That leads us onto a different point. We’ve known that nature benefits us for decades – longer, in fact – if not quite the extent of it. Why don’t more of us get out?
I would point to the phrase that stopped me in my tracks – a ‘time famine’. Most of us are responsible for working, household cleaning and maintenance, feeding ourselves, sleeping, and trying to get some social time in there too. And this is just a baseline of what almost every adult needs to find time for. No wonder we don’t want to nip out for half an hour a day into nature, even if we have access to it (and many do not).
I would argue it should be built into the workday. How many minutes did the smoke breaks used to add up to? The evidence shows again and again just how good a short walk (without the phone) is for our working memory, productivity, creativity, and mood. Of course, this is idealist. Many people work in roles where, even if the managers agreed, they couldn’t take time away from the shop or busy work floor.
Where does this leave us? Why is Williams citing research from the 70s that hasn’t been acted on more? How close to peak stress do workers and communities have to get before society realises the access to nature is one of the best interventions in physical and mental health?
Change is coming, of course, especially for our young people in Scotland. In the meantime, Williams’ research recommends 5 hours a month in nature, preferably with water or trees, and interesting visuals with a bit of mystery. Doctor’s orders!