Can we really dose nature? A challenge to conservation and environmental psychologists...
Is being out in nature -- nature therapy -- really all that good for us? I've written some on this in Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence and in a few essays for Psychology Today (please see, for example, "Your Brain and Health in Nature: Rewilding Is Good For Us") and others have as well. Suffice it to say, opinions vary widely, and writer James McKinnon, author of The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be, considers this question in a very interesting essay called "The Problem with Nature Therapy." His essay, the subtitle of which is "The medicalization of nature turns a relationship into a dose," is available online, so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite. I'm sure it will generate a wide spectrum of comments.
Commenting on a popular online video called Nature Rx, McKinnon begins, "Nature Rx is also a refraction of a deepening trend: the medicalization of nature. In an increasingly tech-driven global culture, with more than half of humanity living in cities and your typical North American spending 90 percent of his or her time indoors, concern has become widespread—first among psychologists, but now also parents, educators, urban planners, artists—that our disconnection from the living world comes at a high price to our health." He goes on to write, "The condition to be treated, in a term coined by the writer Richard Louv in 2005, is 'nature-deficit disorder,' and the symptoms are a roster of the most talked-about medical obsessions of our times, from stress and anxiety to obesity, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even the desire for epidemiological self-maximization expressed by the phrase 'better than well.' In each of these cases, a growing body of evidence suggests that exposure to nature can help."
However, MacKinnon is skeptical of the enterprise of medicalizing nature and notes, "But the nature prescription turns out to have troubling side effects. It risks simplifying the full spectrum of what we can experience in nature and even threatens nature itself. In fact, what we increasingly see as the cure for our modern malaise might instead be the latest symptom of it."
"Nature was a comforting therapy, but that hadn’t stopped humans from destroying the real thing"
After a discussion of the pros and cons of some of the research that has been done and citing various experts in the field, MacKinnon ends with a discussion of the 1973 sci-fi film, Soylent Green, and writes, "As Sol lies dying, his friend Thorne, a police detective, breaks into the clinic to bid farewell. Thorne is nearly dumbstruck by the images playing before his eyes. 'How could I know?' he says, his cheeks wet with tears. 'How could I ever imagine?' The detective had never seen anything like it. Nature was a comforting therapy, but that hadn’t stopped humans from destroying the real thing."
Mr. MacKinnon's essay is a very good read and asks us to revisit some of the literature on how much nature really helps us along. Surely, there will be individual differences in "how much nature" one needs to feel good or to feel better. And, regardless of what the science says, if getting out in nature helps someone along, just do it! The comments that have been posted for MacKinnon's essay are interesting reads, and I highly recommend "The Problem with Nature Therapy" because it surely will open the door for new research that will be of interest to conservation and environmental psychologists and people, like me, who get out into nature to feel good.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson).