In an ailing economy, nature can keep us healthy
Guest blog: Former Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper argues that mounting evidence linking health with access to nature offers new clout for environmental campaigns.
This is not a good time for environmental campaigning. In an economic downturn ecological issues disappear as the focus shifts to what seem like more immediate challenges.
One way to ensure the longer-term questions remain on the agenda is to demonstrate the links with preoccupations such as jobs, economic recovery, and health.
Health and change
Historically, much of the legislation countries have enacted to cut air and water pollution has been driven by health concerns. One UN report ahead of the Rio plus 20 summit found that two of the three global environmental goals that were largely achieved were driven first and foremost by concerns over human health.
It seems to me that health might again drive powerful environmental arguments. Today, in addition to making the case for pollution prevention there is a new opportunity. It comes in the wake of masses of research that shows how people benefit from exposure to nature, green spaces and wildlife.
This is especially the case in relation to chronic ailments, including depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and certain kinds of heart disease. All these things are becoming more common, and are often expensive to treat.
Nature as our ally
As populations age, the health profile changes and the number of tax-payers is falling. Nature could be a powerful ally in helping societies cope through new cost-effective strategies to improve public health.
One study found that a 10% increase in green space near to where people lived correlated with a significant fall in health complaints (equivalent to a 5-year reduction in average age).
Several researchers have demonstrated that office workers experience lower job stress, higher job satisfaction, and fewer illnesses if they have views of natural areas compared to those who don't. Other research found that children suffering from stressful situations recovered more quickly in areas with access to nature. As with other studies, the benefit is seen most clearly among low-income and socially deprived groups.
Nature and wellbeing
By highlighting the many links between nature and improved wellbeing it could be that a whole new discussion could be opened. Could this research be harnessed for a campaign to divert 1% of the NHS budget to ecological improvements, especially in urban areas? And could this be better value for money than putting people on drugs?
It's certainly worth a serious look. I believe that if it's done well, it could lead to breakthrough campaigns. New alliances for wellbeing could be formed, including with health economists and public health professionals. That kind of grouping really could shift politics.
The surprising thing is that no one has yet built that kind of alliance in order to run a major high-profile campaign geared to policy change.
Tony Juniper will be speaking on the value of nature at the Resurgence Festival of Wellbeing on 12 October.
For research references for this article please visit Tony's website.
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