For years, I have been an aspiring journalist and labouring under the misapprehension that the job of the journalist is to question authority, and that the worst possible trait in any journalist was credulity.
Okay, I wasn’t actually. But sometimes, you just have to wonder just how ready to repeat utter nonsense you have to be to get a job at a major international news organisation…
Richard Black (yes, him again) writes,
UK children are losing contact with nature at a “dramatic” rate, and their health and education are suffering, a National Trust report says.
Traffic, the lure of video screens and parental anxieties are conspiring to keep children indoors, it says.
Evidence suggests the problem is worse in the UK than other parts of Europe, and may help explain poor UK rankings in childhood satisfaction surveys.
The trust is launching a consultation on tackling “nature deficit disorder”.
There’s nothing ‘new’ about this. As even Black reports, the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ was coined back in 2005 by a Richard Louv. It is no surprise at all that the epidemic of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ has been lying dormant and unnoticed since 2005 — it was a silly idea, which failed to fly even at the moment of greatest environmental hysteria. Society has suffered a relapse, not because of the disease, but because the National Trust and BBC environmental correspondents’ brains are suffering some kind of encephalopathy. This is the result, I would argue, of too much — rather than too little — exposure to the idea of ‘nature’. It becomes the explanation for everything. And I do mean everything. You can explain crime, disease, being slightly pissed off and even naughty children through cod psychology and pseudo-scientific theories about ‘nature’ and our supposed ‘optimum’ relationship with it.
Here’s a copy of a presentation I gave back in 2006 on the subject of environmentalism and mental health. I thought the debate had moved on. Perhaps I was mistaken.
Who is Putting the ‘Mental’ into Environmentalism?
In the past, environmentalists have explained pollution simply as the presence of substances known to disrupt biological processes in the environment, such as DDT, or the sulphur from burning coal. Now, a variety of studies and campaigning organisations are claiming that a more fundamental, yet far more complex relationship between humans and nature is being damaged in ways which cannot be explained by mere biological chemistry. According to these ideas, the tendency of urbanisation and modern life to distance us from “nature” makes them toxic pollutants, with consequences for the psychological development and mental health of individuals, the survival of communities, and the functioning of society. But are these claims really all that new, and are they really emerging from scientific insight and research? Or are they simply attempts to frame contemporary anxieties using superficially plausible scientific language, in order to justify environmentalism’s political ideals?
In March this year, the Royal Commission on Pollution (RCEP) published its twenty-sixth report, “The Urban Environment”, which cited urbanisation as a risk factor in mental health.
The way in which urban living affects mental health and wellbeing is poorly understood, sparsely researched and perhaps unexpected… but there is no avoiding the conclusion that urban living can damage the mental health of some people. This is likely to relate to a lack of social capital…[i]
Neither the paucity of research nor the failure to meaningfully identify a causal relationship between urbanisation and mental health seems to have given the report’s authors cause to consider the idea that their conclusion is not quite so unavoidable. One might expect that having realised social factors confound our understanding of mental health, they might conclude that addressing social problems ought to be a priority. But instead the authors offer us the idea that, ‘One way of helping to mitigate these effects would be the provision of good quality green spaces…’
The gift of parks to those who lack ‘social capital’ is ‘environmental justice’, according to the authors. But what a remarkably degraded sense of justice this is. The opportunity to while away days in parks is seen as a palliative to failures of social justice; to treat just the symptoms of ‘lack of social capital’ as though it was an illness. But it is deeply patronising to say that these are problems of mental health rather than politics, and that these might be mitigated by better access to green spaces, rather than solved by a change in circumstances. The idea seems to be that social problems are inevitable – natural, even – and that government is impotent to address problems such as low income and unemployment. The result is that the poor have their behaviour and heads examined while the political “environment” escapes scrutiny.
If the definition of pollution operating in this report has been broadened to allow the RCEP to study social and design factors in urbanisation, it follows that the definition of health must have been broadened also. Indeed, the report takes its definition of health from the 1947 World Health Organisation’s constitution,
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity[ii]
But is this definition of health, used to steer the WHO in the 1940s, fit for the purpose of evaluating urban planning policies and their effect on the mental health of individuals in 2007? The authors appear to think so, and yet seem conscious of the fact that this use of the expression “health” isn’t ordinary, and needs some explanation:
Thus good health is defined in much broader terms than simply the prevention of illness… We will consider physical wellbeing in terms of optimal physical health and fitness for an individual. Mental wellbeing is interpreted in terms of a number of positive outcomes represented by factors such as high self-esteem, subjective wellbeing, life satisfaction for an individual and a sense of place.
It is only after finding the broadest possible definition of health that the report can create links between mental health and urban planning. While there may be legitimate uses of the WHO’s definition, the RCEP only appear to use it where it suits them; the effect of insufficient provision of green spaces is seen as a health issue, but the more general lack of opportunities for the poor is not, even though the WHO give plenty of scope for it.
It’s not just the poor who are vulnerable to the poisonous effects of modern life. In 2005, futurologist Richard Louv wrote, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, in which he argues that children suffer from a lack of unstructured, unsupervised, outdoor play. So far, so good… But so near yet so far, because Louv goes on to argue that children are being damaged, not just by anxieties about safety, but by lack of exposure to nature.
There is the “biophilia” hypothesis … that suggests we are still hunters and gatherers and biologically we have not changed. That hypothesis says there is something in us that needs natural forms, that needs association with nature in ways that we don’t fully understand. I think we instinctively understand that there is something about being in nature that you cannot get on a soccer field.[iii]
In spite of Louv’s protest that “It’s not good for human beings to live with fear all the time”, and that “in this society we are increasingly living in fear…” he replaces the fear of strangers and injury litigation with something new to panic about. Where the RCEP tell us that a place is unhealthy if fresh fruit or vegetables cannot be bought from anywhere within walking distance, Louv makes a similar argument on the basis that our biology makes us hunter-gatherers. To be healthy, we have to mimic hunter gatherer society. This is more than mere lifestyle advice. It becomes an argument about the direction that society ought to take, and how people ought to live. Claims that the problems of modern life are the consequence of a degraded relationship with nature reveal an ideology, because the inescapable conclusion is that we adjust society accordingly.
This idea is not new. Aristotle’s ethics drew from his idea that everything in the universe has a function, and therefore a purpose within an order. By investigating human nature, we could determine how best to achieve this function, and so how we ought to live – our purpose. But while this view celebrates our capacity for investigation as perhaps the highest form of existence, it also makes us mere objects of nature, and leaves humans without the freedom to determine for ourselves what is right and wrong, or to overcome nature in our own interests. In more recent times, this teleological system of ethics was criticised. Why would there be a morality in nature? Who or what gives it purpose? Regardless of this criticism, Louv warns us about what happens when we deviate from the natural path:
[Nature-deficit disorder is] the cumulative effect of withdrawing nature from children’s experiences, but not just individual children. Families too can show the symptoms — increased feelings of stress, trouble paying attention, feelings of not being rooted in the world. So can communities, so can whole cities. Really, what I’m talking about is a disorder of society — and children are victimized by it.
It is no surprise that a perspective on the world that views modern life as a rampant virus, and demands that our lives be a pastiche of prehistoric society shares something with ancient philosophy and looks for ethics in natural orders. Louv gives us a very broad description of a malaise, and blames modern life for modern problems without interrogating the idea that the problems exist in the first place, or adequately defining them.
Equally lacking in objectivity is a report from the mental health charity, Mind. Published in May this year, it extols the virtues of “Ecotherapy” – literally, exercise in the countryside. And like Louv, it argues that exposure to nature restores essential historical, sensory, childhood, mythological, social and spiritual connections and offers us the chance to:
[Get] away from modern life, relaxing (as a contrast), time alone or with family, a time to think and clear the head, peace and quiet, tranquillity and freedom, privacy, escape from pressure, stress and the ‘rat-race’, recharging batteries.[iv]
Again, it is the rampant virus of modern life which is underpinning the argument much more than the coherent identification of what it is that has actually been lost or damaged. And again, it is expressions such as “self esteem”, and “sense of well being” which are used as though they had any scientific meaning.
Bold claims are made about the value of “Ecotherapy” to alleviate “mental distress”, which are substantiated by two studies that Mind commissioned theUniversity of Essex to complete. The first of these is a survey of just 108 people who went either gardening, walking, running, cycling, or took part in some conservation work. The second study compared the responses of twenty people after being for a walk in the woods, and after a walk in a shopping centre. A whopping 90% (or 18 people) felt they had higher self esteem after walking in the woods, and 44 percent (that’s 8.8 people) felt they had lower self esteem after the shopping centre.
The discovery that people enjoy waking in the countryside more than hanging out in shopping centres is hardly a scientific breakthrough. Yet Mind continue to make a great deal out of their questionable statistics, never explaining what the subjects of the survey were suffering from, how self esteem in an otherwise normal person relates to self esteem in a person with serious mental health problems nor why self esteem, and ‘feelings of well-being’ are indicators of good mental health. Does low self esteem lead to mental illness? Is low self esteem a mental illness itself? If modern life really does cause mental illness, then does it follows that the only course of action is to escape modern life?
In July, Dr William Bird looked “at the evidence linking wildlife-rich areas and green space with mental health”. The report starts with the statement that
Past generations have intuitively understood this relationship, perhaps better than we do, yet the evidence needed to quantify the health value of the natural environment is still evolving.[v]
In other words, there is no evidence. Yet just as the RCEP used a broadened definition of health, Bird too uses the WHO to provide him with a definition of mental health which escapes the problem of lacking an objective measure of health,
There is no health without mental health. Mental health is central to the human, social and economic capital of nations and should therefore be considered as an integral and essential part of other public policy areas such as human rights, social care, education and employment.
And just in case we start to worry about the lack of evidence or lack of objectivity, Bird reminds how serious the problem is,
Mental ill health affects 1 in 6 of the population and is strongly associated with life events, lower social class, being socially isolated, long term illnesses and financial and work problems… The cost of mental ill health is £12.5 billion to the NHS and £23.1 billion to the economy.
But again, instead of suggesting that these social problems ought to be the focus of any approach to making modern life better, Bird goes on to uncritically outline several theories which explain nature’s role in mental health, such as the biophillia hypothesis in Louv’s book. Among the absurd claims is the idea that “even looking at a natural landscape can help our brain recharge and resume direct attention”. But this is not a convincing argument that we are “genetically programmed” to find images of nature restorative. Yet this theory is used to justify the argument that politics should find a “balance” between the individual, community, and the environment,
After 10,000 generations, mankind developed a position where […] values were balanced… As we became urbanised our values shifted away from the environment. More recently over the last 20 years, we have shifted our values again away from community and environment and towards the individual. Valuing the individual at the expense of the environment and community is not only a less sustainable way of life but favours healthcare that treats disease rather than promoting supportive communities and environments. To regain a sense of wellbeing it is argued that we should change our values and reconnect with the natural environment and community in which we live and work.
Like the other reports, Bird advances an environmental agenda as a cure to the ills of modern life – poor self-discipline, hyperactivity, ADHD, anxiety, stress, crime, aggression, poor concentration, poor cognitive development, community incohesion, impulsive behaviour, irritability, and aggression.
By disconnecting from our natural environment, we have become strangers to the natural world: our own world. This has challenged our sense of identity and in some more subtle ways has had a significant affect on our mental health.
Bird is not the first person to have used pseudo-scientific theories to connect humans to nature in order to explain a host of contemporary problems, of course. Naturalistic accounts of society’s problems are neither new, nor untested, and are themselves deeply problematic. Any rational attempt to create a naturalistic framework to look at the world through will appeal to science, and across these four reports, there are an abundance of uncritical references to research, which are all too easily questioned: cod science, which does not deserve the confidence the report’s authors have placed in it. Although these reports claim to offer advice that will liberate us from the failures of modern life, such ideas about human nature end up trapping us within a narrow definition of what it is to be human and an even narrower vision of the future in which possibilities are limited by our biology, rather than expanded by our capacity to understand and overcome problems.
These naturalistic ideas don’t simply shut down debate, they preclude politics. If humans are merely ‘programmed’ gaps between their biology and the environment, which only seek their immediate comfort, and can only exist within a narrow range of environmental conditions, then there is little direction for society to decide upon. Science has done it for us. Our values, mores, ethics and ambitions can be best determined by weighing ‘evidence’, and peering into microscopes. But is this really science, or does it owe more to a desire to generate an unchallengeable consensus for its own sake, than offer any real insight into humanity?
The ambiguous measures of mental health in these reports turn normal, but negative feelings and beliefs into symptoms of diseases. Consequently, everybody suddenly becomes mentally ill. But self-esteem, sense of well-being, life satisfaction, and sense of place, aren’t indicators of mental health. Any well adjusted, healthy person will experience negative feelings, not just as a consequence of an unhealthy life, but also a healthy one. People do not change their circumstances by being ambivalent about them, yet ambivalence is precisely what the medicalisation of normal emotions encourages.
An important distinction exists between “mental distress” in a person who is not mentally ill, and a person who is. The former is likely to have some insight into why he is distressed, whereas a person suffering from mental illness is far more likely to be confused about his or her experiences. It is this insight which allows healthy people to connect their feelings to their circumstances, and to seek to address them. Yet if people are told that they are unhappy because they lack exposure to nature, they may act on this advice at the expense of addressing real problems. Of course, it could be argued that Ecotherapy wouldn’t necessarily stop an individual looking for other ways to explain their dissatisfaction. But Ecotherapy, Louv, the Royal Commission report, and environmentalism more generally all claim that it is modern life itself is problematic. This view permeates both the establishment, and criticism of it, leaving few opportunities for improving problems which exist in modern society, other than by rejecting it, reinforcing the individual’s impotence. The predominance of environmental and therapeutic ideas limit the expression of the desire for change. And if anything is likely to cause “mental distress”, it is the very real impotence that these orthodoxies generate. If it is true that modern society creates unique problems – and few people would argue that it doesn’t – then rejecting it will only allow old problems to resurface. Meanwhile, people who are told to go for a walk to achieve a “balance” with nature won’t be engaged in any serious, collective attempt to improve modern society as much as they will be wishing it would just go away.
The definitions of health – especially mental health – and environment in these studies is so broad that they are useless for anything other than the purpose of approaching social problems as though they were diseases. Symptoms are fitted to diagnoses for the sake of realising the remedy – the environmental agenda. Rather than identifying anything essential which connects us to nature, these broad and ill-defined symptoms, and ambiguous diagnosis that society is “sick” do nothing more than emphasise the social as “natural” or biological, to allow naturalistic, and pathological accounts of feelings of dissatisfaction, malaise, and disorientation.
These approaches mirror the incoherence of the environmental movement. Spurious appeals to the importance of myths, identity, place, community, sustainability, balance, and holism surround a broad, subjective, and scientifically meaningless definition of health both in these reports and any environmental manifesto that they could be lifted from. There is no irony to Mind’s report’s sub-heading – Ecotherapy – the green agenda for mental health. This campaigning uses health and the idea that bad design causes deaths as moral weapons to drive a political agenda.
For many people, doing something well away from the city is a relaxing, sometimes social, sometimes private, positive experience. But this is leisure, not therapy. Leisure undoubtedly allows us to reflect on our lives, and to “connect” with things which interest us in a way which is not possible during the working week. By being prescribed, going for a walk in the woods becomes a chore like brushing our teeth. Instead of investigating the world as a personal experiment, it becomes a medicine. Worse yet, being told to go for a walk is like being a dog, let out to pee when it suits it’s master, when in fact we are perfectly capable of deciding for ourselves when it is time for a walk in the woods, but what people lack is the means, not the brains, to enjoy spare time.
And what role does nature really serve in this process? Is it really the essential factor of a healthy life? Is it really nature we seek, or just something different to everyday life? Cities are relaxing if they’re not the city you live in. The countryside is not relaxing if it’s where you work. As Mind tells us – ‘Farmers and farm managers are the occupational group with the fourth highest risk of suicide in Englandand Wales’[vi].
“Getting away from it” is not escapism. It is change which allows us to consider new possibilities for our lives, to make the most of our “nature”, and so to change it in turn. It is not “natural”, but logical that spare time allows for such reflection. In a society which is increasingly hostile to change, and hostile to the affluence which permits spare time, and which treats nature as an eternal truth above the excesses and failures of politics, the possibilities for change and improvement accordingly diminish, naturally.
[i] The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution – The Urban Environment. http://www.rcep.org.uk/urban/report/urban-environment.pdf
[ii] Constitution of the World Health Organisation, 1947 http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hist/official_records/constitution.pdf
[iii] Do today’s kids have “nature-deficit disorder”? http://dir.salon.com/story/mwt/feature/2005/06/02/Louv/index.html
[iv] Mind – Ecotherapy. http://www.mind.org.uk/NR/rdonlyres/D9A930D2-30D4-4E5B-BE79-1D401B804165/0/ecotherapy.pdf
[v] William Bird/RSBP – Natural Thinking. http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/naturalthinking_tcm9-161856.pdf
[vi] Mind – Suicide Factsheet. http://www.mind.org.uk/Information/Factsheets/Suicide/