Environ Mental Ism

by | Jun 5, 2008

We’ve mentioned before how those of an Environmentalist bent are liable to blame the perceived failings of anybody who disagrees with them on some sort of mental illness. There’s Andreas Ernst, for example, the scientist who says that the psychology of sceptics is more like that of rats than human beings. Or there’s the professor of psychiatry, Steven Moffic, who thinks that aversion therapy involving the use of “distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming” can cure sceptics of their pathological ways.

But there’s a corollary to the idea that scepticism is a form of madness, which is that to stay sane, you just have to be environmentally aware. A recent example is to be found on the BBC news site, which reports on the mounting scientific consensus, or emerging truth if you prefer, that to avoid depression, stress or psychosis, your best bet is to commune with Mother Nature:

The secret ingredient? Greenery. Those of us who live in towns and cities, and even some who live in the countryside, don’t get enough of it. 

The result for most of us is highly stressful; we get irritable and depressed, and even physically ill (because high levels of stress mean higher risk of things like heart disease and diabetes).

While farmers, who arguably get more than their fair share of greenery, would seem to present something of a challenge to the theory (although that’s presumably just due to the psychiatric equivalent of climatic ‘natural variation’, or the rise of out-of-town shopping malls or something), it’s probably not much of a surprise to most people that doing non-stressful things like walking in the woods is good for reducing stress.

But this is science. The BBC’s wholly uncritical ‘news’ story (which is actually just an excuse to flag up its perennial Springwatch tv series, which this year features ‘nature does you good’ as one of its themes) draws on ‘research’ by Natural England, the RSPB, journalists, celebrities and various other experts in the field to prove its point.

First up is Springwatch presenter Bill Oddie, celebrity ornithologist, one-time comic, and BBC spokesman on climate change and now on mental health. He suffers from depression himself, and has no doubt that contact with nature helps his condition:

“when you get a downer, and lots of people suffer from this, there is no question, every self-help book, every doctor, every therapist will tell you: get out there in the fresh air, get yourself moving. It’s to do with fitness, it’s also to do with a meditational thing.” 

Were we inclined towards the level of critical analysis provided by the BBC, we could suggest that, had Bill spent less time out in the woods talking to his feathered friends, he wouldn’t have got depressed in the first place. But we’re not. And anyway, it’s hardly Bill’s fault. (And he’s really quite good as wildlife tv presenters go. He might bang on a bit about how great it is when you’re out in the country and can’t see a trace of all those ghastly humans, but at least he doesn’t talk to the viewers as if they are seven-year-olds and pretend that nature is some sort of lovely, fluffy, real-life Beatrix Potter tale (as recent newspaper headlines testify.)) Our gripe is with the BBC. The article continues:

Scientific support for Bill’s beliefs comes from Dr William Bird, who combines a career as a GP with a part-time role as health adviser to Natural England. 

Last year he produced a report for Natural England and the RSPB arguing that contact with nature and green space has a positive effect on mental health, especially among children.

So, a medical practitioner hired by a quango and an ornithological charity to justify their existences and relevance to ‘Modern Life’ counts as ‘scientific support’. Has the word ‘quack’ ever been more appropriate?

Dr Bird is urging his fellow GPs to prescribe regular walks and exercise in green spaces for patients suffering from heart disease, depression, obesity and the like.

We don’t doubt it.

Referring patients to the natural environment rather than the pharmacist is a lot cheaper than conventional pills and prescriptions…

We don’t doubt it. As we’ve said before, Environmentalism provides the perfect excuse for anyone in power to explain their failure to provide a public service.

The next expert witness is the journalist Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the “deprivation, sometimes amounting to mental illness, of children who grow up without contact with the natural environment”. It is, says the BBC

an echo of the medically-established condition, attention deficit disorder 

Indeed. But as the BBC points out in about the only vaguely factual part of its article:

“Nature deficit disorder” is not a condition the medical profession recognises 

As a certain Dr Fox might say, ‘there’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact’. And anyway, it seems that most of the medical profession do recognise it:

Natural England polled 70 GPs and nurses and found that 61% recommended that patients use green space, and 79% recommended walking informally. 

So what’s the problem?

But that still left a sizeable minority who didn’t.


Neither the paucity of research nor the failure to identify a causal relationship between urbanisation and mental health prevented the authors from concluding that:

One way of helping to mitigate these effects would be the provision of good quality green spaces

This is more than just silly; it is verging on the sinister. Aside from the fact that nature deficit disorder is about as scientific as any old snake oil, there is something deeply patronising about the idea that we can all be happier if only we walked in the woods.

Unhappiness is the stuff of life, in that it is the experience that prompts us to improve our circumstances. It is a sign of the political times that, rather than encouraging people to realise their aspirations, various agencies – both governmental and charitable – seem to be telling us that our aspirations are the problem; rather than seek to change the world, we ought to put up with our lot and hang out with the trees.

Anyone who takes at face-value the advice to go for a walk and achieve ‘balance’ with nature, won’t be engaged in any serious attempt to either improve their own life or challenge problems in the real world, as much as they will be wishing them to just go away.

By fitting symptoms to diagnoses for the sake of realising the remedy – the environmental agenda – the powers that be are failing to see the wood for the trees. Fortunately, people don’t lack the brains to make the most of their spare time; unfortunately, they lack the means.


  1. Alex Cull

    Much as I enjoy an occasional walk in the park or countryside, I suspect that it’s the change of scene rather than some sort of mystic life-giving green energy that does the trick. In a way it’s impressive that the BBC manages to turn a grain of truth (the general liking that people have for plants, wildlife, peace and quiet) into yet another monstrous deficit or syndrome that it thinks we should be deeply worried about.

    Maybe those who succumb should be diagnosed with Galloping Nature Deficit Disorder Anxiety Syndrome, or GNDDAS.

    Or we could simply call them eco-worriers.

  2. Rich

    “contact with nature and green space has a positive effect on mental health, especially among children.”

    For example: The Lion and Albert

    Nature as harmonious and peaceful? Have these people watched Springwatch?


  3. Daniel McGrath

    Is this Ben Pile from Cheney in Oxford?

    Anyway, yes, environmentalism has taken on some of the features of religion.

    There’s also a sinister aspect to it all.

    High Energy Prices in the US appear to be the policy for the left (maybe even the right) and what will happen is that poor people will be fleeced just to eat and move around to jobs.

    Well-off people will not suffer much as food prices increase and fuel starts to eat into tight budgets.

    So when environmentalists say standards of living must be reduced they are talking about breaking down poor people even more than they are broken down now.

    How high energy prices as a policy good became a mantra of self respecting liberals simply boggles my mind.

  4. Anonymous

    Not in every aspect and all points the CO2 supporters and their opponents actually disagree, as OCEANCLIMATE explains:
    When it comes to the term CLIMATE, the friends of IPCC, as well as their foes, are happily sailing in the same boat. While fighting a war of arguments how climate works, or may change, and what counter measures should be taken at many Billions costs, the global politics, and scientific community feel comfortable to talk about CLIMATE. Commonly it is said that ‘climate is the average weather’ (WMO, FAQ), without saying how ‘weather’ should be defined in the first place. As “climate means so many things to different people” (Carl Wunsch 1984), the climate & weather issue is discussed elsewhere (here). As a matter of fact, the whole climate change debate is not based on sound terms. but on a wild guessing what CLIMATE may be. Even the relevant global Convention on Climate Change, 1992, (UNFCCC) has none.
    Full text on: http://www.oceanclimate.de/

  5. daniel mcgrath

    The contact editors email address does not work btw.

  6. Robert Wood Canada

    Dr. Bird and Dr. Fox???? My suspicions are raised.

    …there is no avoiding the conclusion that urban living can damage the mental health of some people.

    Yes, their disconnect with “Mother Nature” make them turn into enviro-mentalists.

  7. Tiger

    Ah, I see.

    We just need more green growing stuff for those of us defined as mental health cases.

    I’ll just throw out my yarn, plastic mesh, paper, pencils, pens, and all those other crafty things and go “OMMMMMMMMMMM” under some maple tree instead… ¬¬

    Who needs crafts? What you really need is chlorophyll.


  8. Tiger

    “Nature as harmonious and peaceful?”

    The “nature” these people are thinking of isn’t communing with the grizzlies; what they want is an overgrown lawn where weeds are allowed to run riot.

    They don’t want the kind of nature [raw nature, REAL nature] you see on the television. They want a “tame” nature that’s kind and friendly and unthreatening.

    I’ll just send them off to play Bearman with the grizzlies and cut them off from all technology for a few months and see how eager they are to get chummy with nature the next time the opportunity presents itself.

  9. Editors


    Good to hear from you after all these years. It is indeed the same Ben.

    The email address is working. It is a bit fussy though.

  10. Daniel McGrath

    Well, you are certainly getting about ain’t you! Good luck with this site. I like the snappy snarkotic tone.


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