After reviewing hundreds of scientific papers on “cultural ecosystem services,” or the intangible benefits of nature, researchers have identified 227 unique ways in which people’s interactions with nature can affect well-being, positively or negatively, according to a paper published Friday in the Peer – reviewed journal Science Advances.
The paper is believed to be the first of its kind to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding and quantifying the complex ways in which humans and nature are connected. And its findings could have significant real-world implications, said Lam Thi Mai Huynh, the paper’s lead author and a PhD student at the University of Tokyo.
“In the modernized world, people tend to detach from nature,” she said. “For ecosystem management, the best solution, the most sustainable solution, is to reconnect people with nature and have local people be the ones who help conserve and manage the ecosystem services.”
Humanity’s greatest ally against climate change is the Earth itself
For Huynh, the ambitious research – an endeavor that even her academic supervisor initially thought impossible – arose out of a desire to better understand the intricate underlying processes behind nature’s intangible effects – such as opportunities for recreation and recreation or spiritual fulfillment – affect well-being. A major challenge, however, is that much of the existing scholarly literature on cultural ecosystem services is “highly fragmented,” the review says.
“You have all kinds of people watching [the intangible benefits of nature] through a different lens,” said Alexandros Gasparatos, an associate professor at the Institute for Future Initiatives at the University of Tokyo, who co-authored the paper. While it’s important to have diverse research, he said, “it gets a bit difficult to pull it all together.”
But the new study, a systematic review of around 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers, creates “an excellent knowledge base,” Gasparatos said.
“The whole point of this exercise is to understand the connection,” he added. “We give names to phenomena.”
The review breaks down the hundreds of possible connections between aspects of human well-being (including mental and physical health, connectedness and belonging, and spirituality) and cultural ecosystem services such as recreation and tourism, aesthetic value, and social connection. The researchers then went a step further and identified more than a dozen different underlying mechanisms through which people’s interactions with nature can affect their well-being.
The researchers found that the highest positive contributions were in mental and physical health. Recreation, tourism and aesthetic value appeared to have the greatest impact on human health through the “regenerative” mechanism, or experiencing restorative effects from living in nature such as stress relief, according to the paper. Meanwhile, the greatest negative impacts are associated with mental health through the “destructive” mechanism or direct harms associated with the degradation or loss of cultural ecosystem services, the researchers wrote.
“In reality, there isn’t just one way,” and the effects aren’t always positive, Gasparatos said. “It’s not like I get anything when I go into the forest.”
A well-designed park, for example, can be a place for recreation and leisure, as well as for connecting with other people. You might also appreciate the sight of towering trees and lush greenery, or birds and other wildlife. On the other hand, a poorly maintained natural space could result in an ugly or visually menacing landscape that could make you feel uncomfortable or anxious.
Here’s what you can do to help cope with your fear of climate change
The paper can offer a roadmap of sorts, Huynh said, to help people, particularly decision-makers, understand not only that there are various intangible benefits of interacting with nature, but also how to try to achieve them.
“By understanding the underlying process, we can help design better interventions for ecosystem management,” she said. “We can help improve nature’s contribution to human well-being,” in addition to potentially improving sustainable management practices and addressing some negative well-being impacts.
The research was greeted with great applause by several outside experts not involved in the work.
“It’s going to be a long time before there’s a study like this that makes some of these connections a little clearer,” said Keith Tidball, an environmental anthropologist at Cornell University. “This stuff has been scattered everywhere for a long, long time, and this paper takes a huge step forward in sorting what was previously quite a mess.”
Anne Guerry, chief strategy officer and principal investigator of the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, agreed. “They did a really good job of bringing together an extraordinarily diverse literature,” she said. She noted that it has been a challenge for researchers to present the science in a way that reveals where and how nature is most beneficial to humans, which in turn could help “inform and encourage investment in conservation and restoration.” motivate that lead to better outcomes for people and nature.”
For example, the research could have an impact on the potential role of nature in human health. “What this will be seriously useful about is being able to continue working towards enabling physicians and clinicians to actually prescribe outdoor time, outdoor recreation and even outdoor space based on these pathways that they have identified in this paper,” he said tidball.
In one scenario, elements of this work could eventually be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, said Elizabeth Haase, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health.
“That puts us in a position to say that you see that kind of benefit when we enable that kind of interaction with nature, and then mandate those kinds of nature experiences or have policies that say you’re really discouraging someone from theirs.” sanity if you destroy these natural landscapes,” she said.
Doctors in Canada can now prescribe national park passes for patients
However, the review has limitations, leading some experts to caution against over-interpreting or overemphasizing the results.
A potential problem is that the existing research included in the review focuses disproportionately on individuals rather than groups.
“There are several instances where something can be really good for an individual but might not be very good at all for the community overall,” said Kevin Summers, senior research ecologist in the Office of Research and Development at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“In many cases, there can be unintended consequences for what seem like very simple, uncomplicated decisions,” Summers added.
Other research gaps should also be considered, Guerry said. While the review suggests that some links between certain human well-being traits and cultural ecosystem services appear to be stronger than others, that doesn’t mean those other relationships may not be significant, she said.
“We have to be careful about oversimplifying the results and thinking that the lack of a documented relationship in this paper means something isn’t important,” she said. Instead, it can mean that “it hasn’t been studied and we haven’t found ways to quantify it and get it out of the scientific literature and out of our implicit understanding.”
Addressing the limitations of their work, the researchers noted in the paper that future research “should examine in depth how these pathways and mechanisms are manifested in less studied ecosystems and understand their differentiated impacts on different stakeholders.”
In the meantime, however, the results serve as an important reminder of nature’s necessity.
“It can very well justify a mindset like, ‘Let’s invest in nature because it has all these benefits,'” Gasparatos said.
With such powerful positive benefits in terms of creativity, belonging, regeneration and more, “It is easy to sense from this paper that your constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness requires a country to conserve natural spaces,” Haase added.
At a time when many people are increasingly disconnected and distancing themselves from “our ecological selves,” efforts to connect humans and nature are interesting not just in scientific, philosophical, or ethical terms, Tidball said, but “there’s also here.” Impacts on human security that are significant.” And, he said, if steps aren’t taken to reconnect people with nature, the consequences could be dire.
“If we continue as a species in a state of ecological amnesia,” he said, “we will find ourselves out of habitat and out of time and thus hapless.”