Can pandemic biophilia reshape the UK’s climate conversation?

‘Biophilia’ is the term used to describe the innate tendency for human beings to seek connections with the natural world around us

During the pandemic some people sought solace and reassurance in the beauty that the natural world offers us. For the many, nature provided a peaceful reprieve that we lacked within the four walls of our homes and, for the few, the natural world was escapism from the intensity of ‘key worker’ responsibilities during such extraordinary times. 

In fact, data has shown that by May 2020 visitations to parks in the UK had increased almost 150% compared to pre-pandemic levels (one of the largest increases seen globally). Over 17,000 extra outdoor seats in cafes and restaurants have been placed on streets and pavements across the UK offering Brits the chance to enjoy typically indoor pleasures, outdoors, during the pandemic. 

By breaking down the boundaries between the indoors and the outdoors, the new-found and multi-purposed outdoor environment became a place of much of the human connection that was lacking during the pandemic. As social beings, humans rely on connection with others for survival. ‘Connection’ as a concept has been closely interrogated in human (and animal) behaviour. 

Author Johann Hari has explored the impact that connection (or lack thereof) has for those experiencing the symptoms of trauma. He writes that as a traumatised or depressed individual “you aren’t a machine with broken parts. You are an animal whose needs are not being met…You need the natural world. You need to feel you are respected. You need a secure future. You need connections to all these things.” Well known American professor and author, Dr Brené Brown, echoes this notion of the relationship with our environment as a basic and vital human need; “connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives us purpose and meaning to our lives”. 

Luckily, the way to achieve meaningful connection is not prescriptive. Nature is listed by Hari as one of the vectors for reconnecting with ourselves and improving our mental health and HumanForest wholeheartedly agrees with this. 

‘Biophilia’ is the term used to describe the innate tendency for human beings to seek connections with the natural world around us. Joel Bennett, a Psychologist and Trauma Specialist at Harley Street & Owner of Intrepid Minds, says: “Within our modern era, we often forget that we, humans, are nature. Our bodies are built from nature and fed by our earth. To disconnect from nature is to forget a vital part of who we are. Nature has the capacity to soothe our nervous systems, inspire our senses and help us remember our innate need for playful curiosity.”

As a concept, Biophilia is becoming increasingly popularised. From interior design, to urban landscaping and even wellness trends such as ‘forest bathing’, the term is being brought to life (excuse the pun!) across many aspects of conventional western lifestyles. 

The growing interest in Biophilia and ‘biophilic lifestyles’ has come at a time when the world has woken up to the unsustainable pressures we are placing on planet Earth. In the lead up to COP26, governments, corporations and the mainstream media are in agreement that massively more needs to be done to address the climate emergency. Substantial media coverage in recent weeks has asked the question whether we ‘will’ or ‘won’t’ reach the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees celsius target. For us, at HumanForest, this question is distracting. Although the creation of the 2050 goal may help us on the path to a more sustainable future, perhaps the debate is becoming too myopic...Reaching it or not reaching it might be a marker of success or failure but it will not ‘solve’ the problem for the long term. 

If we are looking for solutions, perhaps we need to leave the scientific targets behind for a while, and come back to our basic human needs. The pandemic pushed us two metres apart but drew so many of us together in our appreciation of the green spaces around us. And for many, retaining the habits we cherished in lockdown is not simply a desire, but a necessity. Joel Bennett agrees, saying, “Now, as restrictions are lifted, it is vital for our collective mental health to give priority and gentle nurturing to our continued relationship with nature.”

As we move into a new normal, is there space for Britain to forge a path in the debate by increasing the importance of nature in our day-to-day education, healthcare and economic systems?  Can we focus our energy on initiatives closer to home like developing community gardens and discouraging the use of combustion engines on a street-by-street basis? Could this improve not only the health of our planet but the quality of  our citizens’ lives too? The pandemic has taught us that connection is the way to get through adversity. Now it’s time to apply our new found biophilia to even bigger issues than COVID-19. 

By Laura Elms, HumanForest Head of Sales.

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