We need nature and nature needs us

These days, everything comes with a “green” label - green housing, green holidays, green businesses, green transport, green electricity, green communities, green fashion, everything will soon have a green tag.

These days, everything comes with a “green” label - green housing, green holidays, green businesses, green transport, green electricity, green communities, green fashion, everything will soon have a green tag. Everything, except our minds; this very private, inner environment - the world of personal anxieties, sorrow and joy - is separate and autonomous. Well not any more! Psychology too is going green. “Ecopsychology” is a new, rapidly-growing field, including therapeutic practitioners, which dramatically opens up our concept of the mind and allows the world - and especially the natural world - in.

The natural world is a vast subject, bigger than the earth, encompassing the whole universe, and despite human illusions of a separate manmade world, everything, even our apparently artificial, technologically-saturated urban areas, has been built from the earth's resources. Ecopsychology has the potential to be endlessly wide ranging, but at its core is the idea that we humans have an inherent empathetic attachment to the natural world.

This love of nature is expressed most clearly by our landscape artists and nature poets. But more ordinarily, it is expressed, for example, by the countless rambling groups and campers, united in battles against developers to protect some of the last magical natural corners in their communities. From these small grassroots groups to those trying to protect worldwide tropical rainforests, the environmental movement has come to be the largest, most densely-organised political cause in human history.

And now, Harvard zoologist EO Wilson has come up with a scientific explanation that lends weight to ecopsychologists and the environmentalists. He raised the possibility that humans possess a capacity called “biophilia”, defined as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms”. His hypothesis has generated considerable behavioural research and, if true, it will become an integral part of mental health and all healing therapies will need to include ecotherapy.

If biophilia is a fundamental human need, what are the effects on children, who within two generations are increasingly alienated from nature? Richard Louw spent 10 years interviewing parents and children and pairs these anecdotes with a growing body of research that shows that children given early and ongoing positive exposure to nature thrive in intellectual, spiritual and physical ways that in peers” do not. His book, Last Child in the Woods, argues that children desperately need to play outdoors in woods and that our sterile rejection of nature is harming them physically and psychologically. He blames many of the new childhood maladies including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) on the drastic reduction of free imaginative play in nature and suggests that today's children suffer from “nature deficit disorder”, that is “increased feelings of stress, trouble paying attention, feelings of not being rooted in the world.”

Louw believes that it is not just children who suffer from this disorder but families too can show symptoms, “so can comm-unities, so can whole cities. Really what I'm talking about is a disorder of society - and children are victimised by it”.

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It looks very much like we humans need regular, ongoing contact with the natural world if we are to be healthy, happy and sane, but instead of nature therapy, we give ourselves “retail therapy”. Al Gore says that we are addicted to the consumption of the earth itself.

In our throwaway society we have yet to understand that there is no “away” - plastics and chemicals end up in the human foetus, breast milk, and circulating in our bodies as well as in the bodies of polar bears and blackbirds. Our high- consumption habit is destroying our habitat and the crisis of global warming might be our ultimate blow against nature.

The practising alcoholic holds up appearances at all costs and pretends that everything is normal. Similarly, our society's “business-as-usual” stance enables the car industry to keep churning out polluting cars, television to run adverts for them and for us to continue to buy them.

While we know our behaviour is potentially suicidal we seem unable to stop. Environmentalists attack our “greed” but the ecopsychologist's diagnosis is a more complex one of addiction - looking at the underlying pathologies of addiction and how to heal them. Ecopsychologist Mary-Jane Rust, originally from Aylsham, says: “Acknowledging our addiction is the first step in healing. Ecopsychology is also the study of nature as healer - spending time in wild places, as well as gardens and parks, brings us back into balance again, making us realise the important things in life.”

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