Biophilia – What is nature good for?


In many languages all over the world, animal words are among the first spoken by children, as early as “mama” and “dada”. After various forms of enjoying meals, the nation’s fifth favourite leisure activity is “taking a long walk in the countryside for pleasure”. For every pound people spend doing up their houses they spend 50 pence on their gardens (which amounts to 3billion pounds). Gardening is our favourite passtime (50% of people garden every week), while playing with pets comes a close second.I’ve got biophilia. I’ve got it bad and I’ve had it for years, in fact, I think I was born with it. When I was child it was toads in the bathtub, locusts in the bedroom, not letting my granddad mow the daisies. When I grew up, I discovered the real thing. Marching through muddy fields, I fell deeply in love: the cool and wet and green, the smell of fern or fox. I have to go out every day to feed my addiction. I’ve still got it, and I’m not the only one. “Biophilia” is the word coined by E.O. Wilson to describe the human fascination for the natural world.

I have been with old people who spend their pension on bread for the pigeons and sat with young people all day, all spring, sky-gazing at migrating birds, I have seen children at London Zoo reach out and tenderly stroke tarantulas, I know a woman who has foregone having a family in favour of saving the wildcat from extinction, and I have been out moth-trapping with worshippers of night creatures who know each one by name. There is a calm about these people. They have found an eternal, unassailable love. When we gaze through binoculars or into a petri dish at a red kite or a carrion beetle, we see magic, and miracle. We experience the alchemy of nature and are under the same thrall that enraptured Wordsworth or Manley Hopkins, Monet or Mondrian.

Van Gogh’s mother said of him as a young man when he was trying to decide his path in life, “I wish he could work with nature or art” and years later Van Gogh himself wrote to his brother “do go on doing a lot of walking and keep up your love of nature for that is how to understand Art better and better”. When a traveller asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study she indicated the garden saying, “Here is his library, his study is out of doors”. Picasso is reported to have said: “Everyone tries to understand art, why don’t they try to understand the song of a bird?”. “What…”, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins “would the world be once bereft, of wet and of wildness, let them be left…long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”. Painter, Marc Chagall longed to be “alone at last in the woods, pine trees, solitude, the sky a lilac colour”.

What is so enthralling about nature; why does it so firmly hook us? In the 10,000 years since early human civilizations started to evolve, our genetic make up has probably changed only one part in 20,000 or 0.005%. According to George Williams and Randolph Nesse, a hunter-gatherer baby born thousands of years before the wheel was invented would be quite capable of growing up to be an accountant or cashier. So it is no wonder that we like watching wildlife TV and playing with our animals and poking around in the soil of our gardens. We are no more and no less than noble savages ourselves.

Edward Wilson calls the human fascination with living things “Biophilia”. Freud, Jung, Konrad Lorenz, and Desmond Morris have all hinted at the idea that the problems of civilized humans come from our detachment from the “ancestral environment”; from the nature in which we evolved. That we sit still too long, eat too much, are alienated from eachother, and are surrounded by static, plastic objects which do not reflect the endless complexity and fascination of the living ecosystems in which we evolved.

Modern civilization divorces us from the natural world. Too many people are left in, in the warm, flicking over six hundred and fifty TV channels. One in five people in Britain could stop eating at Christmas and survive till February on their stored fat! Please don’t try this at home! We barely need get up from our mouse mat for anything anymore. The trouble is that all this doesn’t necessarily lead to health and happiness. Civilization, it seems, is not very good for our heads. The more developed a country becomes, the greater the chances of young people becoming depressed. The general conclusions from sociological studies are that the more a population consumes, the unhappier it is. Within a decade the majority of the human population of the world will be living in cities, but people living in urban areas are generally less happy than those in the countryside even when taking socioeconomic factors into account.

Nor is modern life good for our hearts and other parts of our anatomy. Sitting still increases our chance of strokes, colon cancer, indeed, a US study of 17,000 men found that the more energy a man expended every week, the less likely he was to die prematurely from any cause. Retired men who walk 2 miles per day are half as likely to die as their couch-potato counterparts. Meanwhile, the average person is Britain is walking 1 mile less every year. Sitting still is not good for you – but nor, I would contend is the dreaded gym. People sent by the doctor to the gym for exercise have an 80% chance of dropping out within 6 weeks. However, people who exercise regularly enjoy greater self-esteem, sleep better and experience less anxiety and depression. As Jung noted in the 1930’s most of the people coming to him were not suffering from a classic mental disorder, but rather from a sense of the futility of their lives.

But what does all this have to do with the RSPB? Well, there is no greater antidote to the sense of futility or to a beer-belly than to get on your wellies and set to on a reserve. Planting trees, clearing ditches and removing invasive plants is fat-busting, rewarding work. The need is huge: we are losing between one and fifty species a day to extinction; and the rewards are even bigger. Nature reserves are a way of solving many of the world’s problems in one fell swoop. They get us out of our chairs and into a more natural environment, good for our hearts and our heads. Eighty-seven thousand volunteers help labour for other species with the RSPB. At Fairburn, National Power employees have laid 200 metres of new paths suitable for use by disabled visitors, and at Conwy (Gwynedd) hides and paths are maintained by a team from a local center for the disabled. All this adds to a sense of community, involvement, working for the greater good, which are also hugely important factors in human well-being.

And if you don’t fancy wielding an axe, you can just go and enjoy the reserves and maybe take a leisurely stroll. Egyptian history tells of physicians prescribing health walks for disturbed patients. Modern science shows that people randomly assigned to a nature walk feel happier than people assigned to walking for the same period of time in a safe urban area or reading magazines or listening to music. When people were asked to name the settings they sought when they felt depressed or stressed, 75% cited outdoor places with natural views. Green space makes us happy.

Can we afford it?

But can we afford nature reserves? The potential for reserves to have positive impact on the economy is huge. Tourism is the world’s biggest and fastest growing industry and nature tourism is the fastest growing sector within that. It has been estimated that a Kenyan elephant is worth almost a million dollars over the course of its life in tourist revenue. In Britain, 5.5million of us participate in bird watching. Currently, a million people visit RSPB reserves spending 11 million pounds per year across the UK on local beer, beds and breakfasts. In the south west of England environment-related activities contribute 100,000 jobs and £1.6 billion to the regional economy which equals 5-10 % of the regions gross domestic product. Added to this, the reduced NHS bills, less heart attacks, strokes and depression, as people take up hiking in their newly beautiful countryside and you have a win-win-win situation.

“Is it possible that humanity will love life enough to save it”? wrote E.O. Wilson. The RSPB loves life enough to save it. 111,500 hectares of reserves spread over 150 sites in Britain harbour creatures from the corncrake to the medicinal leech. Every year the RSPB spends one fifth of its budget (7 million pounds a figure set to rise to 15 million) on buying and maintaining reserves, and their impact on conservation is astonishing. The RSPB own one quarter of the remaining regularly flooded grassland in the UK and around 20% of the national total of reedbed occurs on 9 RSPB sites! Breeding lapwings at RSPB wet grassland reserves continue to thrive under traditional farming management whilst they decline rapidly on the surrounding land. The avocet returned to breed at Havergate Marshes in Suffolk in 1947 because the RSPB provided the ideal conditions for them to nest there. 460 pairs can now be found at 11 reserves.

But the RSPB cannot do all this work alone. They are calling on the government to create more nature reserves – to commit an extra 20 million per year into recreating rare habitats such as an extra 30,000 hectares of lowland heathland, and to improve management of SSSIs. That way we can get more people out into nature, improving their mental and physical health and we can save nature in the process, because conservation is not only guarding other species, it is in the words, of E.O. Wilson, “preservation of the human spirit”.