Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Responsible by Nature

How Nature Exposure Can Influence Sustainability Outcomes

For the past two years, prior to beginning my graduate studies at Wake Forest, I lived a simple and quiet life in the foothills of Shenandoah National Park.

In this pristine setting it might have been easy to forget the many global environmental issues existing throughout the world today, but I had the opposite reaction. Instead, every time I would come over the hill to my house after work, the pastoral views of rolling hills in the backdrop of a setting sun would give me butterflies — every single time. I couldn’t ignore this feeling, so instead, I let it guide me. In doing so, I found I was beginning to care more for my surroundings and sought to understand them better. Luckily, this sentiment isn’t unique to me. Both scientific research and personal narratives show that humans have an inherent affinity towards nature and tapping into it can influence how sustainably we live our lives.


Numerous scientific studies indicate that there are known benefits to humans from engaging with nature. Keniger, et al.’s review of several existing studies found that psychological, cognitive, physiological, social, spiritual, and tangible benefits are all potential outcomes of interactions with nature. [1] In writing about contact with nature, Howard Frumkin notes evidence for its positive impacts on attention restoration, stress reduction, and child development. Frumkin also notes the need to put a greater value on nature contact in public health intervention. [2]

If we are able to meaningfully recognize how humans benefit from nature, it seems we might feel a greater sense of respect and responsibility to it. Schultz, et al. found just that in their research on attitudes about environmental issues. In their findings, they saw the level of concern people had for issues was associated with how greatly they see themselves as part of nature. [3] Therefore, it is possible that a nature identity can be developed through increased quality time outdoors.

So now we know that people benefit from nature interactions and that these interactions can influence environmental concern, but what does all of this mean for sustainability? Zelenski et al.’s research on cooperative and sustainable behavior tested this question by exposing participants to either natural or built environment scenes prior to responding to a community-oriented dilemma. Results showed that nature-exposed participants acted with sustainable intentions notably more often. [5]


Why is it important to have so much scientific research done on human-nature relationships and to highlight it here? Well, applying the research results to human development could mean the difference between a thriving or degrading planet for ourselves and future generations. The wicked problems of today surely require creative solutions. Well-being is linked to problem-solving abilities and creative capacity. Nature interaction has proven to enhance well-being. Acknowledging and promoting such linkages provides a powerful means to drive socio-cultural shifts toward sustainability, we’ve just got to get more people outside to realize it.

All smiles after a long uphill hike…what more evidence could you need for nature’s power?
‍All smiles after a long uphill hike…what more evidence could you need for nature’s power?

How do we move forward on realizing the potential of human-nature connectedness? Start anywhere! On an individual level, we can commit to a mid-day walk every day. When designing built environments, we might look to include easy access to parks and community gardens. In education structures, we can better prioritize opportunities for outdoor learning. Ultimately, we must find enough ways to foster opportunities for people to positively experience the natural environment to create the sustainably minded societies our future depends upon.

Health benefits and beyond, the natural world provides us with so much. We value reciprocity in our relationships with people, why not behave the same in our relationships with nature?

Nature as a classroom and an invaluable teaching resource!
Nature as a classroom and an invaluable teaching resource!


[1] Keniger, L. E., Gaston, K. J., Irvine, K. N., & Fuller, R. A. (2013). What are the Benefits of Interacting with Nature? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10(3), 913–935.

[2] Frumkin, H. (2010). Nature Contact. In Environmental Health: From Global to Local. Jossey Bass Inc.

[3] Schultz, P. W., Shriver, C., Tabanico, J. J., & Khazian, A. M. (2004). Implicit connections with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24(1), 31–42.

[4] Geng, L., Xu, J., Ye, L., Zhou, W., & Zhou, K. (2015). Connections with Nature and Environmental Behaviors. PLoS ONE, 10(5).

[5] Zelenski, J. M., Dopko, R. L., & Capaldi, C. A. (2015). Cooperation is in our nature: Nature exposure may promote cooperative and environmentally sustainable behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 42(Supplement C), 24–31.

Photos courtesy of Meredith Bowhers.

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