ECOS 38 (5)
THE NATURE FIX
Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative
W.W. Norton & Co.
Hardback RRP: £16.99
Review by Andrew Blewett
A consumerist view of nature’s joys and cures
We have grown used to an economic view of conservation, expressed through the language of ecosystem services and questions such as ‘what has nature done for us?’ rather as if the earth owes us a living. Florence Williams does not tackle the bigger pictures of ecosystem and economic frameworks, her book focuses almost exclusively on the nebulous end product of individualised human wellbeing. ‘The Nature Fix’ is about us, not nature. She has some good advice for city dwellers, and there is much information tucked away in this relatively short volume reflecting the author’s buy-in to the idea that the human experience of nature should ideally mimic a pyramid. At the base, daily bits of green - a leafy view from a window, house plants and the like, then some sort of park with bird song and streams at weekends, a more ambitious monthly excursion into open country, and at the summit several days of wilderness immersion, at least annually. This is a structured manifesto for nature as a vitamin. Does it stand up?
The author is a journalist, not a scientist; but the fact that she writes pop-science does not equate with lack of substance. Her survey of the evidence contains some discussion of its shortcomings albeit never challenging her convictions. Williams favours a breathless folksy English style. She explains that she spent two years researching material in the USA, East Asia, Finland and Scotland, and the narrative accordingly weaves back and forth through these locations, sometimes in the same paragraph, carried on a wave of enthusiasm. During her peregrinations she gets on very familiar terms with numerous ecologically-minded social scientists whose coiffure and dress sense sometimes seem over-salient. This is indeed a matter of style, not content. Williams has her own story: native New Yorker finds nature and happiness in Colorado, then enforced migration to Washington DC accompanied by ennui and unhappiness with very little nature, unpleasant graffiti, and lots of aeroplane nose. The question is, how to feel better?
Williams calls in the biophilia hypothesis, whose inventor, Edward O. Wilson gives her positive endorsement in return. Wilson proposed that human beings are primarily adapted to the ancestral savannah, features of which people seek or re-create in the form of gardens, parkland, art, and maybe now virtual reality. Not implausible, but difficult to prove, and in danger of disregarding good evidence for the profounder impact of socialisation on recent brain evolution.1 Wilson’s idea is that evolution predisposes well-being in forest, meadows, coasts and similar productive natural settings, without which people suffer nature-deprivation and maladjustment. Williams examines possible neuropsychological mechanisms: the over-stimulation of urban living replaced by softer nature-orientated focus arising from less constrained, more creative default brain circuits, relieving exhausted executive prefrontal cortex. Variations on this speculative soft neuropsychology are linked and contrasted with nature-induced emotion; reduced heart rate variation, blood pressure, cortisol, adrenaline, and generally feeling better.
We are introduced to various sensory experiences in ‘natural’ settings, not all of priority conservation interest. A South Korean forest of non-native aromatic conifers devoid of larger animals sounds especially tragic. Nevertheless, people who go there believe that it alleviates cancers and restores hope. They can then go back to work even harder. Alternatively, urban Singapore, full of imported plants and designer trees seems better for people than unadorned concrete. It even harbours endangered freshwater fishes, presumably amputated from their wild ecology. Williams to be fair is not partial to this type of urban life, which she points out was created by the idiosyncratic vision of an authoritarian leader in power for decades, not good for democratic sensibilities.
There are contrasting scenes in Scotland. Williams is impressed by the beauty of semi-wild land around Glasgow. She has less happy memories of the city itself, stereotypically populated with depressed drug addicts burning wheelie bins to get high. Some such people cautiously turn up in a recovered woodland where they attach mud gargoyles to trees, interspersed by tea and fag breaks. Edinburgh seems biophilically glowing in comparison as Williams walks through parks with an EEG monitor, although her brain fails to enter relaxed mode despite the trees. She decides that this is caused by too many human beings. Scotland seems to have been a bewildering experience for her, although she has a good aside with romantic intellectuals. The Wordsworth siblings toured the Highlands, confronting old preconceptions that wild places are morally ambiguous, disordered and threatening, to be avoided. She seems less bedazzled, more sure-footed with literary nature.
Williams’ survey of beneficial forest bathing, green views, desert retreats, biophysical fractals and the psychology of awe, tells us very little if anything about what we need to do for nature, other than go into it. The impression is of humanity in substance part of nature; but acting on, not in, the natural biosphere and its ecology. Further, she does not consider whether a mass cultural shift ‘into nature’ without making significant concessions would lead to even more degradation in the process. Human footfall in wilder places is a problem, and while conserving humans is clearly a good thing, this book is not proposing solutions.
Similarly, in therapeutic mode, Williams cites mostly anecdotal psychological recovery helped by nature exposure, most movingly the response of a group of women with PTSD to a wild river. This is of course contingent on ensuring that the accompanying physical, social and economic problems are resolved as well. Despite the risk of naivety, she has a point, even if the evidence base is actually quite incomplete. The question Williams does not address is how protecting nature might benefit human well-being other than through awe, exercise and camaraderie? The particular issue of wildlife is not strong in her thesis, so when and how do our brains benefit from promoting and experiencing greater natural biodiversity? The costs are apparent, where nature has declined as a result of human activity, implementing ecological protection and restoration can be exhausting and stressful, even lethal in some lawless places.
Williams and her likely readers I suspect hold laudable environmentalist views, and maybe it is doing the author an injustice to highlight too strongly this book’s chosen human-centric parameters. The problem is that in avoiding the contextual discussion about enmeshed ecological and human crises of declining nature and the integral problems of economic development, demographics, infrastructure and continuing habitat conversion, her proposals risk looking like icing on a shrinking cake. Ultimately conserving people will mean conserving nature, but we cannot do this all on our own terms and encouraging human impacts in wilder places is not an unconditional virtue, however personally meaningful. In short, while Williams’ book offers genuine arguments for green things, re-envisaged garden cities, engaging with wilder nature and salving the metropolitan brain, its message is at heart consumerist. To paraphrase J.F. Kennedy, we need to ask not what nature can do for us but what we can do for nature, re-balancing the exchange.
1. Dunbar R., (2014) Human Evolution, Penguin Books, London.
Andrew Blewett, Consultant psychiatrist in Exeter with research interest in people and wildlife, Wageningen University, Netherlands.
ECOS 38 (5): Contents
Inheritors of the Earth by Chris Thomas
Review by Peter Shirley
The Nature Fix by Florence Williams
Review by Andrew Blewett
Rewild by Nick Baker
Review by Peter Taylor
Re-enchanting the Forest by William Ayot
Review by Peter Taylor
Woodland Development by George Peterken and Edward Mountford
Review by Simon Leadbeater
The Red Squirrel by Neil McIntyre & Polly Pullar
Review by John Savory
Camera Trapping for Wildlife Research by Francesco Rovero and Fridolin Zimmermann (eds.)
Review by Rick Minter