We need to talk about nature

Our use of words that describe the natural world has declined. That’s not good for individuals or organisations.

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Obese, antisocial, friendless and afraid. That’s how a group of 28 authors described kids who don’t get to play outdoors, after Oxford University Press published a children’s dictionary that omitted words such as canary, clover, pasture and blackberry (the fruit) to make room for newer ones including attachment, blog and BlackBerry (the electronic gadget). A generation ago, 40% of children played regularly in natural areas. Now, it’s 10%. Instinctively, most of us feel this shift can’t be healthy.

And it’s not just kids. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 90% of their time indoors. We’re constantly told that we’re losing our connection with nature, even suffering from what has been called “nature deficit disorder”. But how can we know for sure that the connection is being lost? Psychologists Selin Kesebir of LBS and her twin sister Pelin Kesebir of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, wanted to find out.

Connecting to nature is good for wellbeing, mental health and cognitive performance,” says Dr Selin Kesebir. “There’s mountains of data on the positive effects on us – and there’s also evidence that contact with nature is linked to pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours, which means this isn’t just about us, it’s about the future.” Dr Kesebir cites an experiment where participants who viewed a short video of natural spaces engaged in more sustainable behaviour than those who watched a video of human-based spaces.

“From viewing pictures of lakes and hills to walking in natural environments, exposure to nature leads to faster stress recovery, mental restoration and improved cognitive function. But how do you measure how connected we are to nature today compared with past generations? The empirical evidence is scarce,” she says.

Books, songs and movies that mention nature – or don’t

The researchers considered all the various ways in which people connect with nature and the difficulty of capturing meaningful numbers in this area. “How can we count all the times people stop to watch a sunset or listen to birds chirping or how long they spend walking tree-lined streets? We could certainly ask these questions to living people, but we couldn’t ask people who lived 100 years ago. Instead, we turned to the cultural products  - books, songs and movies - they created,”

The cultural products we create reflect the times we live in. “Works of popular culture, we reasoned, should reflect the extent to which nature occupies our collective consciousness,” says Dr Kesebir. “If novelists, songwriters or filmmakers have fewer encounters with nature these days than before, or if these encounters do not register with them, or if they don’t expect their audiences to respond to it, nature should feature less frequently in their works.”

The researchers drew up a list of 186 nature-related words belonging to four categories: general words relating to nature such as cloud, dew or sunrise; names of flowers  like carnation, lilac or sunflower; names of trees  - birch, juniper or willow; and birds’ names such as blackbird, hawk or owl. Then they analysed how often these occurred in the output of popular culture. They looked at English-language fiction, pop songs and film plots, each of which featured thousands of examples.

For fiction, they used Google’s n-gram tool to discover the frequency of all the words in their lexicon between 1901 and 2000. For song lyrics, they used a specialist software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). This analysed the words’ occurrence in the top 100 hits between 1950 and 2011. For movies, they fed every English title on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) between 1930 and 2014 into the LIWC software.

When indoors became the new outdoors

The results were consistent across books, songs and movies: “The space taken by nature has been dwindling in the collective imagination and cultural conversation after the 1950s. Nature features significantly less in English popular culture today than it did in the first half of the 20th century,” says Dr Kesebir.

Tuning out from the natural world

Business leaders could make an effort to get the most out of their employees through renewing their contact with nature

Why? Some people suggest it’s the growth of cities that’s fuelled the change. “Urbanisation swallows up natural areas and cuts people off from their natural surroundings,” says Dr Kesebir. But, she goes on, the growth rate of cities over the 20th century is gradual whereas the data shows a marked change from the 1950s onwards. So it’s not just the fact that fewer of us are living in rural areas that explains the decline.

More likely, she believes, we’re seeing the impact of technological change leading to more indoor recreational activities. Yes, TV, video games and the internet are to blame. “These technologies may well have been substituted for nature as a source of joy, recreation and entertainment,” she writes in the paper detailing this research in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

So does this mean we care less about nature now? Not necessarily. “On the contrary, it is possible that concern for nature has increased over the period investigated, as pressing issues such as ozone layer depletion and global warming have made plain the fragility of nature,” says Dr Kesebir. Nonetheless, the paper’s authors believe we should be worried.

If the disappearance of nature vocabulary from cultural conversation reflects an actual distancing from nature, this means unrealised gains to human health and well-being. Not only that. Books, songs and films shape our culture as well as reflecting it, says Dr Kesebir. “The flagging cultural attention to nature means a muting of the message that nature is worth paying attention to and talking about. It also means a loss of opportunities to awaken curiosity, appreciation and awe for nature.”

Putting nature back on the agenda

This ties in with executives’ rising stress levels and “busyness” – the rush to get things done that often results in very little getting done, which Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, calls “hurry sickness”. Being in nature has been shown to help reduce anxiety, brooding and stress, and increase our capacity for maintaining concentration, creativity as well as our ability to connect with others – probably making us more productive in the process. It’s time to put it back on the agenda.

So what can be done? For a start, business leaders could make an effort to get the most out of their employees through renewing their contact with nature. One way, Dr Kesebir suggests, is to make sure that workplaces are designed to bring the outside in – if not literally, then at least visually. Plants in the office are good. And it would be useful to give thought to what can be seen from one’s desk. “A study suggests that when office workers can see green areas from their windows they are partly buffered from work stress,” she says.

Architects are also increasingly interested in biophilic design, which aims to create built environments that give people the same physical, psychological and emotional benefits that we experience when we walk through a forest. Imagine walking into the office and getting that same boost to the soul.

Beyond that, think about the kind of activities you organise for the people in your organisation. What do you encourage them to do when they’re not at work – and when they are? It’s time companies found a way to harness the health-giving power of nature.

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