Nature isn’t a luxury, it’s an essential. And if we can vote for it, we should

A Green Paper has just come out which may be years ahead of its time

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The Independent Online

Now that our thoughts are starting to turn towards the next election, which promises to be as intriguing and hard-to-call a poll as ever was held, an interesting question presents itself: Are there any votes in Nature?

A fascinating document published last week assumes that there are.  It is a Green Paper, that is, an initial discussion, of a striking proposal: that the fact that we depend upon the natural world should be recognised in law. 

The Paper puts forward a package of measures to restore and protect nature in Britain, on the basis that our economy, our communities, and our personal quality of life are all inextricably linked to it: there should be, it says, a “Nature and Wellbeing Act”.

This is new. It is only in the past 20 years that we have begun to recognise formally our dependent links to Nature, through the concept of ecosystem services: the fact that natural systems, from mangrove swamps to rainforests, provide vital support to human society, in everything from flood defence to the production of oxygen and fresh water. We destroy them at our peril, or at least, at a colossal cost to replace them.

But the Green Paper, produced jointly by the partnership of the 47 county Wildlife Trusts and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, goes further, and attempts to politicise what is still, at the moment, a less familiar idea: that the natural world is not only at the basis of society’s health, but at the basis of the wellbeing, mental as well as physical,  of all of us, as individuals.

We might say, we sort of sense that, anyway; we know instinctively that a walk in the country is good for us. But 30 years ago, the idea suddenly emerged in a quantifiable way when an American architect who specialised in hospital design, Roger Ulrich, published a scientific paper with a title which made people everywhere sit up and take notice.  It said: “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery”.

Over nine years, Ulrich had found, patients in a Pennsylvania hospital ward made better and quicker recoveries from their operations if they had a natural view from their beds. Some windows of their ward looked out on to a group of trees, and some on to a plain brick wall; and those lucky enough to have the tree view, Ulrich discovered – the evidence was compelling – recovered faster and more completely than those looking out on the bricks.

Since then, there has been much convincing research on the fact that contact with nature – even if only visual – has an empirical, measureable effect on people’s physical and mental states. But the difficulty, it seems to me, is that this is not a perception which has yet penetrated the public consciousness. Nature is still viewed by most of us as a pleasurable luxury, rather than as an essential.

This means that when the idea of a Nature and Wellbeing Act is put forward, with an invitation to all the parties to include it in their manifestos, as it is in the current Green Paper, it will fail, for it will have – as yet – no political traction. Remember, political will is based on ordinary people’s feelings, and all politicians know in their bones that what people care about are 1) their income, 2) their health, and 3) the education of their children, in that order. Everything else follows after, nature included. So there are very few votes in nature yet.

Yet nature is an essential for our wellbeing. I personally have no doubt of that whatsoever, and I believe that the more we wreck the natural world in the century ahead, the more it will come to be recognised.

Votes for Nature will figure in elections; not next year, maybe, but the day is coming. The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB are on  the right lines in their thinking, and I congratulate them. They’re just a little ahead of their time.

The Green Paper, A Nature and Wellbeing Act, can be downloaded from the two websites, wildlifetrusts.org/actfornature, and rspb.org.uk/actfornature.

 

Come to a gathering of like-minded people

In the meantime, the annual gathering of many people, from poets to scientists, from film-makers to musicians and from painters to sculptors, not to mention the rest of us, who firmly do believe that the natural world is essential to our wellbeing – the New Networks for Nature festival in Stamford, Lincolnshire – takes place from Thursday 13 to Saturday 15 November, and there are terrific things happening, beginning with a conversation with Richard Mabey, our best-loved nature writer, on the Thursday evening.  Some tickets are still available. Check the website at newnetworksfornature.org.uk/

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