It is almost de rigueur in some metropolitan circles to yearn for a simpler life in the country. And even those whose ambitions do not stretch to pressing olives or breeding pigs hotfoot it to the mountains or seaside at every opportunity. When the stresses of everyday life get too much, we take a walk in the park or have an hour in the garden. Science has long recognised this instinctive attraction to nature. Now, an emerging branch of psychology suggests it may be fundamental to our health and wellbeing - and to the future of the planet.
Ecopsychology is grounded in the idea that our innate craving for contact with nature is the result of millions of years of evolution in a natural environment. The problem, ecopsychologists argue, is that industrialisation and urbanisation have tossed those instincts aside. Our detachment from nature lies behind a host of modern psychological, emotional and physical problems, as well as our blasé attitude towards environmental change. Personal and planetary wellbeing, they say, feed into one another.
It may sound romantic and New Age, but the theory is gaining scientific credibility. In evolutionary terms, we are stalled in prehistory. And just as our bodies are unable to adapt to a permanent surplus of calories and the invention of the automobile, so our minds are unable to acclimatise to the peculiar stresses of high-density urban living. We are, deep down, creatures of the countryside, even if most of us see less of it than ever before.
"The priorities of life and survival are very different today," says Sue Wright, an orthodox psychologist and founder of www.psychologyonline.co.uk. "In the past the environment was obviously a part of survival and was respected. Survival depended on being close to nature. Now, most of us don't acknowledge the part played by the environment in our lives."
And, ecopsychologists say, we are suffering for it. As our environment deteriorates, so does our psychological, social and emotional wellbeing. It's an argument that might seem a bit, well, Californian, but appears to be confirmed by a number of studies that have reversed the process and shown that a host of problems can be effectively treated by exposure to nature.
Research in Chicago, for instance, found that residents of a housing project who lived near trees were more sociable, less fearful of crime and happier about where they lived than those who didn't. They also suffered less domestic violence. "Without vegetation, people are different beings," said Francis Kuo, one of the researchers.
Other studies have shown that patients with a view of nature stayed in hospital for less time and needed less medication than those who looked out on to brick walls. A study by the University of Essex found that rural views significantly reduced blood pressure. Sending bad kids to boot camp - as seen on TV - is just an extreme example of wilderness therapy, the idea that troubled souls can be soothed with the help of the great outdoors.
But many experts believe that contact with nature is good for us all, whether we have obvious physical or psychological problems or not. Escaping the suburban sprawl - either outright, through a weekend's camping, or more locally, through a well-planted window box - could soon be as basic a piece of preventative medical advice as eating fruit and vegetables.
Proponents of "green exercise", for example, believe that the healing power of nature can be harnessed by simply getting out in it and doing something. And they mean anything - from gardening, fishing and walking to mountain climbing, conservation and canal-boating. The benefits to physical fitness are obvious in many of these activities, but a study into green exercise by the University of Essex concluded that they are far from the only ones. "The evidence indicates that nature can help us recover from pre-existing stresses or problems, have an 'immunising' effect by protecting us from future stresses, and help us to concentrate and think more clearly," it states.
In fact, the study - of 10 different green exercise activities - found that it improved self-esteem and reduced feelings of depression. There are other reasons to head to the local park rather than the gym. Exercising outdoors can burn 30 per cent more calories than its indoor equivalent, as our muscles are worked harder by undulating terrain and changes in temperature and wind direction. Park joggers experience a hit of Vitamin D from sunlight that their gym-based counterparts miss. And on top of all that, of course, it's free.
According to Julie Proctor, chief officer of Greenspace Scotland, green exercise is far more inclusive than any gym. "Green exercise schemes offer a real alternative to those of us who are not turned on by donning Lycra," she says. "Not only are they cheaper to maintain [than a gym], they also attract more visitors, and from a wider cross-section of society."
A network of "green gyms" has sprung up across the country in the last few years. By encouraging us to burn calories by working (out) on conservation projects, they also create small-scale examples of the virtuous circle envisaged by many ecopsychologists: simply, that those who reconnect with nature want to protect it.
A growing band of ecotherapists is also attempting to apply the theories of ecopsychology to everyday life, and by doing so create a new kind of environmentalism. "In the past, environmental action has consisted of shaming those who don't recycle, which proved to be ineffective," says Graham Game, who runs Britain's oldest ecotherapy workshop. "Ecopsychology attempts to create positive motivations derived from love and loyalty to nature."
One of the ways to create those motivations, he says, is to show just what nature can do for us. Game uses outdoor activities incorporating ecology, spirituality and psychology to help people reconnect with their surroundings. Others include animal and horticultural therapy, which are as hands-on as they sound, and more esoteric treatments, such as dream therapy and spiritual healing. And though digging the allotment, walking in the park and analysing our collective dreams might sound like very different activities, ecopsychologists believe they can all foster a sympathy for the environment that most modern life precludes. Because, as John Scull, a psychologist and founder member of the International Community for Ecopsychology (ICE) puts it: "People will work to protect something they love... As we spend time in natural areas we come to understand that we are not outside nature. We have a civic duty to protect the more-than-human community, just as most of us try to be good citizens of the human community."
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