Nature: our health and economic inspiration

"We ARE nature. We live in community, not alone and any sense of separateness that we harbour is illusion."

~ Paul Hawken

Read on to understand our deep connection to nature - and how that understanding can revolutionise your business, your home and your health. 

If our civilisation is to thrive again we need a nature revolution - a massive increase in our understanding of, our relationship with and our connection to nature.

So how connected to nature are we? Many of us seem to think that the 'environment' is a thing 'out there', somewhere else.  A place we go to see on our holidays. We couldn't be further from the truth. You see, we are nature. Let's dive deep and see:

First stop is the air. All of the air on earth mixes completely within one year, which means that air from where you stand could be anywhere on the planet in a years time. So take a deep breath. Now breathe out. If you stand anywhere on the planet in a year's time you will breathe atoms from that breath back into your body. Think about that. Each breath we take contains atoms from the breath of every person who has ever lived. It follows that every breath you make will be breathed by every human being who is yet to live.  Now, imagine that air inside your body, flowing to every cell. Our lungs, flattened on the ground would be tennis court sized. There is no point where we can say the air ends and our bodies begin. We live in a matrix of air that flows in and out of every living species of plant and animal. Now, imagine one element in a breath. Every time we breath out, we breathe carbon dioxide. That CO2 goes into the leaves of every tree and plant on the planet. As David Suzuki says, we are the air. Whatever we do to the air, we do to ourselves. We need clean air to survive. 

Second stop is soil. The structure of every cell in our bodies comes from the food we eat, which comes from the living soil. Each handful of soil contains more living things than there are stars in the sky. We are what we eat. We need healthy soil to survive. 

Next stop: water. We are 60% water by weight. That water is the same water that has cycled the planet for eons, passing through dinosaurs, ice caps, underground rivers, plants, animals, cities and towns. We are, quite literally, made of water and a living part of the water cycle.  We need clean water to survive. 

Next stop: life. Our bodies are made up of 100 trillion living cells. 90% of those cells are microorganisms, fungi and bacteria. As Paul Hawken says, 90% of what makes us human is not human at all. Our bodies are a community of living things utterly dependent on each other. We need clean air, soil and water to survive.

Last stop: Energy. All the energy that our bodies' use comes from the sun, through our food via photosynthesis. Each second, inside our bodies, a septillion (that's a one with 24 zeros) cellular events take place, a number greater than the total number of stars, planets and asteroids in the known universe.  Can you imagine that? 

And speaking of stars, every atom in our bodies formed in the heat furnace of a dying star a few billion years ago. As Carl Sagan said, we are star stuff harvesting sunlight. We are solar powered.

So we are nature. There is no separation. We rely on an abundance of life to clean the air, the water and soil, the building blocks of life. 

Now let's take a selfish view and delve a bit deeper. We know that we are nature. But what benefits are there of reconnecting with nature? What do we gain from going outside and into the park? What does the research tell us?

Well, we now know that, in hospitals, patients who can see nature, even pictures of nature, have faster recovery times. We know that simply looking at images of nature makes us more positive and more emotionally stable.  We know that the presence of plants, natural light and fresh air in office buildings boosts productivity and lowers building running costs. We know that children who play in and eat dirt become more intelligent. We know that deep childhood experiences in nature lead to a greater chance of being an adult genius. We know that nature is calming and improves levels of wellbeing.  We know that the part of the brain where insight occurs is directly linked to the part that responds to the complex systems we see in nature.  We know that time spent in a forest over two consecutive days can lead to a 50 percent increase in the activity of cancer-fighting white blood cells. We know that people who live within one kilometre of a park or a wooded area experience less anxiety and depression than those who live farther away from green space. We know that gardening reduces depression.  We know that being in a natural place increases the quality of our sleep. We know that time in nature is associated with a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate and sympathetic nerve activity. We know that time spent in nature reduces stress, increases attention and increases connectivity in the brain, allowing us to focus more efficiently. We know that time in open natural space drastically reduces the symptoms of ADHD and behavioural disorders in children and that wilderness therapy has been shown to aid addiction and trauma recovery. 

So, being in nature is quite good for our health and wellbeing. But does our connection to nature go even deeper than that? David Attenborough was once asked when he developed his love of the natural world. He answered with a laugh that the question was wrong. He did not 'develop' a love of nature. He was born with it. He wondered how others are conditioned to lose that love. EO Wilson first coined the term "Biophilia", our innate love of, connection to and desire to be in nature. We evolved over millennia with deep connections to nature. In the last moment in history we have lost that connection and whether we know it or not, we need it back. 

Ok, so we are nature and we need to be in contact with nature. Fair enough. All well and good. But, "What about the economy?" I hear you say. You know, the economy we created that is divorced from, competes with and actively destroys nature? The one that is wreaking havoc with the weather, filling holes in the ground with our chucked out stuff, polluting our rivers and soil with toxins, destroying forests, filling oceans with plastic, depleting topsoil and losing species of life at a rate not seen before in history? The damage is so bad that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that the ability of the earth to sustain future generations of humans can no longer be guaranteed. Every living system is in decline. A third of all assessed species of life are now listed as threatened. Is all this the economy's fault?

Let's think for a moment about what nature does for our economy for free, whilst the economy tears nature apart.  Forests clean water for free. Bees pollinate and therefore feed us for free. 25% of our medicines come from nature. Forests contain disease - when they are cut down, surrounding human villages become more exposed.  In fact, a  1997 study valued the economic services that nature provides for free at three times the size of the global economy. The figure, whilst economically impressive, is a nonsense, of course. Without these services, we would have no economy. Clean air, soil, water and pollination are not exactly services we could do without. 

The economy needs to come home. The first step is to rule out Mars. Can we just do that now? Let's just assume that we decide to stay here on Earth.  So, can we create a different kind of economy?  Are there great economic possibilities for a nature inspired and nature restoring economy?  

It turns out, that with a bit of humility and an eye for design, we could learn quite a bit from nature. We know that nature has developed better sonar than we can, in bats, dolphins and other creatures. We know that mother of pearl self-assembles in the ocean and is three times stronger than our ceramics. That spider silk is stronger than steel. That some beetles can pull water from the air and survive in the desert. We know that mangroves remove salt from water without the need for masses of power. That butterflies get colour from shape, not pigments. That nothing sticks to a lotus leaf because of its nano-rough structure. That some sharks have a similar nano structure to their skin and no bacteria can attach. That a swallow can fly over an ocean with no fuel.  That muscles adhere to rock underwater like no glue we have created. That a million locusts can swarm together with no collisions. That ants and bees create incredibly efficient transport routes and communication lines. That termite mounds maintain a constant 20 degree temperature without electricity. 

Nature is a treasure trove of design success. As Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry points out, there is 3.8 billion years of design success in nature. Bad designs are extinct.  And all of these amazing species found in nature are doing the amazing things that they do whilst looking after the place that will look after their offspring. As Janine says, life creates the conditions conducive to life.  Could we not have an economy that works like that? If it's good for life, we do it.

So, what principles can we build a new economy upon that will enable us to stay here forever?  What principles does nature use? The Biomimicry folks have suggested these:

  • Evolve to Survive
  • Adapt to Changing Conditions
  • Be Locally Attuned and Responsive
  • Use Life Friendly Chemistry
  • Be Resource Efficient (materials and energy) 
  • Integrate Development with Growth

So, can our businesses or homes follow these principles? Well, what do you think? It's what the rest of life on earth does ...

Finally, I offer these two lines of thought, borrowed from the Sustainability Street Approach:

Go outside more often. Be in nature. Find a special spot and keep going back. Put plants inside. Plant a native garden. Watch the sunrise. Reconnect! It's good for your mind, your body and spirit.

Make the EnviroLinks: Connect your way of life and the natural world. The types and amounts of energy, water, waste and fuel that we consume at home and at work are impacting on nature's ability to sustain life. Do everything you can to reduce your impact.  The crazy thing is that reducing water, waste, power and fuel all save money. The amazing thing is that with a bit of thinking, learning, planning and action, a 50-90 percent reduction in water, waste, power and fuel is very doable. 

So, are you ready for the nature revolution? Whatever you do, you're doing it to yourself.