Science tells us that spending time in nature is inherently good for us. But what if so much of our work is online? How could we bring nature into the digital space?
Imagine a world where nature is everywhere - not just outside but also in the digital realms we inhabit… a world in which we’ve reconciled the benefits of technology with our inherent belonging to and physiological need for nature…
The father of western medicine, Hippocrates, once said: “Nature itself is the best physician”.
That much has always been true. Yet it’s taken a couple of millenia for this idea to weave its way into mainstream scientific thinking and our modern cultures, more generally.
In the last few decades, scientists have been gathering evidence to empirically prove a simple but long-overlooked truth: that being in nature is inherently good for our health and wellbeing.
From relieving stress and regulating blood pressure, to helping our nervous systems shift from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”, the benefits are countless. It’s also been shown to improve our moods, our ability to focus and even make us kinder and more compassionate. And that’s only what we’ve discovered so far. The healing properties of nature are only just beginning to be unravelled and understood…
Scientists have given us theories to explain why nature is good for us. One of them, E.O. Wilson’s biophilia, says that because humans evolved in nature, we have a biological need to connect with it. In other words, our affinity with nature is hard-wired into our DNA and our health fundamentally depends on it.
When you think about it, it feels like common sense. If we accept that we are nature, then it follows that we need nature to be happy and healthy, right?
But we don’t need science to tell us that. Anyone who’s lucky enough to have spent time in a forest, by the sea or simply in their garden recently, will almost certainly remember feeling healthy, in some way or another.
But what about those who aren’t lucky enough?
Access to natural spaces sadly remains a privilege for many people, at least in industrialised parts of the world. With so many of us living in cities (most humans now do), and with so much of our work keeping us on computers and online, time in nature is either infrequent or completely non-existent.
At AimHi Earth, we’re doing something small to remedy that; through nature-centric digital education which can reach huge numbers of people, regardless of whether they’re in a city apartment or out in the sticks.
Our live and online training helps people to understand that nature is really at the heart of most - if not all - of the intersecting crises we face as societies today. And that, if we’re to survive as a species, we all need to grasp this.
But recently, we’ve gone a step further…
We’ve brought “nature” into the digital world in which we operate. Using Zoom’s easy-to-use audio-share feature, our team calls are now infused with the sounds of the dawn chorus and the gentle lapping of waves. And we’ve even begun weaving them into the background of our live sessions for organisations and the public too.
In many ways, this helps to resolve the paradox inherent in what we do: encouraging people to reconnect with nature, through the very technology which - in the way many of us use it - can disconnect us from the living world in the first place.
But more technology doesn’t have to mean less nature.
In the words of Alex Smalley, who led the study:
"We're saying that watching nature on TV or on your computer isn't just a poor surrogate for the real thing, actually it can be a therapeutic experience in its own right”
As part of the experiment, the BBC launched a platform called Soundscapes for Wellbeing, giving people everywhere access to a digital database of 17,000 nature sounds.
These kinds of initiatives are b(l)ooming. Earth.fm - who describe themselves as “an online experiment that seeks to protect and regenerate natural ecosystems while reconnecting us to nature” - have created a stunning open-source collection of nature soundscapes from across the world.
Others are harnessing the same logic of engaging our senses - in this case through music - to viscerally engage us with nature. The result? A redacted version of a famous piece of classical music, with gradually “disappearing” notes, mirroring the plight of Humpback Whales.
Projects like this are proof of a growing recognition that we need nature to live healthy, fulfilling lives. Even if that nature comes to us through our computers or smartphones. And this is a big deal, because it enables those of us who don’t have the means to access “live” nature, to connect with it and benefit from its healing qualities.
In this sense, more technology can actually, in some sense, mean more connection with nature.
Nonetheless, there’s no question that every human being should have the right to enjoy direct, experiential connection with nature. To get there, our efforts as a society should also focus on increasing the availability of, and access, to wild spaces - from integrating nature into urban planning, to rewilding large swathes of the planet.
That’s why, on top of our nature-centric digital learning programmes for organisations, we’ve begun working with our partners to offer in-person nature immersion experiences. From pointing professionals to team-building experiences such as Ecosystem Restoration Camps and Forest Bathing walks, to partnering with experts offering bushcraft and wilderness workshops, such as Thrive Bushcraft in Dartmoor National Park.
The rationale for doing this is partly based on the notion that knowledge and understanding are only a part of the solution. Our real, lived experience of nature is critical for moving us to action and playing our part in creating the healthy, prosperous future we all deserve.
In its most basic sense, this is because the more we feel as though we are just another part of nature, the more likely we are to factor nature into our decisions and actions. As the explorer Jacques Cousteau once said :
“People will only protect what they love”
This is a simple but powerful idea. The more we’re exposed to nature - be it through a screen or out in the forest - the more likely we will be to want to take care of it, for ourselves, and for future generations.
We can each play a part in bringing about a world where nature is everywhere - including in the digital space - starting where we feel most able. Even if that means simply playing some background nature sounds in the next team meeting, sharing something about the health benefits of being exposed to the sights and sounds of nature with friends and family, or just encouraging those around us (and ourselves!) to spend time in nature.
A walk in a city park or tending to the plants on our balcony are simple but powerful acts, brimming with possibilities and benefits we are only just beginning to understand…
Want to talk about what’s in this blog, but don’t know where to start? Try these conversation starters.
For someone more conservatively minded:
We all know there’s nothing like a good walk in the countryside or a stroll along the beach to rest and recharge. There’s also now plenty of hard science showing that spending time in nature is good for our health. And what’s more, it’s almost always free. It also turns out that being exposed to nature through our laptops and smartphones can be really beneficial for us too. And at work, simply infusing some nature sounds into team calls or in the background at your workplace, is an easy and inexpensive way to improve employee wellbeing, your team’s ability to focus and to be more creative.
For someone more liberally minded:
Many of us can vouch for the benefits of spending time in nature; from simply feeling relaxed and calm to improving our moods and our ability to focus. Yet there are far too many people who simply don’t have the opportunity to experience nature first-hand. This has to change, from integrating nature into urban environments to rewilding the planet. But we can also help bring nature to many more people, through technology. Listening to the sounds of birdsong or watching a video of lapping waves on our laptops or smartphones have proven benefits for physical and mental health and wellbeing. It’s a really easy way to infuse the sights and sounds of nature into your daily life, at home and at work.
For someone with climate anxiety:
Spending time in nature has countless benefits for our physical health, but it can also be an antidote to the anxiety, stress and grief we feel about the climate and nature emergency. Sitting up against a tree or tending to some plants in a garden is a simple but powerfully healing way to feel better in ourselves and about the planet, reminding us of the abundance and the beauty of nature. And if you can’t get out into nature regularly or at all, using technology to infuse the sights and sounds of nature into your daily life is an easy way to bring nature to you, and to benefit from its healing qualities.