There have been countless studies in recent years that have showed the benefits that nature can have on our health and happiness. Research abounds on the positive effects of getting back to nature. Findings suggest people with a stronger connection to nature experienced more life satisfaction overall. It has even illustrated positive effects in other seemingly unconnected areas of daily life, like personal finances.
But how intertwined is our health with the health of the planet? While hiking and bird-watching might have obvious and easily measurable benefits, the relationship between human health and longevity and the natural world goes far deeper than brief interaction. The ongoing consequences of humanity’s dominance and disregard of the planet’s health is having serious effects on the public health of the species and already estimated to cause over 25% of death and disease, worldwide.
According to the World Health Organization these range from air pollution, toxic chemical exposures, degraded urban environments, poor water quality and of course, climate change. In fact, according to the Lancet countdown on health and climate change the human symptoms of climate change are already affecting the health of populations in low and middle income countries.
Rising temperatures over the last two decades have exposed 125 million adults over 65 to heatwaves, resulting in health problems raising from heat stroke to increased risk of kidney injury and exacerbation of pre-existing heart conditions.
Thanks to the warmer climate the transmission rate of mosquito-borne diseases, like dengue fever, have also increased. Experts have warned that as temperatures rise, mosquito-borne diseases will become a problem in new areas, resulting in severe outbreaks in areas where people were previously unexposed and whose immune systems are less capable of fighting off infection.
Undernutrition is worsened by the effects of climate change. Even a rise of only 1˚C can have disastrous consequences for crops like wheat and rice, with yields declining by 6 percent globally. Research from the International Food Policy Research Institute predicts that within the next 40 years, the average person will have 3.2 percent less food available to them, consuming about four percent less fruits and vegetables, and 0.7 percent less red meat. Consequences will be felt in both high and low-income countries with regions in the Western Pacific and Eastern Mediterranean affected the most.
There’s also evidence that global warming and the continuing decline of the environment are responsible for the rash of extreme weather we’re experiencing. Weather-related disasters such as floods and sever storms have increased by 46 percent since the year 2000. The destructive effects these have on habitable urban environments exposes people to increased risks of disease outbreaks, as well as physical injury and mental health issues.
And what about the effects of ‘getting back to nature’? Environmental tourism wreaks its own special havoc on the globe. The impact of the yearly influx of tourists into the great outdoors is serious. So serious, it’s prompted iconic locations like Zion National Park and Arches National Park to consider imposing limits on the number of visitors per year. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, already subjected to bleaching thanks to rising water temperatures, has also felt the sting of the industry. Damage to the reef’s structure occurs regularly thanks to commercial boat operators dropping anchor onto the reef bed, or tourists breaking off chunks of coral to keep as souvenirs.
While the harmful effects all these environmental problems have on our health is confronting, there is some good news for those of us who want to try and make a difference. Science has shown that those who begin making even small lifestyle changes or engaging in more sustainable environmental habits are happier and healthier overall.
Obviously reducing red meat intake and adding more vegetables and plant-based foods to your diet will help lower chances of health risks like heart disease and diabetes. There are more reasons to choose eco friendly options too.
Opting to ‘go green’ can help improve a person’s mental health and life satisfaction. Making active contributions towards the community can help instil a sense of worth and help those who suffer from depression or anxiety find ways to reconnect with others. There’s also a net-benefit to be had when you set small environmentally friendly goals for yourself and meet them.
According to psychologists, taking small actions to help the environment could make you feel good, literally. Study participants reported a ‘warm-glow’ that boosted their overall mood whenever they performed simple environmentally friendly actions, like taking a shorter shower, or buying locally grown produce. Recycling is one of the easiest ways that every single person and business can reduce their impact on the environment.
The negative impacts of humanity’s pollution and destruction of the natural world are well recorded, and so are their effects on our well-being. There is a complex relationship between our health and the environment. Choosing to start saving the planet might just be the healthiest life choice that any of us can make.