From the romantic poets to the global reach of Sir David Attenborough, Britain has a reputation for being a nation of nature lovers.
But the inhabitants of this supposedly green and pleasant country rank last out of 14 European nations in terms of their “closeness to nature”, according to a new study.
Closeness to nature is a psychological concept that measures the closeness of an individual’s relationship with other species and the wild world. Studies have shown that people with a high connection to nature enjoy better mental health and are more likely to act in an environmentally responsible manner.
The study, published in the journal Ambio, examines which nationwide factors influence the level of individuals’ connection to nature and finds the strongest association between biodiversity and connection to nature, with people in countries with still intact wildlife species and landscapes having a closer connection to nature.
The UK bottoms out of the 14 nations in terms of biodiversity, having lost more wildlife than any other G7 country and proving to be one of the most naturally degraded countries on earth.
Another nationwide factor in connection with nature was the average age of the population, with older people tending to have closer relationships with nature – possibly because there was more to their childhood or they had more freedom to enjoy it.
While a high proportion of city dwellers does not necessarily imply a weaker connection to nature, higher median income and smartphone ownership were more significant negative influences on nature connection. Countries with high smartphone ownership were strongly associated with a more distant relationship to nature.
Another study found that people who take a lot of selfies are less connected to nature. The latest study also supports previous research showing that new technologies have been more important than urbanization in the decline of natural words in cultural products since the 1950s.
Prof Miles Richardson from the University of Derby, the lead author, said: “We are a nation of nature lovers, we appreciate our poets, we celebrate our landscape artists and we love our nature documentaries – there is this perception that we are a nation of nature lovers, but it hurts to be told that this data strongly suggests that is not the case.”
He said it was too easy to conclude that smartphones were a cause of the loss of connection to nature, but it was part of a spiral of decline in the UK.
“If you’ve lost your biodiversity, you’ve missed your opportunity to engage with it,” he said. “At the same time, you have these new ways of engaging with smartphones or whatever the latest technology is. It’s difficult to draw a causal conclusion, but it’s probably a spiral of decline — biodiversity is going down, the relationship with nature is going down, and biodiversity keeps going down.”
Analyzing data from 14,745 adults across European countries, including Germany, Spain, France and Italy, the researchers found that Brits have the lowest attachment to nature, a ranking of 3.71 out of a possible 7. Italy has the highest connection to nature with a ranking of 4.67.
Other high-ranking nations are in southern or central Europe, such as Portugal, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, while northern European nations showed the lowest affinity for nature, with Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Ireland bottoming out five above the United Kingdom .
According to Richardson, measuring “connectedness to nature” could become a useful tool in addressing the biodiversity crisis because the concept does not capture the dominant Western view of humans and nature as separate, but rather as a relationship – as many pre-industrial societies and Eastern philosophies have done.
“Although we can’t reduce our relationship with nature to a number, the world works with numbers, and sometimes we need to put numbers in front of someone and convince them that something needs to be done,” Richardson said. “It is a measure of a health – a simple measure of the health of man and nature.
“We’re trying to restore natural habitats, but habitat and biodiversity loss is a symptom of a failed relationship with nature, and now people see that relationship as a major cause of nature’s decline. [The concept of nature connection] also has a lot to offer for mental health. When we have one goal to create dual benefits for humans and the rest of nature, that seems like a wonderful thing.”
Richardson calls on the UN to adopt the concept of connectedness with nature as a sustainable goal, with his 17 Sustainable Development Goals currently focusing on either human or nature concerns. “We rarely focus on the interface, on the relationship,” he said. “Sometimes we’re so disconnected that we don’t see the relationship as something tangible at all.”