In Reconnection: Fixing Our Broken Relationship with Nature, Miles Richardson charts the causes of nature decline in the UK and convincingly argues that a re-evaluation and a reset of this relationship will help give nature a chance.
The tragedy of disconnection
Miles Richardson is professor of human factors and nature connectedness at the University of Derby and has gained recognition for creating the ‘biodiversity stripes’ – a visual which highlights and emphasises the dramatic decline of biodiversity that has been witnessed in recent decades.
Richardson begins this book with the logical position of querying that if the relationship with nature now is patently broken, then at what stage did that occur. He starts with familiar ground for many, who spent their childhoods outside:
“We spent plenty of time outdoors, but did we have a close relationship with nature? Looking back, I don’t think so. Nature was the setting.”
He argues that there is an intrinsic element to modern-day life that has widened the gulf between humans and that a reconnection is vital for both parties in the relationship.
“There’s something about our modern lives that keeps us apart from nature. There is a real need for reconnection.”
Richardson then moves into a snapshot of the present picture of nature, especially in the UK, with a range of statistics that are meant to be paused over, but sadly fail to connect with the public.
“69% of animals have been lost since 1970 and that humanity has overseen the loss of 83% of mammals.”
“Over two-thirds of the animal population has been wiped away in fifty years.”
An unnatural detachment
These facts and knowledge do not seem to be helping with any breakthrough, widespread alarm over the human-nature relationship and Richardson argues that this is, in part, owing to the lack of an emotional attachment to nature. He states that, “The stark reality is that the UK has one of the worst records for biodiversity in the world”. And follows that up with the engaging rhetorical starting point of, “Why is there a seemingly deep desire for nature yet little care for it?”
Richardson then closes his opening by suggesting that the relationship with nature was lost, when the perception of humanity as the dominant species became prevalent. When nature was viewed as a commodity by humans, this led to the unequal balance.
“The global destruction of habitats and wildlife, together with the climate emergency, show that the human-nature relationship is broken. Nature is used and controlled by humans.”
Humans became the overlords of nature
Richardson artfully charts the philosophical and linguistic narratives that have forged this disconnect from nature, especially in Western Europe, where nature is now viewed as the ‘other’ – something not to be valued as having intrinsic value for its own sake, but to be stripped of resources and plundered for the benefit of the human species.
He traces the rise of dominant ‘self’ philosophies and individualism, from Descartes and Bacon, suggesting that their viewpoint of human dominance over nature was pivotal in promoting scientific investigation of nature, which placed a bias in the favour of the observer over the observed.
“Descartes wrote of science allowing humans to be masters and possessors of nature. Francis Bacon set a similar tone for scientific investigation, asserting that humans have power, command, dominion and rights over nature by divine request.”
Richardson’s focus is that this growing unequal balance in the relationship, exacerbated by the spread of empire and conquest, created the divergence of understanding of humanity’s place in the world.
“The reality is that humanity exists embedded within nature.”
He supports this viewpoint by emphasising that nature is not a static object to be dissected and resourced, but rather life that needs to be recognised as equal. Nature itself is not defined in this book and I found this to be helpful, as the subjective identification and answer to ‘What is nature?’ can change dramatically depending on the audience of the question. Richardson contends that the relationship with whatever we understand nature to be is of more value than a narrow definition.
“Relationships matter. Nature is embedded, interdependent and dynamic.”
These inherent questions of what is nature; how do we know when we are in nature; how do we value nature, and what do we value it for, resonate throughout the book. Richardson argues that as soon as nature is seen as separate and as the background setting to be used only when beneficial for humans, then our actions will continue to negatively impact nature.
“If everyday speech and metaphors suggest that nature is an other, separate from humans, a resource to be controlled and exploited, this will inform our viewpoint and actions.”
It is a strong argument that when “Humans celebrated their greatness and became addicted to individualism. Nature was diminished”.Although nature was celebrated by artists and writers, the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the driving forces of capitalism and consumption, overwhelmed and dominated the language and narrative.
“Wordsworth saw how the emerging modern age disconnected people from nature, people who then became egocentric. We celebrate the poets that resisted this vision of industrialisation, but their defeat is a story not often told.”
Time in nature
Despite this rise in technology and the growing distance with nature, including on a linguistic level – with words for nature dropping out of modern-day dictionaries, particularly ones for children, our cultural understanding of nature is one that can be regained. Richardson notes the cultural ‘othering’ and fear of nature that has its echoes in fairy tales and monsters. He balances this with the present modern fears of natural disasters and wildlife to suggest that:
“The power of negative cultural associations can also impact the positive emotions brought by interactions with the natural world.”
In saying this however, he contrasts this view by examining the medical evidence to support the beneficial impacts of nature for humans.
“Although many may feel disconnected from nature or not even think about it, research shows that humans are deeply embedded and interconnected with the rest of the natural world.”
Richardson cautiously welcomes the rise of prescriptions for connections with nature and supports this with the Edinburgh prescription pilot for nature.“In the pilot, five GP practices prescribed nature to 350 patients, and the results revealed that 91% of prescribers would continue to prescribe it, and 87% of patients would continue to use nature for wellbeing.”He is at pains though to acknowledge that ‘using’ nature simply for wellbeing is another form of exploitation. He states bluntly that,“If we do need a dose of nature, we need it like we need a dose of air”.A connection to nature should therefore happen when humans also feel healthy, as well as when under prescription.
“Nature’s story is one of relationships. Nature should not have a ‘part-time role’ in our wellbeing.”
Nature wellbeing is about moments, not minutes
Richardson is also at pains to clarify that although time in nature can be a useful starting point, it is not the quantity of time that is the key component in building relationships, but in how that time is spent.
“Yet time in nature may not involve active engagement with it. What matters is how that time is spent.”
Repeatedly, Richardson draws the comparisons with human relationships and connections and argues that relationships are difficult, but that the real world is all about building relationships. He draws on scientific research about neighbourhoods and communities with access to nature and those lacking access and concluded that “Presence of green space did not equate to use of green space”.
This part of the book was interesting, as potentially this was ‘the quick-fix’ to build the human-nature relationship back up again. To make the human comparison again, simply having access to someone else may not mean that the relationship is a strong one, where both parties are understood and valued. Richardson argues that:
“Bluntly, improving access isn’t fundamental to addressing climate warming and biodiversity loss; it can form a part of a new relationship with nature, but does not get to the root of the issue.”
The element of understanding nature, rather than simply using nature as the setting and backdrop for a different activity, was one carefully drawn out by Richardson.
“Where science is about understanding nature, connection is nature better understood. This subtle distinction is important.”
He challenges his readers into stopping and pausing within nature, not ‘to do’, but ‘to be’. To notice the details and to listen. He promotes the view that“Nature always has a story to tell”and concludes that for the relationship to work, humans need to listen better.
How to create nature positive societies
Richardson poses the challenging question in the book, “Can humans ever truly live in harmony with the rest of nature?” and acknowledges that, “Transformational societal change for a close relationship with nature is a challenge of the highest order”. He answers both of these issues in the same way – that we simply have to try – as what we have been doing up to this point has only driven the wedge deeper at great cost. He states that:
“The climate and biodiversity crises cannot be solved without addressing the causal issue: how people relate to the wider natural world.”
He concludes by highlighting the problem of the shifting baseline syndrome that creates the perception that the decline of nature is not really as severe as the objective stance demonstrates. He laments that “A vibrant natural world has been lost … A lost right most don’t know they should have, which is why they settle for less”. Richardson highlights that this has not been an accidental loss of nature, but rather one that has been done by design for human gratification.
“Loss is normal, but this is not loss; they are not missing or misplaced. They have been decimated and taken from us, by us.”
To transform this horrific decline in nature and biodiversity, Richardson argues that several steps should be taken and that these could be amplified by powerful feedback cycles.
“Realising we are part of nature and living that reality through seeking a closer relationship with it would lead to change.”
He argues that when“people take actions to create visible biodiversity, it boosts noticing nature which brings people closer to nature, which motivates actions for biodiversity”. I enjoyed his cautious approach in describing this future relationship, as the intention and motive of those wishing to change the relationship needed to be part of the discussion.
“When presented with a vision for the future, it is perhaps wise to ask whose worldview we are looking at and what intentions lie behind it.”
Reconnection to our own humanity
As humans, we once told stories about our place in the world. We can become better storytellers, by changing our language to one of nature connectedness, which emphasises the reality of our place within nature, rather than human dominance. As Richardson clearly argues:
“Reconnection is simply about being a human within the rest of nature.”
It is time to celebrate the meaning and joy of nature once again and to build a lifelong connection with nature, before we lose a central understanding of what is to be a human after all.