Soga & Gaston. 2020. The ecology of human–nature interactions. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 287: 20191882. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.1882
I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it hard to relate in a relaxed way at the moment to anything connected to human society. The sheer enormity of the uncertainty attached to futures near and far during this period of global crisis means that all life-planning, at scales big and small, has a tinge of anxiety and surrealism attached to it. But one of the few small reliefs for me is that the escalation of the crisis is coinciding with what is arguably the most beautiful time of the season here in southern Sweden. Spring has well and truly sprung, as evidenced by the birds warbling incessantly from the tree tops, and the insects that are yawning and stretching and trying to come alive, 9-to-5-style. Last week the beech trees in the park outside my home office window opened up in a glorious display of near-fluorescent green; walking through that park these days will give you an urban crash-course in the hyped Japanese concept of ‘forest bathing’.
But why am I rambling romantically about the perks of the springtime land- and soundscape? Is spring not a glorious time even in non-coronavirus years? Well, of course, but it’s at times of crisis – be it personal or global – that my “escape to nature” drive tends to be at its fiercest. Because nature doesn’t care, and nature will continue to move, irrespective of our human concerns. And this, I believe, is one of the core factors in the well-known therapeutic quality of our relationship with nature, often highlighted as a key component in the collective, global well-being of humans. But our circumstances for relating to nature in a positive or – for us – beneficial way is highly dependent on where in the world, and where on the socioeconomic spectrum, we are.
A five-dimensional road map
In a recent paper, Masashi Soga and Kevin J. Gaston have outlined what they call a road-map for researchers that want to understand more about how humans around the world relate to nature. They define the human-nature relationship as “when a person is present in the same physical space as nature or directly perceives a stimulus from nature”, and classify the existing types of human-nature interactions along five key dimensions:
- immediateness (how physically close are we to nature?)
- consciousness (how aware are we that we’re close?)
- intentionality (how deliberate is the interaction from the human’s side?)
- degree of human mediation (how involved have humans been at the site of interaction?), and
- direction of outcomes (positive or negative, and from whose perspective?).
These five dimensions are related with one another in many ways. For example, intentional interactions are more likely to be both conscious and positive. But until now, studies into human-nature interactions have tended to focus on only one type of interaction, which disregards that most interactions occur simultaneously with others, rather than in isolation. An example of this is a visit to an urban green space: during the visit you can experience several very different interactions, like enjoying the sight of wildflowers, and the sound of bird song, being harrassed by hungry geese, or giving food to birds and squirrels. Soga and Gaston note that understanding how a mixture of these types of interactions influence the outcome of the full “interactive experience” is a key research area moving forward.
Human-animal interactions in space and time
Human-nature interactions vary spatially, as availability and accessibility of nature can look hugely different at different local, regional, and global scales. The interactions also depend on the distribution of humans themselves. Given that a majority of the world’s population resides in urban areas, most people experience most or all of their human-nature interactions in cities or towns, and cities around the world vary enormously in their proportion of green or “wild” spaces. Importantly, the spatial variation in human-nature interactions – especially at large scales – depends on cultural, religious and socio-economic differences in the likelihood of people engaging with nature, and their attitude towards it. Bird-feeding in gardens is one interesting example. While an extremely popular activity in Western countries such as the UK, the US and my native Sweden, the activity is widely discouraged in Australia, and essentially unheard of in much of Africa and Asia.
Human-nature interactions also vary in time, with hourly to daily and seasonal to annual variations. Again, the authors give a bird example: barring the most die-hard birdwatchers, a majority of humans tend to interact mainly with a small subset of local birds, since many species are active earlier in the day than most humans are. The same goes for our interactions with local mammals, as most mammals are active at night.
The extinction of experience
There is some cause for concern in the form of an apparent global increase of certain negative human-nature interactions, such as snake bites, shark bites and large carnivore attacks. Pinpointing the exact cause of this increase is difficult, but it could be due to for example human population increases, increasing tourism numbers to previously remote and undisturbed places, and people behaving inappropriately towards wild animals.
Equally concerning is an overall decrease in positive interactions. This is rather poetically – and hauntingly – referred to as “the extinction of experience”, which denotes the fact that regular interactions between humans and nature have continuously declined in recent history. This trend is most evident in developed countries, and is thought to be caused by the combination of lost opportunities to interact with nature – for example because of urbanization and overall loss of biodiversity – and lost inclinations among humans to actively engage with nature. Understanding how these two factors act together to drive the “extinction of experience” is crucial for developing policies and strategies that can counteract this abstract yet very real extinction process.
Unsurprising, but very important, is the role of socioeconomic dynamics in determining human-nature interactions. Socioeconomically advantaged groups more commonly tend to experience positive interactions with nature. Bird-watching in your own garden and enjoying the view of trees in the street outside your window are just two examples of experiences that are largely reserved for those privileged enough to live in greener neighbourhoods, or having homes close to parks and woodlands. In less developed countries, it’s the people that come from disadvantaged backgrounds that tend to more often have negative interactions, such as bites and stings from wild animals.
It will be a major challenge for both scientists and policymakers to find ways for maximizing the positive outcomes and minimizing negative consequences of human-nature interactions, both for us humans and for the parts of nature we encounter. Understanding how we can achieve this requires collaboration among many different research disciplines – many of which are historically poorly connected. The road-map provided by Soga and Gaston will be valuable in facilitating such transdisciplinary interactions.
Now, having concluded this little venture through the relationships that we humans share with our natural surroundings (sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly, and sometimes obliviously), I’ll be shutting down my screen and getting back out there to warble along with the birds and find comfort in the great natural wheel as it keeps on turning. Because, as I’m well aware, I’m one of the privileged ones, with gardens and parks around me and trees outside the window; the experiences are right there for the picking, and all I have to do is engage.