The many ways nature nurtures human well-being
A systematic review of 301 academic papers on “cultural ecosystem services” has enabled researchers to identify how these non-material contributions of nature relate to and significantly impact human well-being. They identified 227 unique pathways through which human interaction with nature positively or negatively affects well-being. These were then used to isolate 16 different underlying mechanisms, or types of connections, through which people experience these effects. This comprehensive overview brings together observations from a fragmented field of research, which can be of great benefit to policy makers who want to help society through careful use and protection of nature’s intangible benefits.
Do you ever need a little fresh air to recharge yourself, or spend time in the garden relaxing? Aside from clean water, food and useful resources, nature offers many other benefits that we may overlook or find difficult to grasp and quantify. Research into cultural ecosystem services (CESs), the non-material benefits we receive from nature, aims to better understand these contributions, whether they arise through recreation and social experiences, or the spiritual value of nature and us. sense of place.
Hundreds of CES studies have explored the links between nature and human well-being. However, they have often used different methods and measures, or focused on different demographics and places. This fragmentation makes it difficult to identify overarching patterns or similarities about how these intangible contributions actually affect human well-being. A better understanding of them could help make decisions about the environment, which could benefit both individuals and society as a whole.
To try and get the big picture, graduate student Lam Huynh of the Graduate Program in Sustainability Science at the University of Tokyo and team conducted a systematic literature search of 301 academic papers. After a critical reading, they were able to identify hundreds of links. “We identified 227 unique links between a single CES (such as recreation or aesthetic value) and a single component of human well-being (such as belonging, spirituality or health). We knew there were many links, but we were surprised to see so many to be found,” said Huynh. “Then, through further critical reading, we could identify key similarities.”
In particular, they identified 16 different underlying mechanisms, or types of connections, that refer to the different ways people’s interaction with nature affects their well-being. For example, there can be positive interactions via “coherent”, “creative” and “formative” mechanisms, as well as negative interactions via “irritating” and “destructive” mechanisms. Previous studies had identified some of these mechanisms, but 10 had been newly defined, including the more negative effects, clearly showing that our well-being is linked to the intangible aspects of nature in many more ways than previously thought.
According to the paper, the negative contributions to human well-being came mainly from the degradation or loss of CESs, and from poor ecosystem services, such as annoyance at natural noise, which can particularly affect the mental health of some people. On the other hand, the largest positive contributions of CESs were to both mental and physical health, which were mainly generated by recreation, tourism and aesthetic value.
“It is particularly interesting to note that rather than independently influencing human well-being, the identified pathways and mechanisms often interact strongly,” explains co-author Alexandros Gasparatos, an associate professor at the Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI). ) at the University of Tokyo. . “This can create negative trade-offs in some contexts, but also important positive synergies that can be exploited to provide multiple benefits to human well-being.”
Despite the completeness of the review, the researchers acknowledge that there may be additional connections that have not yet been identified, especially as the review revealed gaps in the current research landscape. “We hypothesize that missing pathways and mechanisms may be present in ecosystem-dependent communities, and especially traditional and indigenous communities, given their very unique relationships with nature,” Gasparatos said.
“Another knowledge gap we identified is that the existing literature on these non-material dimensions of human-nature relationships focuses primarily on the well-being of individuals rather than on collective (community) well-being,” explains Huynh. “This significant gap hinders our ability to identify potential synergies and trade-offs in ecosystem management research and practice.”
The team has now received a grant to investigate the effects of CES facilities on human well-being in Tokyo’s urban spaces. “This project is a logical next step to test whether and how some of the identified pathways and mechanisms actually unfold and intersect with human well-being,” Gasparatos said.
The researchers hope that this study and similar efforts will enable the key findings of this complex and diverse body of knowledge to be applied to enable real impact. Professor Kensuke Fukushi of IFI and co-author of the study summed up their hopes that “a better understanding of nature’s many connections to human well-being and the underlying processes that mediate them can help policymakers design appropriate interventions. concerted action could harness the positive contributions of these connections and become another way to sustainably protect and manage ecosystems.”
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Lam Huynh et al, Linking the non-material dimensions of human-nature relations and human well-being through cultural ecosystem services, Scientific progress (2022). DOI: 10.1126/sciaadv.abn8042. www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abn8042
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