Two decades ago, Robert M. Pyle introduced the term “the extinction of experience” to indicate the ongoing alienation from the natural environment. This progressive loss of human-nature interactions might prove to be one of the key environmental concepts of our times.
Contact and interactions with nature involves a range of multidimensional benefits. Its loss can lead to the degradation of public health and wellbeing; but can also undermine the support for pro-biodiversity policies and environmental protection management actions.
We have always been interacting with the natural environment but in recent years, there is a global trend of individuals having less interaction with nature. This trend does not just involve loss of engagement with pristine or wild environments but also involves changes in the nature of activities and experiences in the different environments.
Human-nature interactions can be understood as direct sensory interactions with organisms in the same physical space or close proximity. They can take a range of forms including walking in wilderness areas, visiting urban parks, listening to bird songs, picking flowers or catching insects, and even views of nature from windows. Some have argued that nature experiences can span a spectrum from direct interactions to vicarious interactions which involve the absence of sensory contact (e.g., interactions via print media, television, film, video, and the internet) suggesting that there could be a transformation of nature experiences rather than a reduction of experience. However, whilst vicarious interactions may involve benefits, it has been suggested that important benefits are not typically the same as those obtained from direct interactions.
Whilst difficult to pinpoint what lead to the decline of human-nature interactions, possible explanations include population growth and urbanisation, technological advancement, and sedentary pastime activities (e.g., watching television and playing video games). Particularly, it has been argued that the loss of human-nature interactions is rooted in the loss of opportunities to experience nature. There is now a high and increasing proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas, which usually involve space composed of primarily artificial material. Moreover, evidence has suggested that those who live in areas with lower amounts of natural environments and who are further from natural environments interact with them less frequently. Additionally, potential opportunities to interact with the natural environment are further reduced given current declines in biodiversity and the impoverishment and destruction of local flora, fauna, and habitats. In addition to the loss of opportunity for interacting with nature, researchers have also suggested that loss of people’s orientation towards or connections with nature can also contribute to the loss of human-nature interactions.
But why are human-nature interactions important?
We have always been intimately connected with the natural environment, whilst also benefiting from it. Taking an evolutionary perspective, the Biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with the natural world. There is substantial and undeniable evidence for positive human health and wellbeing effects of human interactions with nature. Particularly, evidence has indicated that interacting with nature delivers a range of psychological, cognitive, physiological, and social benefits. For example, spending time in nature can lead to a reduction in stress, anxiety, anger, fatigue, blood pressure, heart rate and improve birth outcomes, immune function, and general health. Moreover, evidence has indicated that regular contact with nature is essential for a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and motor development.
It has been argued that loss of interactions with nature can lead to potential reductions in emotional affinity and interest towards nature. There is also growing evidence indicating that loss of interactions with nature can lead to declines in pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours and influence one’s values and beliefs towards the natural environment and willingness to protect it. For example, some studies showed links between the area one grew up (e.g., urban versus rural areas) and their emotional connections with nature. Others reported that exposure to and direct interactions with nature can decrease “Biophobia” (i.e., the fear of and aversion to nature). Moreover, some scholars reported that participating in different nature activities can positively influence a range of pro-environmental behaviours. Additionally, some researchers provided evidence that children’s nature activities can have a positive effect on a child’s environmental attitudes, knowledge and willingness to display but also undertake pro-environmental behaviours as both a child and an adult. Further complicating implications are suggestions regarding both a direct and indirect effect of nature experiences on pro-environmental behaviours via environmental attitudes.
Additionally, some researchers have suggested the existence of feedback pathways which argue that the loss of human-nature interactions can lead to further disaffection and apathy towards the natural environment via the loss of orientation towards nature and opportunities to experience nature. Particularly, loss of emotional affinity or interest in nature may decrease an individual’s future contact with the natural environment. Moreover, direct nature experiences might influence an individual’s future willingness for visitation. Additionally, one’s orientation towards nature might influence that of others. For example, children’s emotional affinity towards nature is suggested to be influenced by that of their family, peers and school teachers.
Thus, extinction of experience can be seen as both a major public health issue and as one of the most fundamental obstacles for addressing current and future environmental challenges. Thus, it is highly important to not only limit but also reverse this loss of human-nature interactions.
But how can we address “extinction of experience”?
Reducing this progressive loss of human-nature interactions and reconnecting people to nature can be achieved via increasing individuals’ opportunities to directly interact with nature. This can be achieved by providing more urban green infrastructure. Green spaces are not a luxury but instead a necessity and must be easily accessible both in terms of distance from individuals’ homes but also in terms of reaching (e.g., on foot or by bicycle, and for different demographics and social groups). The World Health Organisation recommends that residents of urban areas should have access to at least 0,5 – 1 hectares of public green space within 300 meters of their home whereas in the U.K. the Accessible Natural Greenspace Standard stipulates that no person should be located more than 300 meters from the nearest natural green space of at least 2 hectares in size.
In addition to increasing opportunity, orientation components should also be enhanced in tandem. Specifically, given evidence suggesting that individuals’ orientation is encouraged by regular outdoor play during childhood, parents should encourage their children to spend more time outdoors and particularly in unstructured and freely-chosen play. With regards to adulthood experiences, green job training has been suggested to enhance young adults’ pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours. These indicate the need for broader environmental and policy changes (e.g., social marketing campaigns, educational and outreach programs).
It is essential for both researchers but also policy makers to focus more attention on reducing the extinction of experience and reconnect people with nature. This reconnection with the natural environment can greatly contribute to achieving not only healthy societies but also overcoming the current environmental challenges we are experiencing, and which threaten our current and future wellbeing.