Man and nature become alienated

nature experience

Activities in natural surroundings strengthen our relationship with nature. © AscentXmedia/ iStock

When was my last walk in the woods? According to a meta-analysis, humans and nature are becoming ever further apart – mentally and spatially. The average German lives about 22 kilometers from the nearest natural area. From a global perspective, the green is disappearing even from the cities and visits to national parks are becoming rarer. All of this could weaken our relationship with nature and reduce individuals' motivation for conservation, the scientists explain.

Spending time in nature or watching a wildlife documentary on TV: Both count as so-called nature experiences, i.e. as direct or indirect interactions with nature. Studies suggest that a lot of nature experience in childhood increases our emotional connection to nature and motivates us to behave in an environmentally friendly way.

Less time in nature

Are such nature experiences becoming rarer? A research team led by Victor Cazalis from the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research has now investigated this in the form of a meta-analysis. A total of 18 international studies dealing with the topic of experiencing nature served as the basis. In fact, the studies show, for example, a decrease in visits to national parks in the US and Japan, a decrease in camping activity in the US, and a lower number of types of flowers that Japanese children could recognize and name. Scientists have also noticed that there is a trend towards fewer depictions and images of nature in novels, songs, children's books and cartoons.

On the flip side, however, interest in documentaries and video games about wildlife has grown, the research team observed. "In recent decades, digital media have certainly created new ways of dealing with nature," says Cazalis' colleague Gladys Barragan-Jason. "However, several previous studies show that these virtual 'experiences of nature' promote our feeling of connection to nature less than direct experiences of nature."

Further way to the next green

But such direct nature experiences are often difficult to achieve. Because we tend to live further and further away from natural areas, as another evaluation by Cazalis and his team has shown. By adding together various map data, the scientists were able to determine that people today live an average of 9.7 kilometers from the nearest natural area - seven percent further away than in 2000. This distance is greatest in Europe and East Asia. In Germany, for example, it is 22 kilometers on average.

In addition, from a global perspective, there is less and less nature to be experienced in the cities. According to Cazalis and his colleagues, the tree population has declined sharply since the turn of the millennium, especially in urban areas of Central Africa and Southeast Asia. "This finding suggests that the opportunities for urban residents to access green spaces are also decreasing," says Barragan-Jason. Since around 56 percent of the world's population now lives in cities, this development is particularly far-reaching.

"We conclude that the destruction of natural spaces combined with a sharp increase in urban population leads to an increasing spatial distance between humans and nature, especially in Asia, Africa and South America," continued Barragan-Jason. Due to this distance, fewer and fewer people could possibly develop an emotional connection to nature as children, which means that they would not consider nature conservation as important as adults. In the long term, this could jeopardize efforts to protect nature worldwide.

Source: German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, Article: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, doi: 10.1002/fee.2540

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