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The psychology of nature: climate change and the anthropocene

Climate change is happening, and the natural world is struggling. The scientific world and the media industry are signifying “doomsday”, and the evidence is accumulating. Human beings have been aware of this for a while, and in 1988 the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was created in order to tackle such problems (UN, 2017). Nevertheless, global warming is still happening, threatening to destroy our natural world and the survival of our species. Adams (2015) explained that even though there are people who know and care about climate change, they still struggle in their efforts to take individual action, and make the necessary changes. This document will address all these issues, as well as the relationship humans have with the natural world, and what happens when nature is not accessible.  For purposes of clarification, the term “nature” will be used along with Stevens’ (2015, p. 327) definition of the natural world: “those environments which have not been heavily modified by human activity”. 

According to Zalasiewicz et al. (2016), the term “anthropocene” is understood as the epoch we currently live in, which is considered the most environmentally destructive time in history due to anthropogenic (man-made) activity. In other words, the way in which people go about their daily lives (including their habits) is having a record-breaking negative impact on the environment. This suggests that human beings are in some way or another responsible for global climate change (GCC). The evidence is compelling (NASA, n.d.), and has been disseminated for such a long time that there even exists an international legal framework for it.  The United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCC) took effect in 1994 and since then, it has been guiding global initiatives to reduce the greenhouse effect. Before this was the case, in 1988 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) created the IPCC (n.d.) to conduct assessments, and report information about the topic. Furthermore, Adams’ (2015) work posits the fact that there are many problems directly related to climate change; such as the potential extinction of wildlife, overpopulation, deforestation, and air pollution. Such serious threats and their increasing likelihood cause a lot of collective distress, and this has led psychologists to wonder why despite the fact that survival is at stake, and despite there being so much circulation of such information; people are still living as if nothing was happening. Adams (2015) further explained using Freud’s psychoanalytic framework that people develop defence mechanisms to protect their mind from the unpleasant knowledge of reality. This is problematic, as the urgency for taking action increases every year, and an individual behavioural focus is necessary.

The UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS, 2019) cited in Sonnichsen (2020) conducted a national survey in 2019 where 4,224 participants from randomly selected households in the UK were interviewed face-to-face and were asked the question: “How concerned, if at all, are you about current climate change, sometimes referred to as ‘global warming’?” 45% of respondents stated that they were “fairly concerned”, 35% stated that they were “very concerned”, 13% said they were “not very concerned”, 5% stated that they were not at all concerned, and only 1% stated that they did not know. Therefore, it can be inferred that the great majority of people in the UK are conscious about climate change.  Furthermore, the same sample was asked about their beliefs in the causes of climate change: 40% believed that both natural and anthropogenic processes were to blame. 33% believed that it was caused mainly by the anthropocene. 15% believed that human activity was the sole cause, 2% were skeptical about it, and the rest either did not know or had no opinion about it. More questions were asked which showed that in the UK, changes are expected both from government and society.

Further evidence (Evans, 2019) has compounded that the behavioural impact of society on the climate is rising along with the temperatures. This means that factors such as negative affect, conflict, and psychological distress are more common as exposure to extreme weather events and threats increases. What all of the mentioned above suggests is that GCC is a result of urban, every day industrial and domestic activities (Adams, 2015; Evans, 2019). Not surprisingly, scientists are worried about a potential doomsday (Meckling, 2020), and they are not the only ones. Research (Stevens, 2015) has shown that people have higher levels of arousal when they are exposed to urban environments than when they are exposed to natural environments. This indicates that anthropogenic city life is associated with more stressful experiences than rural life. The term biophilia means “love for life” (Stevens, 2019b), and it is used to describe the way in which human beings have an inherent attraction towards and a need for nature. Evidence about embedment- the idea that the environment in which the body is located has an effect on mood and behaviour- suggests that individual identities are made and remade in the light of the world around the body (the ego; Sanchez Marrugo, 2019); and such world influences mental health (Bishop, 2015). Ulrich et al. (1991) as cited in Stevens (2015) produced evidence about how the natural world triggers relaxing psychosomatic responses, which means that it serves as a mood stabiliser. Whether it is a picture, a visualisation, or an actual trip to nature.

Moreover, Stevens (2015) highlights the importance of a restorative environment when it comes to healing. Ulrich (1984) cited in Stevens (2015) conducted research to determine whether the outside view of a window influenced the speed of recovery for patients, and found that indeed those who were able to see natural landscapes from their windows had a faster recovery and were subsequently discharged earlier than those who could only see a brick wall. This evidence suggests that exposure to the natural world is beneficial for people. Since humans have a natural need to embed themselves in the natural world due to the unique and impossible to replicate sensory stimulation provided by such an environment, it can be said that having a close relationship with nature is therapeutic. According to Louv (2005) cited in Stevens (2019a), a good descriptive term when it comes to this phenomenon is “Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD)”.  He posited that not embedding oneself in nature often enough can have detrimental effects on overall wellbeing, and this could be interpreted as a form of self-neglect because if a person does not meet their natural, psychoevolutionary needs; they can indeed forget what it feels like to love life, and might even become suicidal. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported an increase in suicide rates in recent years (Kaur and Manders, 2019), which suggests that less people are in love with life. Evidence indicates that people can heal from nature deficits through what is known as attention restoration therapy (ART; Stevens, 2015). It consists of embedding oneself in an environment that is away from urban life, and which elicits grounding and relaxation. For instance, it has been found that sunlight has a positive effect on human health when it touches the skin, as it triggers a chemical reaction and creates vitamin D, which boosts the immune system and improves mood (Stevens, 2015). Therefore, embedding oneself in natural places has many benefits. This compounds the understanding of natural environments as a necessity.

To summarise, the threat of climate change is very real and every human being is impacted by it. The natural world has an important role to play in mental health wellbeing, and lack of access to it can have detrimental effects on public health. Suicide, the anti-thesis of biophilia has been increasing in the UK. It is unclear at this point how biophilia can be elicited through the status quo in order to reduce anti-life outcomes such as suicide and global warming.

References 

Adams, M. (2015) ‘The wider environment’, in Taylor and Turner (eds) Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 373-409.

Ainslie, D. and Clarke, H. (2019) ‘UK Environmental Accounts: 2019’ [Online], Office for National Statistics. Available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/bulletins/ukenvironmentalaccounts/2019 (Accessed 30 January 2020).

Bishop, S. (2015) ‘Boundaries of the self’, in Taylor and Turner (eds) Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 287-318.

Evans, G.W. (2019) ‘Projected Behavioural Impacts of Global Climate Change’, Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 70(1), pp. 449-474 [Online]. Available at https://pmt-eu.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/13ueeno/TN_annual_reviews10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-103023 (Accessed 30 January 2020).

IPCC (n.d.) About [Online]. Available at https://www.ipcc.ch/about/ (Accessed 30 January 2020).

Kaur, J. and Manders, B. (2019) ‘Suicides in the UK: 2018 Registrations’ [Online], Office for National Statistics. Available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2018registrations (Accessed 30 January 2020).

Meckling, J. (2020) ‘It is 100 Seconds to Midnight: 2020 Doomsday Clock Statement’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists [Online]. Available at https://thebulletin.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/2020-Doomsday-Clock-statement.pdf (Accessed 31 January 2020).

NASA (n.d.) Climate Change: Evidence [Online]. Available at https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/ (Accessed 30 January 2020).

Sanchez Marrugo, B.P. (2019) TMA 02, Milton Keynes, The Open University. 

Sonnichsen, N. (2020) ‘Levels of concern about climate change in the United Kingdom (UK) 2019’, Statista, 31 January [Online]. Available at https://www-statista-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/statistics/426733/united-kingdom-uk-concern-about-climate-change/ (Accessed 1 February 2020).

Stevens, P. (2015) ‘Relationships with the natural world’, in Taylor and Turner (eds), Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 327-363. 

Stevens, P. (2019a) ‘6 Nature Deficiency’, DD210 Week 13: Relationships with the natural world [Online]. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1467723&section=6 (Accessed 30 January 2020).

Stevens, P. (2019b) ‘5 Biophilia’, DD210 Week 13: Relationships with the natural world [Online]. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1467723&section=5 (Accessed 1 February 2020).

United Nations (2017) Basic Facts about the United Nations, 42 edn, New York, United Nations Department of Public Information.

Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M. and Waters, C.N. (2016) ‘Anthropocene’, in J. Adamson, W.A. Gleason & D.N. Pellow (eds), Keywords for environmental studies, New York, New York University Press [Online]. Available at  https://search-credoreference-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/content/entry/nyupresskes/anthropocene/0  (Accessed 1 February 2020).

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