Why it matters that humans and nature are growing apart

Our relationship with the great outdoors isn't quite the same as it was a few decades ago.
a person stands on a snow covered mountain top looking out a vista of rocky mountains as the sun peeks above the horizon
Our relationship with nature is changing. Unsplash

Are people less connected to nature today than previous generations? And does a disconnect from nature influence how much we care about climate change, biodiversity loss, and other environmental issues? 

These are questions at the heart of a new study from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and the Theoretical and Experimental Ecology Station in France. Scientists reviewed existing studies that examine humans’ relationship with nature, and found that, overall, we have been interacting less with nature over the past few decades. They also revealed that humans worldwide live farther away from undeveloped land and live increasingly in urban areas, which have lost tree cover over time. The results were published in December in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 

According to the theory “extinction of experience,” interactions with nature are vanishing in modern societies, leading to potential loss of care for it. The theory has long been popular in environmental psychology, but there is little empirical evidence to prove it. This recent review study attempts to narrow that gap. 

“The knowledge about these human-nature interactions is crucial, as they are key in the construction of our relationship with nature and our behaviors,” says Victor Cazalis, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and Leipzig University, in a news release. 

Researchers reviewed studies from around the world that measure human interaction with nature. They also calculated other indices that could hint at the relationship, like how far the average person lives away from undeveloped land, how many people live in urban areas, and how many trees there are in cities. They defined an “experience of nature” as any interaction someone has with nature. It could include anything from visiting a national park, to seeing a fox in a city garden, to viewing a natural landscape in a Disney movie. 

[Related: Even if you live in a city, you can get health benefits from nature]

They found that human interaction with nature has declined in the past few decades. “What we showed basically is that North America and Western Europe are much more disconnected than the rest of the world to nature, but that the rest of the world is following the same trend,” Cazalis tells Popular Science

One key measure that stood out is that there are less representations of nature in cultural products. Disney movies increasingly depict purely urban landscapes, for example. “For urban populations, these cultural products can be a really important way to build your imagination about nature, especially as a kid, but also as adults,” Cazalis says.

The team, however, cautions there are still large gaps in the research. Still, Cazalis explains that there isn’t enough evidence to make any conclusive statements about the scope and extent to which human interactions with nature have declined. After searching through millions of studies in a database, only about 18 fit the parameters for their review. And a majority of those 18 studies were published in North America, Western Europe or Japan. 

The analysis also doesn’t consider the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on human interactions with nature. While a couple of studies found that the pandemic increased people’s interactions with nature, the pandemic’s effect “was not representative of what we wanted to measure, with the idea that maybe it’s just a peak, and then later, the people start going back to the usual business,” Cazalis says.

The review authors also examined general trends on opportunities people have to connect with nature. People around the globe live a little farther away from undeveloped land, or land that has low human impact, than they did before. From 2000 to 2020, the average person lived about 5.6 miles away from undeveloped land, which increased to about 6 miles away by 2020. While this 7 percent increase in distance to nature may seem small, it’s still a notable change when looking at the bigger picture, says Cazalis. 

“I think 7 percent increase as a global average—for some countries the increase is much more important—is significant as this is only over the last 20 years and as this is hardly reversible.”

They also found that more of the global population lives in urban areas than before. In 1960, only 34 percent of people around the world lived in urban areas, but by 2020 that number rose to 56 percent. And in those urban areas, people have less access to green spaces than they did before. In 2000, among cities surveyed in 133 countries, at least 5 percent of urban areas were bulwarked by trees. But by 2020, almost all of those experienced some minor decline in tree canopy. 

[Related: Spending time outside is a cheap way to improve your health—if you’re rich.]

“I thought it was a carefully done and valuable study,” Susan Clayton, a psychology professor at the College of Wooster who has written about environmental psychology, told Popular Science in a statement. “The authors are right that claims of ‘extinction of experience’ need more empirical support, and more nuance about what is meant by experience of nature. There certainly are changes in the ways we experience nature, but as this paper shows, it’s not as simple as a universal decline.”

Environmental psychologists believe interactions with nature are important because they shape how we value these spaces, which can lead to pro-environmental behaviors. This is increasingly acknowledged on the world stage, Cazalis says. At the most recent global conference on biodiversity loss in Montreal, COP15, world governments said one of their targets is to increase access to green spaces in urban areas.

“All the literature in environmental psychology says that there is an impact of experiences of nature on the way we act, and more importantly, on our values and political views,” Cazalis says. “It doesn’t mean that you cannot have any concern about nature if you don’t experience nature, but it shows that caring about the way we interact with nature is key to the big societal challenges that we have.”

While, to some extent, a loss of interaction with nature might be an inevitable consequence of development, Cazalis says there are things people can do to mitigate it, such as increase access to green spaces in urban areas and increase representation of nature in cultural products, like novels, children’s books and Disney movies. 

“It’s not the most urgent. We need first to stop eroding biodiversity,” Cazalis says. “But for a more long-term perspective, we need to take care of that interaction, of the way we connect.”