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Nurturing benefits of nature are crucial for human well-being

Apart from providing clean food and water, and countless useful raw materials, nature benefits human well-being in numerous ways. Nature may inspire us, give us a sense of place, a cultural identity and surroundings for recreation and tourism. It may provide us with opportunities for cognitive development, spiritual enrichment, reflection and pleasing aesthetic experiences. 

Many of these nonmaterial benefits are difficult to quantify because they are spiritual or cultural in nature and may have different significance and value to different people. But it is undeniable that nonmaterial contributions from nature are hugely important in our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. 

Researchers from the University of Tokyo  have now undertaken a systematic review of 301 academic articles on “cultural ecosystem services” (CES) that has enabled them to identify how these nonmaterial contributions from nature are linked to and significantly affect human well-being. Although hundreds of CES studies have previously explored the connections between nature and human well-being, these have often made use of different methods, focused on different services in different places and quantified the benefits in different ways. 

This fragmentation has made it difficult to identify common patterns between studies and to understand overarching CES benefits to people. The current study aims to understand better how these intangible contributions from nature really affect human well-being so that policy-makers can make decisions about the environment that benefit all members of society. 

Graduate student Lam Huynh from the Graduate Program in Sustainability Science at the University of Tokyo, and team, identified 227 unique pathways through which interaction with nature positively or negatively affects human well-being. 

“We identified 227 unique linkages between a single CES (such as recreation or aesthetic value) and a single constituent of human well-being (such as connectedness, spirituality, or health),” said Huynh.“We knew that there are many linkages, but we were surprised to find quite so many of them,” said Huynh. “Then, through further critical reading, we could identify major commonalities.”

Through further reading, the researchers identified 16 distinct underlying “mechanisms,” or types of connection, which refer to the different ways that people’s interactions with nature affect their well-being. For example, there can be positive interactions through “cohesive,” “creative,” and “formative” mechanisms, but also negative interactions through mechanisms such as “irritation” and “destruction.” Ten of these mechanisms were newly defined, 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 through the degradation or loss of CES, and through ecosystem “disservices,” such as annoyance at wildlife noise, which can affect some people’s mental health. On the other hand, the highest positive contributions of CES were to both mental and physical health, which were generated mainly through recreation, tourism and aesthetic value.

“It is particularly interesting to note that the identified pathways and mechanisms, rather than affecting human well-being independently, often interact strongly,” explained study co-author Professor Alexandros Gasparatos. “This can create negative trade-offs in some contexts, but also important positive synergies that can be leveraged to provide multiple benefits to human well-being.”

Despite the comprehensiveness of the review, the researchers acknowledge that they may not yet have identified all possible links between CES and human well-being. 

“We hypothesize that missing pathways and mechanisms could be present in ecosystem-dependent communities, and especially traditional and Indigenous communities, considering their very unique relations with nature,” said Professor Gasparatos.

“Another of the knowledge gaps we identified is that the existing literature on these nonmaterial dimensions of human-nature relationships mainly focuses on the well-being of individuals rather than on collective (community) well-being,” explained Huynh. “This significant gap hinders our capacity to identify possible synergies and trade-offs in ecosystem management research and practice.”

The team has now received a grant to explore the effects of CES provision to human well-being in the urban spaces of Tokyo. “This project is a logical follow-up to test whether and how some of the identified pathways and mechanisms unfold in reality and intersect with human well-being,” said Gasparatos.

The researchers hope that this study will make it possible to apply the key findings from this complex and diverse body of knowledge to enable real-world impact. Study co-author Professor Kensuke Fukushi from IFI summarized their hope that “an improved understanding of nature’s many connections to human well-being, and the underlying processes mediating them, can help policymakers to design appropriate interventions. Such coordinated action could leverage the positive contributions of these connections and become another avenue to protect and manage ecosystems sustainably.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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