Listening to birdsong makes us smarter and more relaxed. A walk through a forest improves our short-term memory and wards off the blues. Woodlands reduce our blood pressure and lower our stress levels. It may sound far-fetched but the science is increasingly clear: simply being close to nature is good for our mental and physical health. I am sure almost everyone can recall a time when we just felt better after a few minutes in nature.
What science is only just starting to prove in the lab, humans have known intuitively for thousands of years. Ancient Chinese philosophers wrote often about the need to live in harmony with nature. Their thinking inspired some of the world’s most beautiful gardens. These were places in which to relax, to stretch one’s thoughts out, to find solace from the hustle and bustle of city living.
That scientists today need to prove that spending more time in nature is beneficial to our health tells us so much about where the modern world has taken us as a species. More people now live in cities than in rural areas. By 2050, another 2.5 billion people will follow. I have always found it sad that humans – a species evolved for life in the world’s forests and savannahs – have found themselves living in ever greater numbers among high rise buildings made from concrete, shut off from nature and the profound benefits it brings.
This move to the city – and away from nature – is having a major impact on our health. Every year, three million people die from outdoor air pollution worldwide– more than ever before. Many more suffer severe respiratory problems because of the dirty air they breathe. Our increasingly sedentary lifestyles have also triggered other health epidemics like obesity. It is not a coincidence that studies in America have found that the average adult spends more time inside a vehicle than outdoors. We need nature in our lives more than ever and yet, sadly, we are more removed from it than ever before.
Our growing detachment from nature is disastrous for the environment. The further we drift from the natural world, the less likely we are to appreciate it. Our failure to grasp the importance of the environment has triggered some of the gravest catastrophes of our time. We have hacked down forests, polluted rivers, dumped plastic in our oceans and driven species to extinction in pursuit of short-term economic gains. We belch vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere despite the damage this does to our climate and the danger it poses to our way of life. In failing to understand how the environment supports us, and how the dots are connected, we are rapidly overwhelming nature’s ability to sustain life as we know it.
As a UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador, I have been a frontline witness to the harm humans have done to the environment. I have travelled to Kenya where I witnessed the bliss of watching wild elephant herds and the devastation of poaching to supply an illegal trade in ivory, which has led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of these magnificent creatures. In my own country, China’s haze problem arises on a scale as sweeping and epic as the vast nation itself. The haze has affected people’s daily lives and it is also the result of human activities.
Yet I have cause for hope. I am repeatedly amazed at the giant leaps that my country is making to address the environmental challenges it faces. Some of China’s cities are among the most polluted on earth and they suffer debilitating air pollution that causes a multitude of health problems. On occasion, the Education Ministry has even had to order a close schools due to the haze.
But there is another side to the story. China has installed the largest air-quality monitoring systems in the world. It is designing better, more energy efficient cities and investing in cleaner forms of transport. Last year, it invested $88 billion in renewable energy, the highest in the world. Its emissions fell by 1 per cent in 2016 while its economy expanded by 6.7 per cent, proving that it is possible for countries to grow economically while reducing the damage done to the environment.
All these advances are part of China’s bid to build what it calls an “ecological civilization” – a resource-saving, environmentally-friendly society that recognises the environment for what it is: the foundation of our economies and our way of life.
If it succeeds, then almost one quarter of our vast nation will be covered in forest by 2020. The country has already invested more than $100 billion in conservation efforts over the last 10 years. Its scientists are using cutting edge technology to identify places of high ecological importance in order to establish a series of protected areas across the country. China is testing a new metric, known as Gross Ecosystem Product, to measure the contribution of nature to human well-being. I believe my country is beginning to reconnect with its traditions; with its ancient thinkers who encouraged humans to live in greater harmony with the natural world. Somewhere along the line, we forgot this. But if we know one thing about humanity, it’s that when we set our minds to something anything is possible!
China has also begun to show strong leadership in the field of wildlife protection, which is very near and dear to my heart. It pledged to ban the commercial trade in ivory by the end of the year and has already started this implementation. Conservationists in Africa, where the ivory trade fuelled the slaughter of an estimated 100,000 elephants in a three year period alone and reduced the forest elephant population by 60% in a decade, say the move has already started to have a major impact on the poaching cartels responsible for the killing: the price of ivory has slumped as has the amount paid to poachers.
I am extremely proud of this victory. Campaigners have worked tirelessly for years to raise awareness about the scale of the slaughter in Africa, the corruption the ivory trade fuels and the global criminal networks it finances.
Last year, I helped to launch a massive campaign with UN Environment that seeks to end the illegal trade in wildlife by inspiring people to make choices that don’t drive species to extinction. The Wild for Life campaign has already reached over 1 billion people around the world in eight languages, inspiring 12,000 pledges of action and 4.5 million social media interactions. It was also awarded by Weibo (Chinese Twitter) as one of the top 10 most influential advocacy campaigns for 2016.
For me, all this is proof that individual choice and raised public awareness has immense power to affect change. That’s why I’m so excited about this year’s World Environment Day, which will call on all of us to take time out of our busy daily routines to connect with nature, with the slogan “I’m With Nature.” This can be as simple as visiting our nearest park or taking a stroll in a public garden to remind ourselves of nature’s beauty and the health benefits it brings. It can mean planting a tree, creating an urban garden, savouring a few fresh basil leaves from our herbs or hanging plants on our balconies to help maintain the insect-variety of wildlife in our cities.
To support their citizens’ efforts on 5 June, governments can organize beach clean-ups, encourage citizen science projects, ask schools to take their pupils on nature outings or incentivize people to visit national parks. Canada, which will host World Environment Day will make entrance to its national parks free for a whole year! Others should follow suit.
Ancient philosophers understood the importance of living in harmony with nature. They knew what science is starting to prove: that connecting with nature is good for our well-being. It is time we began to act on this wisdom once more. We owe it to ourselves and to the environment, which, if looked after properly, will continue to look after us long into the future.
So for World Environment Day, I ask you to notice nature — close to home or further afield and share how you are #withnature at www.worldenvironmentday.global
This article is also appearing in the Huffington Post.