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Our (missing) connection to water and the environment

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

Human beings with brains capable of complex thought have been around for roughly 70,000 years. We only started polluting in quantities that threaten most life on Earth since around 1900, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Technological development allowed for massive extraction from the Earth. What was it about human beings in the West at the time (and now) that meant we couldn’t see how our actions would have catastrophic consequences?

For most of the time we’ve been around, at least until we started farming roughly 10,000 years ago, we lived directly in nature. Importantly, we relied on extensive knowledge of nature for our survival. We needed to know what plants were safe to eat, what leaves made good twine, which spiders might kill us and thousands of other pieces of information. With this type of living, humans were hyperaware that they were part of nature and that by destroying nature, they would be destroying their own habitat.

Contrast that with how most of us live now. Cities, supermarkets, subways. Some of us are lucky enough to spend time in nature, but even then, it can be hard to remember that we are part of it. It is all too easy to behave in ways that damage nature when we’ve forgotten all that it does for us.

Over a decade ago, Douglas Medin (psychologist) and Scott Atran (anthropologist) set out to understand how people form their beliefs about the natural world and how those beliefs inform people’s treatment of nature. Unsurprisingly, they found that more knowledge of the natural world corresponds with increased respect and better treatment. More revolutionary was their suggestion that there is a ‘biological module of mind’. Meaning, our brains contain a part specifically evolved to understand and remember enormous amounts of information about plants, animals, and their interactions.

This is quite a big claim, but it’s not as absurd as it may sound. The influential linguist Noam Chomsky has argued since the 1950s that a part of the human brain has evolved for learning languages, and a 2020 study has now proved this[1]. All these ideas about the brain’s innate capacity for learning specific types of knowledge also note the short window in which these ‘modules’ of mind must be exposed to stimulation for them to develop. Kids are great at learning languages compared to adults — but a child that grows up without exposure to language (raised by wolves) would not be able to pick it up even if people tried to teach them later in life. The same is likely to apply to the part of our brain pre-wired for categorising nature.

So, we lost our connection to and knowledge of the natural world. This knowledge was (and is) so significant for our survival that our brains evolved to comprehend it more readily. Without this knowledge, we no longer understood that we are part of nature and that we thrive or wilt together.

The human relationship with water provides one example of how an essential resource, critical to our survival is no longer understood or valued as it should be. Water plays an essential role in our everyday lives. However, the human connection to water has waned as society and infrastructure has developed to hide it from us. As a result, the general public’s understanding of the value of water is poor. In the UK, our rivers, lakes and streams are the most polluted in Europe. Across the world, every day, around 8 million pieces of plastic make their way into the ocean[2].

To reclaim your connection with nature, we recommend:

1. More time interacting with nature — particularly for children growing up in cities. Monthly excursions and camping trips with integrated learning about local plant and animal species as a fundamental part of the school curriculum. Specific classes that explore the wonders of the natural world and how we rely on it for everything.

2. Paying heed to Indigenous voices and local knowledge in the discussions on how to relate to nature and address the dual threats of water insecurity and climate change. Indigenous peoples often maintain a knowledge of, and respect for the earth that is wholly proportionate to its true value. We need these people at the table influencing decision making processes, something sorely missed at COP26.

3. Consider your environmental footprint. While macro-level changes are required to make real inroads into climate change mitigation and biodiversity protection, the individual CAN have an impact. Switch from single-use plastics to reusables, conserve energy and water where you can, and enjoy a mostly plant-based diet.

As well as demanding these changes, you yourself can spend more time in nature and encourage others to join you. Teach your kids about local plants and animals. Enjoy some activities that help nature to flourish like planting a tree or leading a wildlife education walk. If you’re interested in more practical actions that you can take to help protect and restore nature whilst fostering a greater connection with the natural world, check out the great book How You Can Save the Planet’ by Hendrikus Van Hensbergen.

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