Our relationship with our natural world and our impacts on it have rightly been in the news a lot recently. The images of the Australian fires in particular have been distressful and worrying to watch. A wake-up call and a call to action for all of us. This got me thinking…
One of the best personal development journeys I’ve undertaken in my career was a year-long ‘Leading Edge’ leadership programme organised by ACSOVO and Social Enterprise Academy. Half-way through the year there was an exercise exploring our essence – what makes us tick, gets us out of bed, do the jobs we do, commit to volunteering, makes us who we are … This was a tough exercise which asked us to explore and expose our inner selves. I came to the conclusion that my essence was something to do with the close, intimate links between the wellbeing and power of nature and our own wellbeing. Healthy planet, healthy people.
We already know that being physically active is great for our health - our physical, mental and social health. This is the raison d’etre for the organisation I’ve worked for over the last 16 years, Paths for All. We encourage everyday walking and active travel and have compelling evidence of their transformative wellbeing benefits. Physical activity and walking are in many ways the prefect prescription.
However, what I find really exciting and profoundly important is the growing body of evidence that walking outdoors, in nature, further enhances these wellbeing benefits.
Now for the avoidance of doubt, when I refer to nature I’m referring to all of nature, from the nature in our National Nature Reserves and countryside, to the nature we find around and within our communities, right down to an individual tree on a street corner or a bird perched on telephone wire in an urban park.
This fundamental relationship between our wellbeing and our connection with nature is something that I’ve been lucky enough to experience from an early age and has driven me throughout my life and career.
I’m also increasingly convinced that it is our growing disconnect with nature that is at the root of many of the major challenges we face. This has led us to seeing our environment and nature as endless commodities for human exploitation. The consequence of such an approach is the deepening climate emergency and nature loss which we now see. Ultimately, our increasingly stressed and unhealthy planet is leading to ourselves becoming the same, individually and as societies. A vicious circle downwards.
As with all downward vicious circles, the solution is to reverse the cycle by creating a virtuous circle upwards. I appreciate the mechanisms for increasing the health of the planet and our own health are many and complex. However, at its essence I strongly believe that a more positive, caring and equal relationship with nature is at its heart. We all need to fundamentally and spiritually reconnect with the rest of the living world. We need to see ourselves as part of nature. We need to design systems and solutions that work with nature instead of against it and we need to treat nature with much more respect.
This takes me back to my career, voluntary work and my role as the Chief Officer with Paths for All. I’ve come to realise that often the best ideas and solutions are the simplest.
Could we help solve our global issues by doing something as simple as going for walks in nature? I believe we can.
I would go as far as to say that giving every person and especially every young person, the opportunity to walk in nature every day would help significantly in reversing the vicious circle into a virtuous one. Behaviour change begins and is fundamentally informed by our values and what we value.
However, to achieve this we must make sure the appropriate opportunities to connect with nature exist for everyone. This will require adequate investment in our paths networks, greenspaces and generally greener communities whether that be our home surroundings, workplaces, schools, colleges, hospitals etc.
Very importantly, as well as providing conducive environments, we need to give ourselves and others the space in our lives and permission to spend time outdoors. Institutions such as schools, workplaces, churches, hospitals, prisons and leisure centres all have a role to play.
So, at the beginning of a new year and a new decade, I encourage everyone, including myself, to commit to regularly taking the time to simply go for a walk in nature. Not only will this benefit your own health and well-being, but if we all do it, I believe we could literally walk ourselves out of the some of the global challenges we face and into a healthier planet with healthier people.
Written by Ian Findlay CBE, Paths for All Chief Officer. Follow Ian on Twitter @i_findlay