photo of woman and child exploring park

Importance of nature

Nature is essential to our lives - from the food on our plates to the clothes we wear, from medicines to mental health benefits.
portrait of Paul de Zylva, Friends of the Earth campaigner
By Paul de Zylva     |     16 Oct 2017     |       10 minute read

Are you getting enough? Nature, I mean.  

As we rush about – things to do, people to see - it’s easy to overlook the importance of nature to us, our health, our community and beyond. 

It’s also easy to think that nature will always be with us. True, the birds tweet, the bees buzz and the seasons come and go. But even in my lifetime once common species of bee and birds like starlings and house sparrows have declined so much that they’re now listed as endangered. 

Yes, nature is officially in trouble. From birds and bees to the state of our seas the UK’s latest State of Nature report shows that over half of our wild species – plants, insects, birds, mammals – are in decline.  

And here we’re talking the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Read on for news of the rainforests and the rest of the world and for the facts about the loss of nature and the importance of more contact with nature in our lives. 

At the end, you can answer the question: does nature matter? 

Are you in nature deficit?  

First, how was your last holiday? Did you spend any time in nature? Shut your eyes and see if you can recall how you feel about the last time you spent time in nature.  

What about your normal busy day away from stunning views, beaches and sunsets? Does your daily routine give you any experiences of nature? 

Perhaps you don't have the time to notice the birds calling, the bees buzzing and to enjoy the colours of the changing seasons in a local park, even in your own street. 

If you’re not getting enough nature you're not alone. 

photo of cyclist in woodland
Credit: Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Dealing with nature deficit 

Seven out of 10 people admit they’re losing touch with nature. And more than a third of parents admit they could not teach their own children about British wildlife. 

Pressures of daily life mean we’re increasingly detached from nature even though nature in many forms is there for us. Yes, like love, nature is all around – and it’s free. 

Even watching wildlife programmes online or on the TV costs — but it’s still no substitute for experiencing nature direct. You don’t have to go on safari, to the Amazon rainforest or to the Grand Canyon for fulfilling experiences of nature.  

Great as those places are, nature is also on our doorstep all year round. Even in winter. Just add your own curiosity, a chunk of attention span and a dollop of patience. 

What do people think about the importance of nature?

Asked to give their favourite views, Britons tend to put natural heritage before buildings and cityscapes. Yes, Brits favour views of Wales’ Gower Peninsula and Northern Ireland’s Mountains of Mourne over sights like Waterloo Bridge, Blackpool Tower and Stonehenge. 

Not even the poet William Wordsworth put people off voting for the “long, stern and desolate" views of Cumbria’s Wastwater and its scree slopes to the Scafell peaks as Britain’s favourite.  

Dramatic landscapes fire our imagination, fill our hearts and put our lives into perspective. But everyday experiences of nature give us a boost too. It’s like having our very own free Natural Health Service. 

Wild child: importance of nature to children 

Children especially have a natural affinity with nature. Evidence is growing of how regular contact with nature boosts new born children’s healthy development, supports their physical and mental health and instils abilities to assess risk as they grow. It even underpins their informal learning and academic achievement. 

For children and adults alike, daily contact with nature is linked to better health, less stress, better mood, reduced obesity – an amazing list of features no other product can ever match.

This affinity tends to get knocked out of them as they grow. They come under pressure to put away childish things in favour of passing exams and getting a "proper job".  

Along with digital distractions and legitimate fears about playing outdoors, the pressures are removing children from nature before our very eyes. Who can blame them for thinking an apple is a gadget first and a fruit second? 

Yet for children and adults alike, daily contact with nature – being in green, open space, near healthy rivers, exploring nature’s colours, sounds, tones and textures — is linked to better health, less stress, better mood, reduced obesity. That’s already an amazing list of features no other product can ever match. 

photo of urban gardeners
Evelyn Community Gardens, Deptford, London
Credit: Paul Harris/2020VISION

Nature’s importance to our health 

Nature performs major miracles for us every day – from giving us great views and helping to prevent floods to regulating the weather and keeping us supplied with clean water, fresh air and plentiful food.  

When running the tap or doing the shopping it’s easy to forget that without healthy soils and diverse plant and animal species doing their thing our lives would be tougher and poorer. 

Trees in towns cool us in summer and trap air pollution. Bees pollinate our crops, putting food on our table and in our stomachs. Even much-maligned wasps have uses such as controlling aphids. 

However smart we’ve become as a species, without diverse nature and a healthy functioning natural environment we’ll be as lost as a tourist without a map app. 

Loss of nature

Beyond our shores, tropical forests regulate global temperatures and support countless wild species — from berries used in medicines to gorillas and other primates a few genes away from ourselves. Yet the forests are being felled for timber, mining and cattle ranching.  

Mangroves help absorb storm surges and shelter small fry from big fish until they’re ready to venture into the open seas. Yet mangroves are being destroyed by coastal development. 

We're removing the vital links in the safety chain of life — pulling away life’s building blocks in a risky global game of Jenga

Healthy seas and oceans regulate the planet’s temperature. But we’re undermining their ability to do this by turning them acidic with our wasteful energy policies and by removing species, as we over-exploit the seas for short-term profit. 

photo of forest fire at night
Credit: Thinkstock

We’re busy taking out sharks, tuna and other top predators from the oceans and leaving squid and jellyfish to take their place in the food chain. This is upsetting millions of years of natural balance in less than a century. 

We're recklessly removing the vital links in the safety chain of life — pulling away life’s building blocks in a risky global game of Jenga. 

The value of nature 

Talking of risk, on one level it's absurd to even try to work out the financial value of nature to us all. How can we ever accurately value bees pollinating apples or healthy soils and forests holding back flood waters? 

The UK’s Office of National Statistics put the financial value of just 3 of the UK’s natural ecosystems (woodlands, farmland and freshwater habitats such as lakes) at £178bn. That’s 9 noughts on the end: 178,000,000,000. 

It’s a mind-bending amount and is similar to the value of exports from the Euro zone (€) to the rest of the world. NHS spending is about £140bn. 

It’s easy to think nature will always be with us. But such wishful thinking depends on whether we let nature go to the wall or act to repair, restore and maintain it.

What about the value of the world’s natural ecosystem services? A first estimate was put at an average $33 trillion annually – that’s 12 noughts or a million million.   

More to the point, this value of nature is nearly twice global GNP of $18 trillion. 

The figures will have changed since these first calculations but it underlines the obvious - that nature is both invaluable and priceless. Put another way, if we’re silly enough to let nature decline can we afford to put it back? Three guesses. 

That matters when one considers another big global study of the state of nature and its value. The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that approximately two-thirds of the world’s natural ecosystems are degraded or being used in irresponsible, unsustainable ways. “Every year we lose three to five trillion dollars’ worth of natural capital, roughly equivalent to the amount of money we lost in the financial crisis of 2008–2009”, the report said. Every year. 

photo of badger with city in background
European Badger (Meles meles) North Downs above Folkestone, Kent, UK. Camera trap photo.
Credit: Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

It’s easy to think nature will always be with us. But it depends on whether we let nature go to the wall or act to repair, restore and maintain it. Right now species are going extinct and the natural systems that support all life on Earth are being eroded faster than ever before. 

Even once common species like bees, hedgehogs, starlings and house sparrows are in trouble – going missing from our streets and neighbourhoods. The bees and birds lose out big time – and so do we. 

Is it beyond the wit of humankind to bring nature back from the brink? It’s in our own interests to do so. That said, we do seem to be the only species on Earth that actively destroys its own home and life-support systems.

“The effect that human beings are having on the natural world is profound. Because we are out of touch with the natural world… most of us don’t see the effects.” 

Sir David Attenborough

Yet, with nature doing so much for us day in and year out, the advertising industry should be rushing to promote it… ‘New, improved nature. It will change your life.’ 

Nature in our hands 

Friends of the Earth has a 45-year track record of working with people to protect nature. Please join us as we work not just to protect wildlife but to bring nature back and to restore nature everywhere.