Definitions of ‘Nature’ and ‘Wellbeing’

I recently returned from a conference organised by the Italian ANDA group, held at University of Udine, where I was able to present a paper on the first stages of my nature and wellbeing research, thanks to the generous support of the Global Academy of Liberal Arts, Bath Spa University. The conference was titled ‘Living Together on this Earth: Eco-Sustainable Narratives and Environmental Concerns in English Literature/s’, and involved a rich mixture of academic papers, poetry, artwork, dance and performances, including a moving Haka shared by a Māori artist (Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngati Porou and Taranaki), Apirana Taylor, and a sage blessing given by Cheyenne poet and environmental activist, Lance Henson.

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The conference offered a warm, international, multicultural and interdisciplinary environment in which to share perspectives on nature and wellbeing connections at this early stage in my research. This post is an extension of the first part of the paper, focused on definitions of the terms ‘nature’ and ‘wellbeing’. Now, as then, I’d be very grateful for feedback and ideas for further research, so please do leave comments below!

Definition of terms: Wellbeing

My main focus in this project is mental health and wellbeing, though of course mental health is profoundly entangled with, though not reducible to, physical health. While the relationship between physical health and environmental collapse are becoming increasingly well recognised, the relationship with between nature and mental health is harder to express, theorise and to measure.

This April, the leading international medical journal, The Lancet, produced a special edition themed on Planetary Health. The edition as a whole makes a clear connection between human health and ecological flourishing, providing detailed scientific research connecting human health crises with ecosystem collapse. As the list of articles suggests, it is easier and arguably more immediately urgent, to produce new scientific research into links between biodiversity loss and infectious diseases, toxic air pollution and urban death rate, and climate change, food security and famine, as the contents list of the special edition shows.

This does risk, however, sidelining the psychological, subjective, spiritual and existential crises associated with environmental problems, whether it be the distress of living in degraded and despoiled landscapes, witnessing long-term biodiversity loss or a species collapse or, for indigenous communities, the profound sense of displacement and injustice caused by appropriation of ancestral lands.

In spite of this absence of psychological considerations in Planetary Health, research into the connection between nature and mental health has been building over the last decade.

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In 2007, the mental health charity Mind launched Ecominds funding to enhance mental health services with green therapies and activities. This includes therapeutic farming, conservation activities and urban gardening. Assessment of these schemes indicated improvements in self-reported levels of wellbeing, as well as a greater sense of ‘connection with nature’ and improvement in environmentally friendly attitudes.[1] As many therapists involved in Green Care activities are also environmentalists, the fact that participants expressed these attitudes, admittedly in the imperfect context of the post-session questionnaire, is a significant success. As an educator working in the fields of ecocriticism and environmental humanities, my teaching is inherently concerned with promoting environmental issues and sparking care and concern amongst students. As such, I would by be glad to receive such feedback on my teaching.

Following on from the 2008 report, the London-based think-tank New Economics Foundation used recent evidence to put together The Five Ways to Wellbeing action tools. They promote the value of taking notice of nature and spending time in green environments, and continue to have considerably influence in health, environmental and cultural contexts.[2] Anyone working in the public sector in the UK will have encountered these 5 Ways in some aspect of their work.

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However, the exact meaning of wellbeing is harder to pin down, in spite of the profileration of discourses connected to the 2008 NEF report. As a term, ‘well-being’ originates in the early 17th century. Prior to modern usage, it tends to denote physical integrity and wholeness. Its more recent medical, policy and educational discourses, wellbeing has come to be used to refer to a positive state of being, although there is no clear agreement between philosophical, psychological and medical definitions of what that state looks and feels like.

Indeed, the question of whether wellbeing can be measured objectively, or is inherently a subjective and therefore unquantifiable state, is a lively debate, as well as an obstacle to wellbeing research in scientific disciplines restricted to hard data and rigorous quantification.

Definitions of Wellbeing

Hedonistic: maximised pleasure;

Flourishing: self-realisation;

Objectivist: a meeting of primal needs.

Desire / Satisfaction: including wealth, property etc.

A range of philosophical ideas underpin the concept, so that wellbeing means as maximised pleasure, sometimes as self-realisation, and other times as a meeting of primal needs and socially-constructed desires, for example for wealth, success, and acquisition of property. Wellbeing is therefore a sticky term and an overdetermined one, whose meaning is continually shifting and may be interpreted idiosyncratically by practitioners, patients and policy-makers.

Over the last 5 to 10 years, wellbeing training has filtered into public discourses, universities and even school curricula. Children are now taught skills to monitor, improve and take responsibility for their own wellbeing: through wellbeing action tool kits which issue advice, instruction and commands about how to preserve one’s personal wellbeing.

Wellbeing schools.pngWellbeing programme aimed at primary school children. James Gillespie School, Edinburgh 

Wellbeing as Discipline or as Self Care?

My own response to this kind of training is mixed, and during this project I’ll try to process my reactions to wellbeing discourse by exploring different theoretical perspectives. For example, the French philosopher Michel Foucault developed the theory of ‘discourse’ in order to describe the ways in which certain truths and ways of knowing the world become naturalised and come to be the only way of seeing the world. Truth is intimately connected to power, but there is not one source of power: power and truth are produced throughout society, as individuals adopt and share discourses, and at the same time adapt their behaviour in order to live up to the discursive norm.

In a Foucauldian sense, then, wellbeing could be seen as a disciplinary discourse, productive of individuals trained to take responsibility for their suffering and to improve their mood and health through simple techniques, whilst the wide-scale, complex, social and perhaps even ecological causes for that suffering remain unexplored. The diagnosis and treatment of mental illness is, of course, political, and an issue of social as well as environmental justice. It is particularly important to place ‘wellbeing’ discourse in the wider context of self-help and psychiatric culture geared to adjusting suffering individuals to social realities rather than adjusting broken social realities to the needs of people, communities and nature.

On the other hand, wellbeing discourse also may be connected to the ‘self care’ discourse adopted by new social movements concerned with social justice and the politics of identity. In Foucault’s theory, care of the self involves an ongoing commitment to reflection on mind and body, with the purpose of changing and adapting the self to pursue the possibilities of ones own freedom, and to relate to others in more ethical ways. Could wellbeing discourse be understood as a form of work and care for the self? Foucault’s understanding of care of the self involves introspection, a burgeoning awareness of limitations and constraints imposed from without, and a positive creation of ones own ethics, as far as possible beyond the power relations which dominate oneself and others. As he puts it:

In the Platonic current of thought…the problem for the subject or the individual soul is to turn its gaze upon itself, to recognize itself in what it is and, recognizing itself in what it is, to recall the truths that issue from it and that it has been able to contemplate. (“The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom”, 29)

More recently, activists concerned with intersectional social justice movements, and in particular feminism, race equality, LGBTQI and disability rights, have become concerned with the affective labour inherent in their experiences of oppression, and also in activism itself. The principle of ‘self-care’ has emerged as a way of recognising the politics of private and collective acts of tenderness and safeguarding, and is indebted to the black feminist thinker Audre Lorde, who asserted: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ Although self-care has been considerably appropriated and recuperated as exactly what it was not meant to entail — consumerism and individualism — the radical tenets of Lorde’s statement still holds, and provides strength and encouragement to those challenging oppression and experiencing social isolation. Could the conscious acts encouraged in wellbeing discourse be understood as a form of self-care, and if so, what are its wider political implications?

Definition of terms: Nature

If ‘wellbeing’ is perplexing term, Nature is a bewildering one. Ecocritical and environmental humanities scholarship has, in large part, been a sub-discipline striving to break away from damaging cultural constructions of nature, and to implant new definitions, by they the small n/large N distinction of Jhan Hochman, the more-than-human-world of David Abrams, or the ecological thought of Timothy Morton. This complexity is not something that environmental campaigning and discourse is currently able to take into account: in proposed nature and wellbeing legislation, Nature means green and blue spaces—parkland, woodland or waterways, and efforts are geared to protecting threatened species and specific places and landscapes.

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In 2014, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and around 25 partner organisations are currently campaigning for a Nature and Wellbeing Act for England and Wales. This proposed piece of legislation aimed to bring about the recovery of nature in a generation, for the benefit of people and wildlife. If passed, the Act would enshrine the protection and recovery of nature in UK law and identify and underline connections between human wellbeing and engagement with nature.

 N&WA.pngThe definition of ‘nature’ used in the Act can best be summarised in the policy documentation they put together to present to the UK parliament. As a Green Paper, this was a consultative document aiming to get representatives of all parties to get behind the Act into law, and to amend existing legislation, after the May 2015 General Election.

The unexpected happened: the Conservative Party won the election, bringing in a series of welfare cuts and seriously changing the context for nature and wellbeing legislation entirely. The Brexit vote created further political upheaval, the repercussions of which are likely to continue for years to come, effecting environmental policy, economics, and a multitude of health and wellbeing

As the groups behind the Nature and Wellbeing Act are considering the chances of progressing with the Act in this political context, it seems like an opportune moment to consider what humanities scholarship, and C.20th and 21st century literature reveals about the role that engagements with nature play in enhancing wellbeing. The humanities are particularly well-suited to intervene in debates, whether that is to

  • interrogate the key terminology and the language used in nature-wellbeing discussions;
  • assess the history of key ideas informing green care practice and nature-wellbeing discourse;
  • critique the politics and exclusions of nature and wellbeing discourse;
  • address the pros and cons of qualitative and quantitative research methods;
  • develop distinctive research methods which introduce subjective insights into nature-wellbeing discussions.

These are perspectives and questions which might otherwise be excluded from the debate. To begin this work, I’m going to conclude this post by looking at what the main literary fields that have developed to address our relationship with nature—ecocriticism and environmental humanities—have to say about nature and wellbeing relations.

Environmental Humanities

Research into environmental factors in illness and healing has been conducted in fields of psychology, sociology, environmental science and human geography.[3] However, in environmental humanities scholars have been sceptical about the pre-philosophical, rather Romantic assumption that nature is healing. Greg Garrard accuses writers who draw analogies between human and natural health of having a limited, homeostatic understanding of the two, and of ignoring the inherent instability of natural life forms and systems. Timothy Morton counters the ‘Bright Green’ environmentalist tendency to promote an aestheticized version of ‘healthful’ nature. Instead, he urges ecological thinking that is open to experiences of sickness and melancholy, asking if depression is really a non-ecological category. To Morton and Garrard, the connection between nature and wellbeing is problematic because it further deepens Western culture’s damaging divide between ‘synthetic’, sickening, culture, and pure, untouchable, healing nature.[4] Indeed, within environmentalist discourse and psychological research, ‘nature’ is frequently named but rarely adequately defined, although researchers are alert to the distinction between encounters with nature that may be beneficial and those that might harm, due for example to environmental stressors and dangers.[5]

Other problems are caused by the vagueness of the term nature. The campaign for a Nature and Wellbeing Act depends on the formation of an evidence base linking contact with healthy ecosystems and living nature to human wellbeing, and many studies have been conducted which suggest that nature interventions of various kinds improve recovery time and pain resistance. However, further studies have also proved that simulated natural sounds and scenery can improve patient recovery time and experiences of pain in equivalent levels to ‘real’ nature.[6] This could be anything form piped birdsong to a painting of a tree. As economic and environmental efficiency drives take place in tandem in the NHS in an era of austerity, decisions that concern the ‘value’ of nature become increasingly fraught.[7] On the basis of existing scientific evidence, it is possible that artificial nature (e.g. images, sound recordings) may be used as a cheap substitute for more costly engagement with and protection of flourishing ecosystems.

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Environmental Humanities research can critically intervene in these discussions by critiquing approaches that frame nature as a ‘healing aesthetic’ and as ‘capital’, and by proposing alternative understandings of nature’s intrinsic value. Environmental humanities and literary approaches can also be used to interrogate the problem of distinguishing between real and artificial nature in therapeutic contexts and everyday life, by attention to the ‘quality’ of human relations with nature. Finally, environmental humanities and literature are particularly well-suited to critiquing the scientific methods and epistemology used to conduct research into nature-wellbeing connections, and the legalistic frameworks being proposed to protect nature under the Nature and Wellbeing Act. This includes the question of whether we can and should work within flawed, problematic and oppressive frameworks and understandings, as well as whether we can afford not to.

References

[1] J. Barton, R. Bragg, C. Wood, Ecominds: Effects on Mental Wellbeing: An Evaluation for Mind. London: Mind, 2013.; See also E. Gullone, ‘The biophilia hypothesis and life in the 21st century: increasing mental health or increasing pathology?’ Journal of Happiness Studies 1.3, 2000, pp. 293 – 321; N. Morris, Health, Wellbeing and Open Space Edinburgh, OPENspace Research Centre, 2003.

[2] Government Office for Science, ‘Mental Capital and Wellbeing’, 2008, Web, Accessed 23-6-15, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mental-capital-and-wellbeing-making-the-most-of-ourselves-in-the-21st-century; New Economics Foundation, ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’, 2008, Web, Accessed 23-6-15, http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/entry/five-ways-to-well-being.

[3] Including R. Kaplan and S. Kaplan, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1989; S. Clayton and G. Myers, Conservation Psychology, Hoboken, Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

[4] G. Garrard, ‘Nature Cures? or How to Police Analogies of Personal and Ecological Health’ ISLE 19.3, 2012, pp. 494-514; T. Morton, The Ecological Thought. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

[5] R. Berto, ‘The Role of Nature in Coping with Psych-Physiological Stress’, Behavioural Sciences 4, 2014, pp. 394-409; G. B. Diette et al., ‘Distraction therapy with nature sights and sounds reduces pain during flexible bronchoscopy.’ Chest 123, 2003, pp. 941-8.

[6] See Berto.

[7] For example, in Protecting resources, promoting value, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges outlines how efficiency reviews in the NHS are being driven by environmental, as well as economic, sustainability incentives. In line with the Carbon Act 2008, the NHS needs to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (AOMRC p.51).

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