The project explores links between literature, health and environmentalism over the last century. Its aim is to inform research and policymaking at a moment when human-nature relations are of increasingly urgent local, national and global significance, both in current wellbeing initiatives, and manifold environmental crises.
The Nature and Wellbeing Act is a proposed piece of legislation which aims to bring about the recovery of nature in a generation, for the benefit of people and wildlife. The proposals were been drafted by The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB and supported by more than 20 partner organisations. A joint public campaign – Act for Nature – asked politicians to act for nature. More than 9,000 people contacted their MPs about the Act (including every MP in England) before Parliament was dissolved on 31 March ahead of the 2015 General Election. The argument was that the restoration of nature – and the many ways this would benefit society – needs to be a central priority for the UK government. Now, the campaign will need to adapt to the current political context as the government negotiates the meaning and ramifications of the Brexit vote. Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing aims to track and, where possible, to participate in evolving discussions about the future of the Nature and Wellbeing Act, by bringing cultural and historical perspectives to bear on medical and environmental research and practice.
[Graphic courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts]
The connection between human wellbeing and the natural environment is a pervasive theme in twentieth and twenty-first century literature. However, there has been no significant research that addresses nature-wellbeing connections in modern writing. In the context of recent campaigns to introduce a Nature and Wellbeing Act in UK legislation, it is now an opportune moment to consider what modern and contemporary literature reveals about the role that engagements with nature play in enhancing wellbeing. What new perspectives can literature offer on subjective experiences of nature? Can policy debates about nature’s value be enhanced by insights into how nature and wellbeing connections have been understood and expressed in literary culture?
The project examines literature that reflects on human-nature relations at several key moments between 1914 and the present, beginning with post-WW1 accounts of warfare as devastating to nature and the human and including New Nature Writing focused on relations between nature and health and popular science accounts of childhood experiences of nature. This latter period corresponds with the rise of green care approaches in health and the growth of scientific studies of nature-wellbeing relations. Green care has emerged in the context of worsening environmental crisis, which environmentalists have linked to disconnection from first-hand experiences of ‘nature’. At Nature and Wellbeing Forums held in 2017, I hope to discuss these and other issues with leading practitioners and researchers of Green Care.
Medical and Environmental Context
While research into environmental factors in illness and healing has been conducted in fields of psychology, sociology, environmental science and human geography, environmental humanities scholars have been sceptical about the common-sense assumption that nature is healing, or indeed that ‘nature’ can be used as an unproblematic term for defining non-human lives and ecological relations. In environmentalist discourse and psychological research, ‘nature’ is indeed frequently named but rarely adequately defined, although researchers are often 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. In order to interrogate the nature-wellbeing relationship, I will examine literature that represents both ‘healing’ and disturbing encounters with the natural world, and which is alert to the worsening conditions of environmental crisis. How can anyone who cares about the natural world find solace in an age of climate change and biodiversity loss? How can anyone who cares about humanity prioritise care for local environments in the global context of stark social and environmental injustice?
The key research questions addressed by this project are:
1) How have 20th and 21st century authors explored the relationship between nature and wellbeing? What are some of the key ways in which nature-wellbeing relations have been culturally constructed, and how have they changed over the years?
2) What perspectives can different disciplines offer on the meaning of the terms ‘nature’ and ‘wellbeing’, and the relationship between them?
3) Do literature, literary studies and the new humanities offer ways of extending, reformulating, problematising or critiquing the characteristic construction of this relationship within green care policy discourse and nascent green care legislation, the Nature and Wellbeing Act?
4) How can collaborative research methods and innovative modes of dissemination be used to advance scholarship and demonstrate the value of the humanities in public life?