Detached from our True Nature: Nature Deficit Disorder

By Kari McGregor

It’s taken a long time – many thousands of years, in fact – but we’ve gone from being a land-based species living in harmony with the landbase we knew like the back of our hand to being predominantly concrete jungle-dwellers, closed off from the habitat that we evolved in harmony with.

Spending time in nature is now considered a pastime – something we do on weekends, or during our holidays. An indulgence, a way to relax and regenerate. It’s not considered an intrinsic part of our lives. Much as our children have gone from unscheduled free play to organized playdates, our time in nature has gone from being a way of life to something we have to make room on our calendars for.

We may not be corralled or caged like the animals we breed for food or ‘research purposes’, or the ones we love to look at in zoos, but we are, nonetheless, living a life of captivity. We spend most of our daylight hours inside concrete boxes, working to schedules set by the corporate clock, running to stand still in the race against global debt.

We so rarely slow down to feel the refreshing cool spring of grass under our bare feet, or inhale the intoxicating aroma of pine or eucalyptus at dusk, or take time out to listen to the stories of forest creatures as they chirp and twitter in the trees. If we see a sunrise or a sunset, chances are it’s from the confines of a four-wheeled steel box as we commute to or from work. How many of us can even name more than a handful of the plants and animals that creep through the cracks in our captivity? How many of us have tasted the sweet freedom of life in the wild, unbound by the limits of our work schedules?

How can any species tolerate a life in captivity, so detached from its nature?

The answer for us humans, much like any other animal, is that we can’t. The effects of being detached from nature – from our nature – cause us harm in ways we are only just beginning to recognize.

What research tells us

Recent research has homed in on the positive psychological effects of spending time in nature. One study has even managed to procure quantifiable evidence for the value of walking in nature, for example. The study’s findings – that people who walked for 90 minutes in a ‘natural area’ showed decreased activity in an area of the brain associated with a key factor in depression – seems somewhat reductionist, as empirical research so often is. But it is valuable to know that there is now scientific support for the intuition that spending time in nature elevates mood and can play a role in combatting depression.

The conclusion of this research seems to miss the point, however. And some of it is even being used to support worrying initiatives such as the Natural Capital Project – a project that aims to quantify the value of natural resources and predict the economic benefits of investment in nature. Innocuous as this may sound at first blush, the notion that we should put a price tag on nature distorts the message that nature nurtures us.

The point it that it’s not so much that reconnecting with nature is good for us; it’s that disconnecting from nature is bad for us. If depression is reduced by spending time in nature, then surely this tells us more than that we should go for walks in the park more often; it tells us something about the roots of society’s ills.

Perhaps the really concerning issue here is that half of the world’s population currently lives in urban settings. This is expected to increase over the coming decades to 70%. The fact that our increased urbanization has occurred in parallel with the rise of psychological issues such as depression should cause us to pause mid-sip and ponder our latte-lifestyles more profoundly. We city-dwellers are not a happy bunch – we’re 20% more likely to have an anxiety disorder, and 40% more likely to have a mood disorder (e.g. depression) than our rural cousins. We’re also twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.

Research has also found found that spending time in nature has positive effects on aspects of cognitive function such as working memory. Again, if we look at the flipside of the coin, the emerging evidence seems to point to the conclusion that not spending time in nature is not only bad for our mental health, but it also impairs basic cognitive functioning. Simply put, our concrete jungle habitat is winding us up, getting us down, and dumbing us down.

So instead of striving to find a window of time for a playdate with nature, perhaps we ought to be looking for ways to maximize our natural connections and minimize our time spent chained to our desks.

We’ve been away from home too long

It seems obvious, instinctive even, that we suffer when out of our habitat; all animals suffer when removed from their natural habitat and prevented from expressing their true nature. But nature deficit disorder is not yet an issue that most people are aware of, much less take seriously. It’s not yet an issue even psychologists take seriously, and no diagnostic assessment for it exists.

In a recent interview for the Washington Post, famed biologist, naturalist and writer E.O. Wilson commented on the tendency of the social sciences to treat humans as distinctly different from other animal species. Our focus has been on building the perfect political systems to make our lives better while ignoring the intrinsic connection we have to nature and its impact on our wellbeing. The recent rekindling of interest in this connection is a welcome one, he comments:

Now we’ve come all the way around and are beginning, especially through studies in brain science, and psychology, including social psychology, and archaeology and biology, we’re coming to realize that there’s something a lot more complicated and deep and wondrous in the development of the human mind, than what we had imagined even. So there is a new trend and biophilia is part of that, because we know that all other animals — mobile animals, that are able to move around — are programmed to go to the right environment. They do it with no training whatsoever or anything. They just know exactly where to go and what to do when they get there. Why should human beings not have at least a strong residue of those environments in which we evolved? And those are natural environments, we originated in wildlands with certain characteristics.

Wilson believes humans have an innate tendency to crave certain types of natural environment – particularly those that mimic the African savannahs where we evolved. It should come as no surprise, then, that many visitors to such regions report instinctively feeling as though they have ‘come home’.

Surprising though this may be to urbanized westerners, land-based Indigenous cultures would likely shake their heads in disbelief that it takes a trip away from what we call home for us to get it. Culturally sanctioned studies of Indigenous Australian mental health have found that individuals who are away from ‘country’ for extended periods of time report experiencing episodes of depression due to their weakened spiritual link with their landbase, as well as their community. Could this be what so many of us are feeling, without knowing it?

Coming home – to what?    

This sense of homecoming we feel when we reconnect with our natural habitat should set alarm bells ringing as we witness the accelerated destruction of the biosphere. It is no longer simply a matter of us destroying the habitats of other living beings – we are destroying our own habitat. Wilson has grave concerns for our future survival, but also presents a radical yet viable solution:

We know that we have increased the extinction rate on the order of — the nearest power of ten — to 1,000 times the species extinction rate from when before humans came. And we now know that all of the conservation efforts in the world have together stopped the fading away, the decline to extinction, of only one fifth, 20 percent of the protected species, the species that are listed as endangered. And we know that something pretty big has to happen that’s the equivalent, in the living world, of the threshold, the critical 2 degrees Celsius line that we’re about to cross in terms of temperature change. So we have the same sort of thing in the living world. … And when I gave the solution, instead of dismissing me immediately as a crank, I’ve had a lot of people think that’s a good idea. And that is, the ‘half Earth’ solution. That is, set aside half of the Earth’s surface to natural reserves.

Setting aside half of the Earth for natural reserves may seem drastic, but it is necessary, according to Wilson, if we are at all serious about halting biodiversity loss – a giant game of Jenga we can’t afford to lose. We are all part of one system, and if that system breaks down, it’s game over for us, no matter how hard we work in our nine-to-five jobs to pay the mortgages on our white picket fence dreams.

The question for us now is this: Are we so busy slaving away in captivity – to be better able to feather our nests, or pad our cells, as the case may be – that we will miss the window of opportunity to halt the decline? Or will we slow down for long enough to take note of what really nurtures us, and dedicate ourselves to nurturing it back?

The price we pay for our alienation from the natural world is that of our wellbeing – physical, emotional and spiritual. It’s time we paid back our nature deficit and got back in touch with our true nature. It’s time to go home.


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  • Nice work, Kari. I agree that we need to return home to our natural ways of life. It should also be mentioned that this unnatural way, the departure from sustainable, biosphere-friendly communal life that has increased among our species over the “many thousands of years” that you mention in the beginning of your essay, has only occurred for 2.5% of the existence of homo sapiens sapiens–about 5,000 out of 200,000 years. So this unnatural way of being–living disconnected from home–is not really normal for the broad span of the existence of our species. That fact alone should bring to us a deeper sense as to why what we are doing now is unsustainable.

    Regarding the idea of reserving half the Earth’s surface in its natural state, I am not sure, but I think that Wilson might have meant to say it should be much more than half. When we consider that two thirds of the Earth’s surface is water (mostly ocean) and that most of that two thirds is not inhabited as human residence locations or “developments” (with the exception of ships, submarines, oil rigs, etc.), what Wilson might mean is to set aside half of the land mass as nature reserves, making closer to a total of five sixths of the Earth’s surface as protected reserves. I would suggest that we go much further than that and return the whole planet to its natural state and that humans re-learn how to live by Nature’s rules and order.


    • Cheers, and yeah, I totally agree.

      I think Wilson’s suggestion was based on the ice-free terrestrial surface, which, as you say, is much smaller than half of the Earth’s total surface. I’m with you on reducing the human footprint to as small as is feasible, leaving the rest of the planet to return to the wild.

      Simply put, if we don’t return to living by nature’s rules then we have no future, so it’s a non-negotiable. The question for me is more one of how to orient people to the idea and get them taking baby steps in that direction; otherwise those of us who do our best are still going down with this ship if others don’t come to the party, so to speak.


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