In this episode, we discuss:
- Lucy’s background
- Why our connection to nature is fundamental to our health
- Biophilia defined: our innate drive toward other living things
- Why nature is especially vital for children
- Ensuring that nature is accessible to all: a basic human right
Losing Eden, by Lucy Jones
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. If you’ve been following my work for any length of time, you know that I’ve always been a big believer that there’s a lot more to health than just food and supplements.
In my first book, The Paleo Cure, I talked about the importance of things like physical activity, sleep, [and] stress management. Of course, these are still fairly obvious. But then also, things like pleasure and fun and having a purpose, social connection, and connection with nature [are important]. So these all are as vital to our happiness and well-being as humans as eating healthy nutrient-dense food, but they tend to get less attention. And in particular, I’ve become increasingly interested in the role that nature, natural spaces, and our relationship with nature plays in health, both for adults and children. And that’s the topic of today’s show.
I’m going to be speaking with Lucy Jones, who was born in Cambridge, and attended University College London. She’s written extensively on culture, science, and nature. Her articles have been published on BBC Earth and [in] the Sunday Times, the Guardian, and the New Statesman. And she has a book out called Losing Eden, which is all about the increasing disconnection between humans and their natural environment, and what science, philosophy, and other disciplines tell us about the consequences of this disconnection, both for adults and especially for children. So we’ll talk about why connection with nature is so important for human beings. We’ll talk about this concept of biophilia, love of life, that E.O. Wilson introduced back in the ‘80s. We’ll talk about the old friends hypothesis, which I’ve discussed before on the show, and why it’s so relevant in the context of rising rates of chronic disease, especially autoimmune disease.
We’ll talk about the very disturbing trend of children spending less and less time outdoors. And in fact, one of the most shocking statistics from her book was that three-quarters of 5- to 12-year-olds in the UK now spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. We’ll talk about how conventional schooling contributes to the trend of children spending less time outdoors, and then how we can make access to nature more equitable across all social and demographic categories and how that access to nature can actually act as a leveler on the playing field, so to speak. I really enjoyed this conversation, [and] I hope you do, as well. So, without further delay, I bring you Lucy Jones.
Chris Kresser: Lucy, thanks so much for joining the show. It’s a pleasure to have you on.
Lucy Jones: It’s my pleasure, too. Thank you for having me.
Chris Kresser: Before we jump into the topic, which is one that I’m really interested in and I’ve talked a lot about before on the show, I’d love to learn a little bit more about your background and what got you interested in connection with nature, why that’s important for human beings and for kids, in particular, and what brought you to this moment in time that we’re having this conversation.
Lucy Jones: Sure, so I’m a science and environment journalist based in England, and I had a personal experience almost 10 years ago of a health crisis. I found that alongside the more conventional therapies like psychiatry and psychotherapy, walking daily in the natural world became profoundly important in my recovery. I was living a very typical urban life in London; I knew nothing about the natural world. I barely saw daylight on the weekends. And the powerful effect of that daily connection with a marshland in northeast London was so profoundly powerful. And it almost kind of replaced the substance that I was self-medicating with and that I’d [gotten] into trouble with addiction-wise. It was so powerful that I really wanted to find out and investigate what was happening in that space to my body, what was happening to my brain, my nervous system, [and] my limbic system.
We talk a lot now, and there’s a lot of more dialogue about the relationship between the living world and our health and our mental and emotional health. But 10 years ago or so, it felt like quite a weird thing to be doing. It wasn’t something that my doctor would recommend. I kind of stumbled on it by accident. I’d gone running, and I obviously knew that running could boost my endorphins. And, yeah, it was this thing that I stumbled upon. And so that was the beginning of my research journey, which became Losing Eden, the book that came out of it. And what I wanted to do was to look at this relationship between the natural world and the human psyche through different prisms and inquire into it and explore it. Well maybe into it that when we’re in a natural environment, it’s in some way good for us. But what does that actually mean? What are the mechanisms? What’s the nuts and bolts of what’s happening? I was really fascinated by that question.
Our disconnection from nature is one of many ways that we have diverged from our evolutionary heritage. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I talk with science and environment journalist, Lucy Jones, about why spending time in the natural world is crucial to living a happy and healthy life. #chriskresser
Why Our Connection to Nature Is Fundamental to Our Health
Chris Kresser: What did you learn in that journey as you did that deep dive into the mechanisms and the underpinnings from a scientific perspective, philosophical perspective? We’re, of course, going to spend the rest of the time talking about that. But in general, how would you answer that question? Why is connection with nature so vitally important for human beings?
Lucy Jones: Sure, yeah. I guess, Chris, what I discovered and what kind of blew my mind was that connection and contact with the natural environment can really affect us from our heads to our toes. I thought there might be a silver bullet piece of evidence or one pathway or mechanism that might explain why people find spending time in nature therapeutic. In fact, what happened was I, through fortunate timing, walked into this vast scientific field at the moment of scientists in different disciplines across the world trying to answer the same question I was fascinated in and measure and explore what happens. And, essentially, if we want to live happy and healthy lives, spending time in the natural world, or having opportunities to commune with other species or spend time in restorative natural environments is not something we can do without.
I think when I went into it, I had this thought that I loved nature as a kid and I was kind of reconnecting, and I was privileged to have opportunities outside as a kid. And it was something that maybe someone like me who likes nature or could see it as a hobby, that it might work for people who are into nature or want to go hiking or tree climbing on the weekend. But in fact, one of the most important and powerful things that I learned through looking at all the research and evidence was that everyone needs restorative natural environments. It’s like having a good night’s sleep or a varied diet. The scientific evidence is robust now. I [wanted] to write about the best peer-reviewed empirical evidence, and we have that now, you know?
Chris Kresser: Yes.
Lucy Jones: We know it’s good for our health.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, we have a lot of it. I would agree with that entirely. My perspective, the lens that I look through, is the ancestral lens. And our disconnection from nature is one of many ways that we have diverged from our evolutionary heritage. And you could talk about that in the context of, we eat highly processed and refined foods, which our bodies are not prepared for. And they’re devoid of nutrients, and they have a whole bunch of other stuff that’s not great. We’re not sleeping as much as our bodies need, [and] we have this unhealthy relationship with technology that triggers all these hardwired mechanisms that make us vulnerable to them. And then, this disconnection, this profound disconnection with nature is one more of those examples of how we’ve diverged from the way that we evolved in a natural environment. And I think when people hear this, sometimes the response is something along the lines of, “Oh, okay, well, what do you expect? Am I supposed to just move into a cave somewhere and live outside in my backyard? What am I supposed to do about that if I live in New York City, or London, or Singapore,” or any number of other big cities around the world where that kind of connection with the natural world is a little bit more difficult to come by than it is if you live in a rural environment? Or somewhere where you have access to nature and the outdoors? So what about that?
Lucy Jones: That’s a great question. I’m really interested in the ancestral angle, too, and I think one of the most compelling areas of research or kind of a prism to think about this issue is through the evolutionary framework. We spent 99 percent of our time in nature. It wasn’t nature then, of course; it was home. Snakes mattered, the shapes of trees mattered, [and] whether we could smell the earth after it [had] rained mattered. That is how we evolved. But what do we do if we live in urban areas? I live in a very urban town on quite a busy road, and I’m a big advocate of urban nature. I think that it’s really possible to connect to urban parks and gardening, and a lot of the evidence and the studies into nature and health are conducted in urban spaces and show the importance of tree-lined streets, parks with wild areas, [and] wild playgrounds for children.
For example, an interesting study that came out of Edinburgh found that when people walked through a park compared to a busy road and then entered a kind of loud, stressful urban environment, the green space in the park seemed to buffer the stress of moving into that urban environment. So even something as simple as taking a maybe slightly longer route or going through a park toward the shops can have this potential measurable effect on our brain chemistry. Saying that, yes, it’s possible to get many of the therapeutic benefits in urban areas. But that doesn’t mean that we should let our planning and housing and town planners and designers off the hook. We need biophilic cities and towns. We need to incorporate the natural world more into our urban spaces where, of course, the vast majority of people are now living. And there’s lots of fascinating evidence into how green roofs can affect concentration or how areas with trees and scrubs and playgrounds can affect play for children and make it more creative. It’s really possible to get those health benefits in an urban area, as well.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I’ve read research suggesting that even, for example, patients in the hospital who had a window that looked out onto some kind of natural landscape, or where you could even see any trees at all, had faster recovery rates than patients who were in either windowless rooms or rooms that had windows that just looked at, like, the brick wall of the building next to the hospital or something like that. And then even plants inside of a home can make a difference in terms of that contact with the natural world. And I think it’s important to separate the problem from the solution, too. Recognizing that it is a basic human need is absolutely essential, even if we don’t yet know what the solution is going to be. Because then we can start thinking more clearly about solutions, and like you said, we can include it in city planning and even basic things like we just talked about. Like how windows are oriented, and it can become part of this bigger conversation about how we approach everything from designing the places that we live [in] to the buildings that we work in and to the schools that our kids are learning in, etc.
Lucy Jones: Exactly. And I don’t know what it’s like for you where you live, but certainly, when I look around the town I live in, in England, you would think that this message isn’t yet going through, and there’s so much room for potential. I have very young children, and I look at the playground. We just got this new playground across the way, and it’s just kind of like mundane tarmac. And we know that children are happier and healthier with more natural areas, but it’s just not getting through yet despite this evidence base. But let’s hope. I think we all suffer from a lack of nature, even if we don’t realize that.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. I’m sure you’re well familiar with Richard Louv’s Last Child In The Woods. It was published back in 2008. And he coined this term “nature-deficit disorder,” which really does elevate it to the level of any other kind of deficiency that we might suffer from, whether it’s a nutritional deficiency or deficiency of sleep, a deficiency of nature can impact us in similar ways. So I agree with you that the consciousness around this is changing, particularly in certain niches, perhaps, but it’s been slow to percolate down into all of the different areas that it needs to reach. For example, the planning department of whatever agency planned that playground across the street from you. It doesn’t have to look that way. You could imagine a pretty interesting playground with rock gardens and twisty paths and trees and plants and things that would be so great. And there’s not really an obstacle to doing it that way other than just a change in mindset and a paradigm shift.
Lucy Jones: Exactly. Yeah, that’s what we need.
Biophilia Defined: Our Innate Drive Toward Other Living Things
Chris Kresser: E.O. Wilson talked about this a lot. He wrote, or I think it was pretty slim, I don’t know if it qualifies as a book, maybe a volume called Biophilia back in 1984, which means, of course, “love of life.” And he used that to label humans’ innate tendency to focus on living things in connection with the living world as opposed to inanimate objects. And back at that time, there was very little formal evidence to support it. But he was, perhaps, a bit of a modern pioneer in this thought process. So, [what] do you think of biophilia and what are the ways that we suffer when that innate drive to connect with nature is not fulfilled?
Lucy Jones: The reason I got interested in Wilson’s Biophilia, which, as you say, Chris, was such a forward-thinking hypothesis, was because I would walk to my local nature area, which is a pretty wild cemetery, and I would walk underneath a particular tree. And I was having a period of stress and anxiety at that time. But I always found that when I walked under this tree, I seemed to have this split second effect, as if I [had] just done a yoga class; I felt really relaxed afterward. And it just got me thinking about the shape of trees and the landscapes that we have evolved in. And I started to look into it. I discovered this theory of biophilia and one of the really interesting ways it has been tested. As you say, [The] biophilia hypothesis is this idea that, because we have spent 99 percent of our evolutionary history in the natural world, we have this innate affiliation and an innate interest in living things.
So Gordon Orians tested different shaped trees and found out that we still have a preference and a disposition within us to prefer savanna-shaped trees in landscapes similar to those we evolved in. An example [of a savanna-shaped tree] would be an Acacia tortilis, so quite low-hanging long stretching branches, and if you can picture one, small leaves, exactly like the one that I was walking underneath. And they’ve tested this today, and they find people still have this preference for this shape. And also for landscapes, which have prospect and refuge, prospect, meaning being able to look around, look across, presumably, in case of any danger coming and refuge, again, for shelter. It’s so fascinating to me that we still like those landscapes. I suppose what we are missing out on and what we’re lacking, if we don’t have that connection, I mean, it’s myriad, it’s multiple things.
When I started looking into this, it was such a fertile and interesting area of study. Because I think about the nervous system and then read research on how the natural environment affects our nervous system, in particular that it activates our parasympathetic nervous system, rather than our sympathetic one. Or neuroscience. So we know that spending time in nature activates areas of the brain associated with calmness and well-being and inflammation and [the] immune system. The picture that I was getting and that I [wrote] about in Losing Eden was very much that all of the systems that make up the human body, and what we think of as the human mind, are so much more intricately linked to our natural environments than we realize. We’ve kind of forgotten that we are part of nature and that we evolved in nature. And I guess one of the interesting areas in that is the old friends [hypothesis] and the kind of microbial relationship, which I was interested in, too.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I’ve been fascinated by that for many years. I had Moises Velasquez-Manoff on my show several years ago, and he, of course, wrote a book about that, and it was a really interesting conversation. In my own medical history, I became very sick with a complex chronic illness in my 20s, and part of my wacky circuitous path toward wellness involved doing helminthic therapy.
Lucy Jones: Oh, wow.
Chris Kresser: Which is based, of course, on the hygiene hypothesis and the old friends hypothesis. So I’m probably one of the few people, I mean, there aren’t that many that have done this therapy. And for those that are listening, this means, and this is going to sound crazy for people who didn’t hear that podcast, it means purposely infecting myself with a hookworm infection to stimulate an immune response that balance[s] and regulate[s] the immune system. So we can circle back to that. But I have both professional and personal interest in this topic.
Lucy Jones: Did it work?
Chris Kresser: It was one of the things that helped along the way. So, it wasn’t like a black and white, I was sick one day and better the next day type of thing. Some people do have that experience, but it was one of many factors for me. So yeah, what is the old friends hypothesis, and how is that relevant to what we’re talking about here? And then we can chat a little bit more about that.
Lucy Jones: Sure. So the old friends hypothesis states that the many, many microbes that we evolved alongside play a role in our immune systems and crucially can treat or block chronic inflammation. So there [are] two different types of inflammation, as I’m sure your listeners will know. One is the normal healthy type, which if you get a cut, there’s inflammation or a bruise. But there is chronic inflammation, which is raised background inflammation, which is associated with all kinds of autoimmune disorders and psychiatric disorders and disease. And that is common in industrialized and urban environments. And concurrently, the gut microbiota of people who live in urban areas are less biodiverse compared with traditional communities. You have a profound connection with the land.
And some really interesting studies have looked into this and how, for example, a guy called Graham Rook who I interviewed for Losing Eden who developed this old friends hypothesis, compared kids living in Amish communities to kids living in Hutterite communities. The Amish still live very close to the land; they have barns where the kids run in and out, living alongside livestock. Whereas the Hutterites live in more industrialized, air-conditioned areas. Kind of they’re on tractors, like lots of machinery, and they’re high off the ground. And the studies basically found that the Amish environment could protect against allergic asthma and other allergies. So the children and the Amish had a much lower prevalence of allergic disorders. And other studies that speak interestingly to this, such as those that show that contact with natural environments in pregnancy or in the neonatal period results in lower prevalence of allergic disorder. So essentially, it’s this idea that through our industrialized way of life, we are missing out on these old friends, these missing microbes, who we actually co-evolved with and we require for our health.
The reason I got interested in it was because I moved to a house with a garden for the first time in my adult life and started gardening and noticed that my baby daughter would eat soil. So she was eating the soil, and I found that I always had a buzz after gardening, particularly when I’d been digging my hands deep in the soil. And I wondered [if there was] anything else going on. And I read somewhere about this idea that there was a microbe in this soil, which had an antidepressant-like effect. Initially, I was really skeptical. I thought, really? But I mean, yeah. So, Rook and Chris Lowry have built on some really interesting work and found that Mycobacterium vaccae, which is the name of this particular mycobacteria in the soil, does boost serotonin in the brain. So if you’re into gardening or growing stuff, that might be why you get a buzz afterward.
Chris Kresser: Yet another mechanism, sun exposure, physical activity, just the calming of cortisol levels, and possibly this microbial interaction. It really is fascinating. And I think there was that other famous study [in] Finland or Iceland, I can’t remember, where they compared two groups of the same population with the same ethnicity. But one was on the one side of a border living in a much more sterile clean environment and then the other was living in a much different environment more connected to land, similar to the Amish study that you mentioned. And there were similar differences in terms of autoimmune disorders, atopy, allergy, etc. And the interesting thing is, this could just be a hypothesis, right? Or it could just be an association.
But now, there’s a lot of other research, which is what led me in the direction that I went, where they were testing that hypothesis by inoculating people with the same kinds of organisms that humans and even all mammals have harbored for 300 million years back into the history of mammalian evolution, like whipworm and hookworm. And these typically, at the level of infection that most people would acquire, are not harmful. But they do have some very interesting immune-tuning effects. And so Joel Weinstock, who is one of the early adopters of this theory, has been treating patients with Crohn’s [disease] and inflammatory bowel disease with these helminths, these worms, at least since the early 2000s, maybe even back into the ‘90s, with pretty impressive results.
So it’s beyond just an association; there’s actually clinical evidence suggesting that this is real and that something happened when we, there’s no doubt that sanitation has saved millions of lives. So we need to acknowledge that. And nobody is suggesting that we go back to drinking completely unfiltered, polluted water and we lose all of the gains that we had from sanitation. But I think this falls into the category of maybe unintended consequences or going too far, where, yes, we reduce deaths because of the improvements in sanitation. But unknowingly, we perhaps dramatically increased rates of autoimmune disease and allergies and other things, which are now having, I think, the latest statistics suggest that in the [United States], and I’m sure it’s similar in the UK, up to one in five people now have an autoimmune disease. So this is no small thing.
Lucy Jones: Absolutely. And I think it is an example of one of those things where it’s just gone too far. Obviously, everyone needs and wants sanitation, but it’s kind of the cooping up of people indoors, and they’re paving over and tarmacking all the natural environments.
Chris Kresser: And even the hand, especially prior to COVID[-19], like the obsession when this was even perhaps less necessary, and that’s a whole other conversation. But antibacterial soaps [are] everywhere you go that are like this trying to get rid of all traces of microbial life everywhere.
Lucy Jones: Yeah, exactly. I guess the good news is that the studies show that spending time in natural environments does increase your exposure to those old friends. So, we know that that is one way of getting those guys back into us, as it were, and exposing ourselves to the diversity that we need. And that’s quite a simple thing, in a way, going into a natural environment. For some people, it’s complex, but in terms of public health, that is something that could be quite easily done, you know?
Chris Kresser: Yeah and affordably relative to the cost of some of the other interventions, or even relative to the cost of an 8-year-old developing diabetes. But that requires a preventative, forward-thinking kind of mindset, which at the current time, at least, [is] not what our healthcare system is driven by. So it’s much more reactive.
Lucy Jones: Yeah, and there’s no money in telling people to go.
Chris Kresser: There’s certainly no money in that. That’s not going to be patented anytime soon.
Why Nature Is Especially Vital for Children
Chris Kresser: While we’re on the subject of kids, I want to talk a little bit more about this, and how important nature is for kids in particular. Because this is a passion of mine. You asked about my town and where I live now. I used to live in the Bay Area in Berkeley, as many of my listeners know, which is kind of a mixed place. There’s certainly an urban area in certain parts. But there are also other parts where there’s a lot of trees, and it butts up against a regional park. So there’s pretty decent access to nature. But I currently live in a little mountain town in Utah.
Lucy Jones: Wow.
Chris Kresser: And the decision to move here was largely related to our own biophilia and our deep yearning and desire to be more closely connected to nature and have better access to nature, and, in particular, to provide that for our daughter. Now, we’re very fortunate and privileged to be able to make that move. Not everybody can do that for lots of different reasons. But it was a driving factor for me, because I’m acutely aware of how nature affects me in so many different ways. And I started to observe that in our daughter, as she was getting older. And we wanted to do anything we could to facilitate that for us [and] for her.
So, in your book, and I stay pretty up to date on this, like all the research with kids’ connection with nature, but I had never encountered this statistic that you shared in your book, possibly because it’s UK-based, and I’m in the [United States]. But you mentioned that three-quarters of 5- to 12-year-old children in the UK now spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. Even for someone like me who knows a lot about this issue, that was shocking and horrifying. So what is going on here? What is behind this trend in your opinion? And why is nature so especially important for kids?
Lucy Jones: Yeah, I think that’s maybe the most horrifying statistic in the book and one that people seem to really strike a chord [with] because it seems so off-key that children aren’t having that time outdoors. And [there are so many things] behind the trend. I think one of the most pernicious aspects of this is something that Robert Pyle, the writer and American environmentalist, calls the extinction of experience. And that refers to this idea that as the generations are born at the same time as extinction and extinction increasing and habitat decline and population numbers plummeting of different animals and plant life and so on, that there’s this shifting baseline syndrome.
So, for example, my grandmother had this innate sense of the natural world and how it works. My parents knew maybe half of what they knew, I probably knew, until I got really into it again, maybe 5 percent of like, at school, we weren’t taught the folklore or the names of anything, or there wasn’t a nature table. There seems to have been this creeping winnowing trend of cooping kids up indoors. And I guess some of the main culprits [are] the essential overlooking and forgetting of the natural environment and how it is our life support system, and how much we need it for our health and sanity. But also more subtle things like the dominance of cars. Our cities and towns are so built around the motorcar, and that means kids can’t go out and play. Technology and screens, a sense of urban design, forgetting about children and not incorporating the needs of children to play safely or to play in natural environments.
Over here, we have quite a big problem with insect phobia. So a lot of children don’t want to play outside because they’re really scared of spiders. And it sounds absurd. But in interviews that I’ve done recently, it is one of the main issues that kids are frightened [of] or they don’t want to put [inaudible 35:20] in case. In saying that there is a really exciting response to this growing evidence base, and this intuitive sense that so many of us have that kids need nature. And that’s the growing forest schools movement where children are taken outside to play in the woods as part of their school day. And it’s by no means across the board or at any kind of scale. It’s not properly supported or invested in by [the] government or incorporated into the curriculum, but there is this kind of rising up of grassroots action and parents who want their kids to be outdoors more. And I mean, what can it do?
It sounds like you’ve seen it yourself in your daughter, but we know that children who connect with nature in childhood are less likely to have mental health issues later. We know that children who live in deprived or disadvantaged areas can actually benefit even more from contact with nature. An interesting study, I think it was in 2003, found that contact with nature could buffer the stress of disadvantaged kids. And also, we’re starting to learn really frightening effects of air pollution and how our environments are affecting children’s lungs. And there’s this link now between air pollution and mental illness and psychosis and schizophrenia. So these restorative natural environments are so vital for children, for so many reasons.
Chris Kresser: I’m glad you brought up schools because I think this is definitely one of the main obstacles for kids spending a lot of time outdoors. Here, I’m not sure what the hours are in the UK, but a lot of kids start school at 8:15, 8:30, sometimes earlier, and they get out of school at 3:30, and between the coming and going and the transitions, that leaves very, very little time for them to spend time outside, especially with the rising amounts of homework and things like that. And some of my listeners know, longtime listeners know, our daughter has gone to forest schools most of her life or similar. And she will likely be doing that again this year. And that’s just, for me and my wife, we could never really get our heads around the idea of her just sitting inside of a classroom all day. It just really didn’t seem like the best way to meet our goals for her education.
And when I say education, I mean that word in the true sense. Not just purely academic goals of memorizing information, but her to really be educated about the world and the way that made the most sense to us. And I wonder if you came across the Norwegian term friluftsliv in your research, which is, I believe it means free air life or open-air living. And this is a concept of education in Norway, where it’s recognized that being outside and celebrating time in nature and interacting with the natural world is actually a critical part of a child’s education. And what do [you] know? Norway is at the top of the list or near the top of the list in educational outcomes, and not just for the things you might expect with that increased contact in nature, but also in math and reading and other kind[s] of traditional academic measures. So I think that’s a good testament to how important this is to kids, not just for their physical health and mental health and well-being, but even for the development of their cognitive faculties and their ability to thrive in their educational environment.
Lucy Jones: Yeah, I think that recently, there was a study that said that, I think it was from Finland, about an increased IQ. But I don’t know if you’ve heard of Edith Cobb; she was a great polymath, who studied the autobiographies of hundreds of creative geniuses over the last  or 300 years. And she found that the one factor they all seemed to have was contact with a natural environment and a relationship with the living world as children. And her theory, I think, is really interesting. It was that being in constant interaction with the natural environment with all its smells and sounds and textures, and the interconnectedness of all the metamorphosis and so on, was kind of like the perfect environment for the brain plasticity for a child.
It’s stimulating, but not like, kind of hyper-stimulating. And I think, if we’re, as you say, and put it so well about education, if we’re basing education on whether children are going to come out with good results, nature is helpful, as well, on top of all the therapeutic benefits, too. My daughter went to Woodland preschool and she’s about to go into a normal school; she’s nearly five and I’m really nervous about it, because she’s been outside for her first five years, basically. And I just don’t know how it’s going to work in a classroom. Because the one that she’s going to does do a forest school, which is great, but it’s often still seen as a kind of add-on here. It’s not really woven in. It should be just part of their everyday life in spending time outdoors and finding that kinship with the other species that they naturally have; they innately love it.
Ensuring That Nature Is Accessible to All: A Basic Human Right
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s common to all children across all cultures. It’s built-in and hardwired in all of us, I think. While we’re on this topic, maybe we should talk a little bit, you address this in the book. And again, someone could be listening to this and say, “Well, that’s all well and good. I live in a place where there isn’t any access to that kind of nature. There are no forest schools in my urban community being offered. And even if [there] were, how would they do that? And aren’t those schools more expensive? We have to send our kids to public schools.” And so how can more equitable access to nature help to address some of these social inequalities in health and well-being? And then, if we turn that around, how can we ensure that this access to nature is not just for people that can afford it, and that it’s actually something that is considered to be a basic human right like other rights that we think about?
Lucy Jones: It’s a great question. I really think it’s one of, if not the most important one in this whole area. So one of the most, I think, game-changing, and one academic described it to me as beautiful, I think it is beautiful work, is some research around the concept of equigenesis. An equigenic environment is an environment that can decrease the gap between the rich and poor. So you can decrease income-related health inequalities.
A research team looked at communities in England, which [were] disadvantaged and deprived but seemed to be doing better than expected and had this resilience, and the health of the community was higher than would normally be expected. And they found that the factor [that] decided that was the access to green space and the presence of the natural environment in those areas. And so they concluded that nature could actually lessen the social inequalities and this gap between rich and poor. Which I think when we think about the natural world as being just something for people who can afford it or for the affluent or the trend and pattern of building nice parks in affluent areas and so on, it really is a public health issue. All people need restorative natural environments.
So the impetus is on policymakers and local authorities to change and increase access and opportunities for all people. And I think that, going back to children and childhood, it seems to me that education and national curriculum is so important, because so many children don’t have those opportunities, whether it’s through not being able to get in a car to get anywhere or we know that communities with social disadvantage, or low income have a lot less access to natural environments. And those issues can be addressed through schools. I did some interviews with forest school leaders, and some children are only leaving the house to get from home to school and back. So making forest school within the curriculum mandatory is really important, I think.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, when I was at UC Berkeley many, many years ago, I took a lot of classes in the education department, and one of them was environmental education. And again, these ideas were fairly new. This was in the early ‘90s. And there was a pilot program that we did with Washington Elementary school in Berkeley. And there was something called the Washington Environmental Yard that was created by, gosh, I forget the name now. But they made a huge effort to plant beautiful trees and make this beautiful natural space right in the midst of this urban elementary school. And so those of us who were participating in this program would go down there and teach environmental education to these kids and just spend time with them in that environment and help them identify different plants and animals, insect species, and then we started also taking them on trips up to Tilden Park, which is just a few miles away as the crow flies from downtown Berkeley. But many of these kids had never been in a natural environment like that, until Tilden Park, which is a large regional park. So it’s not quite as big as a state park or a national park. But it’s really big, thousands of acres.
And a lot of these kids had never left that immediate inner-city environment and had never seen a green space, had never seen a deer, had never seen the kind[s] of birds that are there, had never just had their bare feet on the grass or on the dirt like that. And it was a transformative experience for them and for me and a revelation of how much we need that and how easy it was. These were not hugely expensive interventions, just planting a garden and having a natural green space in the playground area of the elementary school. And then doing a bus trip that was a half hour up into these areas. And I think some of the kids wrote the next year that had had a lasting impact on them, just that single trip that they took with us. So it’s really powerful. And it really does need to be part of the conversation.
Lucy Jones: Yeah, that sounds so brilliant. And I think if you have that experience, the evidence suggests that if kids are given those opportunities to spend time in the natural world as children, that’s the defining factor that will lead to them having [a] relationship with nature in adulthood, and then with all the ensuing therapeutic benefits. Another aspect that I was really interested in writing about was some of the things that you can get from the natural world, which aren’t easy to measure in a lab or through peer-reviewed studies. You have a sense of knowing the Earth or finding comfort or refuge or solace in the ineffable, numinous almost inexpressible parts of being in the natural world, transcendence, and so on. I think that without everyone having opportunities for that, our lives are less full of wonder and awe and magic.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. So, your book is called Losing Eden: Our Fundamental Need for the Natural World—and Its Ability To Heal Body and Soul. It’s a fantastic book and so important, especially at this time, when so many of us have been sequestered because of the pandemic. And kids in particular are suffering from that. I think, to some extent, it makes it a little more difficult to do this. But from another perspective, we know the outdoors is one of the safest places to be at this difficult time that we’re in now. And so even more reason to get kids outside and get ourselves outside and back in contact with the natural world. So this is on Amazon here in the [United States] and I imagine in the UK, and is it in stores, as well?
Lucy Jones: Yeah, it is in stores.
Chris Kresser: Great, awesome. The few bookstores that are left, unfortunately. I spent so much time in my life in bookstores, but I guess that’s not meant to be anymore.
Lucy Jones: Yeah, I’ve heard that there [are] really not many in the States anymore.
Chris Kresser: You still have them over there?
Lucy Jones: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Kresser: Good for you.
Lucy Jones: I love them so much.
Chris Kresser: Amazon has not completely taken over the UK yet. Yeah, you’re lucky to find a bookstore here. We do have one in our local town, which I still like to go in and browse. There’s nothing like that.
Lucy Jones: There’s nothing like that, exactly.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. For those of us who love to read, I really enjoyed the book. And I appreciated your diverse perspectives, everything from, like we’ve been talking about, how it affects kids to the old friends hypothesis and how it directly might impact things like our immune health to looking at equity and ensuring that nature access becomes a part of the discussion across all social and economic and demographic categories. I really enjoyed it and would encourage people to go check it out. And Lucy, thanks for joining us and spending time on the show.
Lucy Jones: My pleasure. It was really great to talk to you. Thank you for having me.
Chris Kresser: Great, thank you. Okay, everybody, thanks for listening. Keep sending your questions in to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.