In regards to evolution, our brains have not changed very much since pre-historic times when we were hunters and gatherers out in the wild nature. Today, however, most of us live in an urban setting and are dependent on digitalization.
„In order to stimulate our pre-historic brains and to support healthy minds and habits in this new world order, we therefore need to go out into nature even if for only green “micro-breaks”.“ says Dr. Anna Erat, Harvard-trained Doctor and Medical Director for Prevention at Switzerland’s renowned private Hospital Group Hirslanden.
I’ve met with Dr. Erat in her hometown in Zurich, Switzerland after starting our conversation during the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, at an Open Forum panel discussion „Nature Heals“, which was moderated by her.
Dr. Erat, how can Nature heal humanity?
Dr. Erat: Nature provides remedies to heal and to protect us from harmful microbes and diseases. Take aspirin as an example, a natural remedy turned into a pharmaceutical milestone. Already the ancient Egyptians used willow tree leaves and bark that contained the active ingredient of aspirin to relieve fever and pain. Other examples include artemisinin and quinine against malaria, both which are derived from plants.
On a most fundamental level, however, nature clearly provides us with nutrients and antioxidants that allow us to heal and survive. The body’s trillions of cells face great threats from lack of food and due to chemicals – such as free radicals – which are generated when turning food into energy during exercise, or when the body is exposed to air pollution and sunlight. In high quantities, free radicals damage cells and genetic material. Fortunately, nature provides us with nutrients and antioxidants that neutralize these free radicals and that support DNA repair mechanisms which allow us to heal. The most familiar ones are vitamin C, flavonoids, carotenoids and vitamin E, along with the minerals like selenium and manganese.
Why is nature so important for our well-being and what are the medical benefits of being in Nature?
Most of us know firsthand that spending time in nature can make us feel better. This isn’t just a placebo effect. Years of research show that seeing vegetation, water, light, and animals is linked with many psychological benefits. We know that people who live outside cities, for instance, are less likely to experience mental distress. Similarly, small micro-breaks in nature or urban green areas are highly beneficial for stress reduction and general mental well-being. Indeed, we do need to involve nature in our daily lives for mental health and stress reduction.
But the positive effects are not only seen in mental health. Indeed 30 to 50% of all cancers – for instance – are due to lifestyle factors and risk factors such as environmental pollution, poor sanitation and water pollution as well lack of exercise among others. In fact, inactivity is regarded one of the biggest public health problems in the 21st century and is a key risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes. Hence, we have to build living spaces that allow daily exercise and promote healthy habits and walkability. Furthermore, we need to focus on circular economy in urban design that allows proper waste management, recycling and reuse which ultimately also leads to less waste and clean air and water.
What can/should we all learn from Nature?
Nature depends on self-organization, which allows an organism to survive through self-repair through a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system. Examples of self-organization in nature include crystallization, thermal convection of fluids, chemical oscillation, animal swarming, neural circuits. Similarly, economic systems and society also depend on individuals taking responsibility and action for common good and impact on a larger scale. As self-organization is the emergence of pattern and order in a system by internal processes, rather than external constraints or forces, each individual action local interactions between individuals matters when it comes to nature and sustainability. In short, we cannot solely depend on policies and governments to guide the path to health nature and sustainability. Each individual has to take responsibility as well. President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote by during his inaugural speech resonates here more than ever: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
How can we help Nature heal?
It is well known that more than 50% of the world population lives in cities and it is projected that up to 80% of the entire world population will live in an urban setting by 2060. Hence, we should ask ourselves how we can we shape urban communities and our environment so that cities are built for humans, animals (including insects) and plants and not the other way around. The question how we can allow people to live in rural environments and still be able to have modern professions and purposeful social interactions is equally important. How can we foster healthy living spaces in environments both in cities and in rural areas alike?
Green roofs are an increasingly common way of introducing more nature into cities and normally consist of low-growing plants in light-weight constructions such as walls or ceilings. Yet, there is also an acute need to balance economic development and environmental sustainability. This entails a drastic shift from a linear “take, make and waste mentality”. In regard to urban planning, Singapore offers a great example of circular economy as an integral part of the city’s green plan and zero waste masterplan. Other countries such as Finland have also adopted this approach of sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing and recycling, which is partially driven by resource scarcity. Through this kind of circular approach, we help nature heal and vice versa.
Through digitalization, and with the pandemic catalyzing remote work and home office, an increasing share of the work force can work from anywhere in the world. Today, qualified professionals can therefore also live outside cities in nature while building careers and contributing to their organization’s success. Remote and flexible working conditions therefore clearly mitigate excessive urban growth and its associated threats.
What are your most important outtakes from the „Nature Heals“ panel in Davos?
Apart from resource management – which includes circular economy and sustainable urbanization – we also how to protecting rural areas, indigenous cultures and biodiversity. The state of nature and health of humans are highly interdependent and interlinked. Hence, in order to allow nature to heal, we must support biodiversity and protect our environment from pollution such as micro-plastics and contaminated water and from climate change. The loss in biodiversity, for instance, diminishes the supplies of raw materials for drug discovery and biotechnology.
Fortunately, planetary health classes are increasingly being integrated in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum at universities such as Sunway University in Malaysia. Similarly, executive managers are being taught about the importance of health in management. Indeed, several novel emerging programs for life-long learning and second-half-of-life careers at Harvard, Oxford and St. Gallen are greatly emphasizing health in leadership and governance. Finally, healthy living and exercise classes are also becoming an integral part of early childhood education. In other words, rethinking and positively impacting nature and health are taking place on all levels of society at all ages.