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Biophilia & Nostalgia - helping people to find their place in nature

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

By making a link between biophilia and nostalgia, can we help people to find their place in nature?

Nature in crisis

Nature is in crisis with 56 per cent of the species studied for the State of Nature report 2016 being in decline and one in ten of those species believed to be under threat of extinction from the UK (Hayhow et al., 2016). The findings conclude that farming and climate change are the two most significant factors in UK nature’s demise (National Trust, 2016). This is no surprise when about 60 per cent of the earth’s ecosystem services are used unsustainably and humanity’s load on the biosphere is about 150 per cent of the earth’s capacity, this compared to 70 per cent in 1961 (Clayton & Myers, 2015). With people believed to be at the heart of the nature crisis, great efforts are being made to find solutions to bring about behaviour change for the benefit of people and wildlife. This essay explores the notion of bringing together biophilia, humans innate need of nature (Wilson, 1984) with nostalgia, the wistful affection for the past (Hawker, 2006), to help people find their place in nature.

Nature deficit disorder, a phrase coined by Richard Louv in 2005, describes the worldwide concern for children’s modern day disconnection with the natural world, believed to be a contributing factor to nature being in crisis (Louv, 2005). Conversely, nature connectedness, described as the feeling of close affinity to the natural world which is physical, cognitive and emotional (Gelden Tauber, 2012), may be a mechanism by which the crisis is slowed down or even reversed. Studies have found that those people who are connected to nature, spend more time in nature (Mayer & McPherson Frantz, 2004; Nisbet, Zelenski & Murphy, 2009; Tam, 2013) and feelings of connectedness can be boosted by nature contact (Mayer et al., 2009; Nisbet & Zelenski, 2011). Hence the concern regarding statistics quoted in the Natural Childhood report (Moss, 2012), that fewer than twenty-five percent of children frequent their local green spaces compared to over fifty percent of the previous generation when they were children (Natural England, 2009), and as the RSPB state in their Youth Strategy, fewer children connecting with nature will translate into fewer guardians of the environment (RSPB, 2013).

As the phrase suggests, nature deficit disorder is not only concerned with nature’s well-being, but deemed a human condition, believed to have significant impact of children’s physical, mental and spiritual health and well-being. Statistics supporting such a notion include childhood obesity almost doubling since the 1980’s (Ogden et al., 2014), the equivalent of three children per class suffering from a diagnosable mental health disorder (Young Minds, 2011), and since the beginning of this millennium, 68% more young people being admitted to hospital due to self-harming (Young Minds, 2011). It is no wonder that government and health bodies are supporting schemes to improve nature connectedness for the benefit of human well-being and with this as a platform for funding and support, conservation organisations can piggyback on health campaigns and challenges to legislation to improve nature connectedness for the benefit of nature.


Where nostalgia projects past emotional attachment to present experiences, biophilia is the innate bond humans have with nature, and together may serve as a catalyst for generating a pride of place and responsibility for nature as part of the self. Behaviours and emotional experiences are not encoded in our genes, however a tendency to respond in a particular way to certain stimuli can have a genetic basis. The biophilia hypothesis therefore, suggests that human’s evolutionary dependency on nature has developed a genetically based predisposition to take significant interest in and consequently develop a connection with nature (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). Such connection, or relationship with nature, enabling fulfillment of holistic human well-being needs, be they utilitarian, cognitive, of affect, spiritual, or indeed the human need for transcendence, means that for a person to be in close proximity of or better still, immersed in nature, is to unconsciously feed a person’s confidence in their ability to survive, and survive well. Described by Haidt, (2006), as one of the most significant psychological concepts, the meaning of life refers to people’s belief that their life is important and transcends the earth (Steger, 2009), and empirical evidence has found associations between nature connectedness and meaning in life (Nisbet & Zelenski, 2011).

Wilson (1984) identifies the link between biophilia and human well-being, describing not least the concern for “what will happen to the human psyche when biophilia, a defining part of human evolutionary process is diminished if not erased?” (p. 35). Biophilia is considered to be one of three main theories encompassing the physical and psychological well-being of humans through nature connectedness (Capaldi et al., 2015). The others being attention restoration and stress reduction (Keyes & Annas, 2009). Natural environments are considered to be particularly restorative as they enable us to effortlessly engage with our involuntary attention (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989), whilst improved concentration whilst in nature has been empirically proven (Berman, Jonides & Kaplan, 2008; Berto, 2005; Hartig et al., 2003; Van den Berg et al., 2002). Stress-reduction theory maintains that a variety of stress reducing psychophysiological responses, are elicited through exposure to unthreatening, natural environments (Ulric et al, 1991), and nature contact has proven to lower pulse rates, heighten immunity and reduce cortisol levels (Park et al., 2010; Bowler et al., 2010). Such links between nature and human well-being may indeed be evidence of the existence of biophilia itself. Further indications include studies demonstrating that non-human primates are attuned to natural landscapes (Verbeek & de Waal, 2002), most, if not all, native peoples in studied groups perceived the natural world to be an integral part of their life that could not be separated from their cultural life (Sabloff, 2001), and across cultures, people’s favourite place is most likely to be natural (Korpela et al., 2001). Biophilia suggests an inherited emotional attachment to nature, however it is important to note that individual differences in attitude about environmental issues is still relevant (Gifford & Sussman, 2012), and although behaviors and emotional experiences are not hereditary, our tendency to respond in certain ways can have genetic bases (Clayton & Myers, 2015).

The value of nature

To appreciate the biophilia hypothesis and the link to nature connectedness is to better understand human’s historical and present day relationship with nature. Nature is seen as a force to beat, cajole, exploit and indeed be exponentially fascinated by (Wilson, 1984). The biophilia hypothesis posits that the survival and wellbeing of our ancestors, was reliant upon their connection to nature for such things as food, water, navigation, time prediction and weather (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). Intrinsically linked is biophobia, the genetic adversity to such things as snakes, spiders, dogs, closed spaces, running water and heights (Ulrich, 1993), thought to be from evolutionary conditioning, as we do not appear to have a genetic fear of modern day threats to life such as guns, knives, cars or electric wires (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). However, it is suggested that human relationships with nature transcend beyond physical needs to encompass emotional and spiritual wellbeing (Roszak, 1995), therefore how humanity values nature may help us to understand its relationship with nature.

Schwartz (1992) suggests 56 possible human values which Kellert (1996) refines into ten basic values that explain human affiliation with the natural world, believing them to have evolutionary roots and fit within three value headings; humanistic or emotional attachments; moralistic or ethical standing; and negativistic (fear, disgust and dislike). Merchant (1992, as cited in Stern & Dietz, 1994) simplistically lists three ways in which humans value nature as eco or biocentric - for its own sak;, anthropocentric or altruistic - for the sake of other humans; or egocentric - for an individual’s own sake, whereas Milfont and Duckitt (2004) gained evidence that environmental attitudes fall within two independent but related themes: preservation and utilitarian. Cultural belief alters such values which Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck (1961) suggested fit within three categories: humans elevated over nature; humans and nature existing together in harmony; and humanity as subordinate to nature. The 1978 World Paradigm, since revised by Dunlap & Van Liere (2000), suggests a modern day shift from dominant social paradigm highlighting human domination over nature, to an environmental paradigm which emphasises the fragility of nature, a need to limit human population growth and denial that humans have a right to rule over nature (Clayton & Myers, 2015).

Evolutionary disconnect from nature

If nature connection is an element of biophilia, recognising when humanity began to disconnect from nature may clarify whether such a disconnection is an evolutionary change or a biophilia blip, where people’s nature values have shifted, and if so whether they are still malleable. Animals, much like modern humans, first appeared about 2.5 million years ago in east Africa, evolving from an earlier genus of apes, and evolving into a variety of species of homo which survived for an unsurpassed near two million years. Meanwhile, evolution in east Africa continued with our own species, Homo sapien, (Wise man) about 200,000 years ago (Harari, 2014). Ninety-nine percent of this human existence has been as hunter gatherers (Wilson, 1993), during which time evolutionary processing was taking place within a biocentric world. This suggests that the timescale during which humans have lived in a technologically centered world, progressively disconnecting from nature, to be infinitesimal, implying nature disconnection to be the result of conditioning, rather than evolutionary processing. However, such drifts have historically evolved into new species of homo and indeed Harari (2014) alludes to a likelihood of a new species of super human in the future.

Nostalgia, a wistful affection for the past

If evolutionary progress is weakening the bond between people and nature, proving detrimental to humanity’s and nature’s well-being, methods to restore nature connectedness are vital. Nostalgia, where positive nature based memories are projected from the past and translated into modern values, attitudes and action, may be one such method. The meaning of nostalgia has been extensively debated, with the first scientific reference, in response to symptoms displayed by Swiss mercenaries trading on foreign shores (Bassett, 2006), conceptualising nostalgia as a medical or neurological disease. Nostalgia as a neurological affliction persisted throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, until in the 19th century it was regarded as melancholia or depression (Rosen, 1975). Not until the late 20th century was nostalgia entertained as having positive connotations, when as part of a study, students associated nostalgia with the word homesickness less frequently than with words such as childhood, warm, yearning and old times (Davis, 1979). This distinction has been carried forward to modern day definition of nostalgia as, a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past (Hawker, 2006).

The debate has long continued as to whether nostalgia is a constructive state of mind with Ortony, Clore and Collins (1988) suggesting it to be part of a negative subset of well-being emotions, a notion endorsed by Best and Nelson (1985). Whereas Johnson-Laird and Oatley (1989) described it as positive emotion with tones of loss, backed up by Werman’s (1977) definition of wistful pleasure tinged with sadness. Baker and Kennedy (1994) and Havlena and Holak (1991) suggest nostalgia to be an idealised, bittersweet recollection of a past which we may not return, not unlike Belk’s (1991) suggestion of it being a positive collection of memories seen through ‘rose tinted spectacles’, a past that never existed, idealised to the point that any negative traces are screened out (Hirsch, 1992). Davies’ (1979) theory that nostalgia occurs in the presence of fear, discontent, anxiety and uncertainties was backed up by a study of nostalgic triggers by Routledge et al. (2006). Nevertheless Routledge proposed that nostalgia serves as a store of positive effect and more often, the redemption series turned negative effect into positive or triumphant effect, whereas contamination effect, where positive was counteracted negative, was significantly low in presence (Routledge et al., 2006).

Triggered by autobiographical memories; longing for a personally experienced past (Baker & Kennedy,1994), organizational memories, (Antonacopoulou & Gabriel, 2001) and historical memories; remembering vicariously experience events (Holbrook, 1993), Routledge et al. (2006) found nostalgia to be experienced at least once a week by 79% of study participants. Davies (1979) contemplated whether an object deemed by an individual to evoke nostalgia, may be used to define a person’s sense of self, a concept supported by Halfacre’s (2015) belief that nostalgia is an unconscious part of the self, suggesting that no one consciously evokes feelings of nostalgia. However, Belk (1991) believed some people to be more prone to nostalgic tendencies than others.

Nostalgia and biophilia for the benefit of people and wildlife

Nostalgic literature and art is prolific, with many celebrated historic examples having nature or natural landscapes as a theme. Hearing the names Constable, Claud Monet or Vincent Van Gogh conjures up images of famous natural landscapes, whilst Thomas Hardy or William Wordsworth invokes poetic words of nature as a beautiful being. Such a profusion of celebrated nature based artistry, may suggest romanticism of nature and of people’s place within it, and possibly indicates an unconscious yearning for nature, perhaps as a result of biophilic tendencies. Nature as a trigger of nostalgic memories to a personal or historical past, viewed through ‘rose tinted spectacles’ that filter out negative connotations, may allude to the potential to manipulate such tendencies for the benefit of nature conservation.

Currently nostalgia as an engagement tool for promoting nature connectedness is a relatively unexplored concept. It was however, used within the celebrated National Trust 50 Things to do before you are 11 ¾ campaign (Frecknall, 2015), where references to childhood freedom through immersion in nature roused nostalgic memories in parents, inspiring them to relive their childhood by involving their children in similar nature activities. Nostalgia is also credited in the success of the conservation management of the Lowcountry, South Carolina, where it was acknowledged that the people who have an investment in the landscape; those that live, work and play there, are at the heart of conservation, and sustainable conservation can only be achieved if those people are included in the format for managing the place (Halfacre, 2015). Halfacre describes nostalgia as being at the heart of the conservation movement, suggesting nostalgic yearning inspires preservation of threatened places and human folkways, where pride of peopled past is as important as pride of place (Halfacre, 2015).

Such is the certainty that nature’s demise can be hindered by an increase in nature connectedness, that an array of measuring scales have been developed including the nature relatedness scale, (Nisbet et al., 2008), the connectedness to nature scale (Mayer & Mcpherson Franz, 2004), and the inclusion of nature in self (Schultz, 2002). Such scales have been used to demonstrate that for the most part, a childhood experience was given as the foundation for their relationship with nature (Chawla, 2007; Degenhardt, 2002; Wells & Lekies, 2006; Korpela, 1992), children associate a sense of belongingness with their favourite places (Clayton & Myers, 2015), child identities are rooted in and enriched by relationships with nature (Korpela et al., 2002), and ten to 12 year olds associated natural areas with their self, more strongly than built environments (Bruni & Schultz, 2009). However, there is little evidence to prove that nature connectedness is a predictor of pro-environmental behavior rather than intention. Therefore, there are increasing efforts to develop interventions to bridge the intention-behavior gap. Nostalgia, evoking positive nature based memories, given strength by biophilia, human’s innate need for nature, may prove a strong concept on which to base such an intervention, a notion supported by Halfacre (2015), seeing nostalgic remembering as a catalyst for restoring; inspiring people to enrich their present and future through an affection for their past. Nonetheless, nostalgia does have limitations including differences in generational views of the past, cultural beliefs, individual differences and humanity’s propensity to progress. Therefore, nostalgia twinned with biophilia as a catalyst for nature conservation, requires further research to determine its effectiveness within an environmental capacity, to better understand whether it may be utilised to help people find their place in nature through forging or nurturing a relationship with a landscape.


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