Why Earth Day is more important than ever

It’s amazing, today marks the 46th Earth Day to be celebrated in North America.

Earth Day as we know it got it’s start in 1970 as the impacts of toxic, persistent agricultural pesticides and unabated industrial pollution were beginning to be recognized. Earth Day became a time that people would gather together and give back to the earth—planting trees, beach clean ups and other environmentally worthy acts.

The last time I wrote about Earth Day I was focused on doing this type of Earth give-back too. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is worthwhile to shift our focus, for one day or many, to consciously try to lighten our footprint and repair some of the environmental damage that has been done. But increasingly when I think of the “Earth”, I think of how much nature contributes to our own well-being.

In recent years there has been a surge of neuroscience and psychology research that measures the positive benefits that time in nature has on human mental health and well-being. For example:

Stanford’s Gregory Bratman designed an experiment in which participants took a 50-minute walk in either a natural or an urban environment. People who took the nature walk experienced decreased anxiety, brooding and negative emotion and increased memory performance. Bratman’s team found walking in natural environments can decrease rumination, the unhealthy but familiar habit of thinking over and over about causes and consequences of negative experiences. Their study also showed neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness was reduced in participants who walked through nature compared with those who walked through an urban environment.

Korean researchers investigated the differences in brain activity when volunteers just looked at urban versus natural scenery. For those viewing urban images, MRI scans showed increased blood flow to the amygdala region. In contrast, areas of the brain associated with empathy and altruism lit up for those who viewed natural scenes.

In Japan, scientists found people spending time in nature — shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” — inhale “beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions” which interact with gut bacteria to strengthen the body’s immune system and improve both mental and physical health.

Nature keeps us healthy. We should be keeping nature healthy too, and bring nature more closely into our everyday lives. How’s that for an Earth Day commitment!

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It is becoming increasingly apparent that considering the environmental impacts of our actions is not just about doing something good for the planet, it’s about securing a healthy future for humans. We’re in this together. And that is doubly true for the littlest humans among us who have a lot of living left to do on this blue planet.

So while I get a certain sense of nostalgia when my kids tell me that they are talking about the importance of recycling at daycare in the lead up to Earth Day (recycling is such a 90’s enviro issue!), I also want them to appreciate that there is a deeper reason for caring for the Earth. As a study published in Nature shows, as we become an increasingly urbanized species we are more susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression. Researchers found people who lived in cities for their first 15 years are more likely to have a permanently raised sensitivity to stress.

Spending time in nature will be more important for this generation of children than ever. Scientist, advocate, nature-lover and Earth Day pioneer Rachel Carson summed up the incredible gift that Earth gives us most eloquently—

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
— Rachel Carson

Happy Earth Day to you and yours.

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