Biophilia and the healing power of nature



In 2004, the CBC held a nationwide campaign to identify The Greatest Canadian. The only living member of the top five candidates — Dr. David Suzuki— took the stage at the Fallsview Casino last Friday evening to deliver a special message to the 700-plus gathered for the Pathstone Mental Health Hope Awards. Acknowledging that the awards ceremony was taking place on indigenous land, Suzuki opened his address stating that he believes mental and physical health are intimately connected. He says that the most prudent way of helping people heal should begin with preventing illness rather than just treating it when it arises.

“Of course, when people get sick they need to be treated, but shouldn’t we be focused on prevention and keeping people healthy in the first place?” asked the award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster.

“To do that we have to know what causes the health problems that we confront. I believe that we are living in a world that is becoming increasingly unhealthy — physically, mentally and spiritually — and it’s an environment we’ve created.”

Suzuki pointed out that over the last hundred years humanity has undergone a formidable change of lifestyle. In 1900, he said, the vast majority of the 1.5 billion people on the planet at the time lived in rural communities because they were involved in some aspect of agriculture. By the year 2000, he said, there were 6 billion people in the world and more than half lived in large cities.

“We have been transformed in a century from farmers to urban dwellers,” said Suzuki.

The problem with this is that large cities were not designed for human beings. Instead, they were designed for vehicles and the efficient transport of commodities. As a result, humanity has designed itself into a corner, by restricting humans from using their bodies as nature intended. According to Suzuki, this shift in human behaviour has also served to disconnect the human species from the environment on which it depends for life. Speaking in regard to the effects of depriving future generations access to a natural environment and way of life, he asked the audience to think of how children today live primarily inside.

“Today in cities throughout Canada the average child spends less than eight minutes a day outside and more than six hours a day in front of a screen,” he said.

Growing up as a child in London, Ontario after World War II, Suzuki lived with his three sisters lived and their parents in a small, 1,000-square-foot house with one bathroom. Today’s “McMansions” dwarf his childhood abode, however he found the communal neighbourhood in which it was situated more conducive to a healthy lifestyle than most urban landscapes today. With little room indoors, his parents encouraged him to play outside. As a child, he said he learned early that when it was raining a puddle could be a magical place.

“The human body evolved outside,” Suzuki said.

“For 95 percent of our existence, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers. We had to carry everything we owned on our backs and we had to follow animals and plants through the seasons. Believe me, you have a very different relationship with the earth when you have to live outside that way.”

The best way to eliminate health risks, he said, is to get people outside exercising. Using the human body how it was meant to be used, Suzuki asserted, is the best way to reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, stroke, heart disease and obesity. Spending time outdoors is not just beneficial to our physical health, it is also beneficial to our mental and spiritual health, he added. In Japan, there is an ancient Shinto practice that translates roughly into “forest bathing.” Suzuki highlighted the fact that studies now show how spending time among trees and in nature has a beneficial impact on human health and consciousness.

For decades, those opposing the environmental movement use to dismiss activists as “tree-huggers’” he said. Suzuki embraces the term with pride.

“Yes, I hug trees because it’s good for me and it’s good for all of us,” he declared.

“The eminent Harvard ecologist Edward O. Wilson has pointed out that we evolved in a state of nature and that we have an inbuilt need, a genetic need, to affiliate with other species — we have to be in the presence of other species. He calls that need ‘biophilia’ — bio, life, and philia, love. We have a built-in love of life.”

Suzuki said there is no disputing that biophilia is real. Citing one example after another, he explained how humanity’s innate love of nature is reflected in the way people living in cities still grow food and flower gardens, and keep pets as companions. Even hospitals, he said, have recognized how bringing in animals can help people in distress. A recent study conducted by the David Suzuki Foundation in Toronto, recently concluded that the more trees communities have, the less their health care costs are. He said it has also been proven that even seeing trees outside a hospital window can help improve patients’ physical and mental health.

Despite the abundance of evidence which exists proving the interconnectedness of all life on earth, humans continue to treat the air, water and soil as a toxic dump. Currently, he said, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there has been in millions of years. The root of the problem, Suzuki said, stems from the fact people have allowed the economy to become the primary focus of human existence.

“Capitalism, the economy, markets, corporations, these are not forces of nature, they’re human constructs, and yet we are constantly trying to ‘shoehorn’ nature to fit into our corporate or economic demands. This is crazy! The only things we can change are the things that we create.”

Suzuki gave examples of how, when logging companies are having financial troubles, governments will often allow them to log above their annual allowable cut to bring in more income; or if a chemical company is in trouble, they will be allowed to pour more pollutants into the rivers, lakes and oceans. When former Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed that Canada could not do anything to fight man-made climate change because it would destroy the economy, Suzuki said he elevated the economy above the very atmosphere that creates life on earth.

Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made promises to make Canada a leader in the global effort to halt climate change, he has yet to take serious action on the environment, asserted Suzuki. Realistically, he said, if Trudeau is to remain true to his word, and the Canadian government is to honour the commitment it made in Paris, 80 percent of the oil in Canada will need to be left where it is.

“Trudeau tiptoed into it, saying ‘Well, we can’t take all of the Tar Sands, they’ve been hammered so heavily’, but he backtracked immediately and said, ‘No, no, no, no country would leave that much oil in the ground.’ Well, we have to leave it in the ground if we are going to meet the targets that were set in Paris in 2015.”

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