Environmental Sustainability as a Factor in Human Wellbeing
Terms such as ‘climate change’ and ‘environmental sustainability’ have become commonplace in our language and changed the way people live their lives. As awareness for climate change increases globally, environmental sustainability has begun to take a more significant toll on human wellbeing. While the term ‘wellbeing’ has a very broad definition depending on the context it is being evaluated in, there are some common measurements used by official organizations, such as the World Health Organization; these include financial security, physical health, education level, GDP, social relationships, and a sense of identity (Barrington-Leigh, 2017; Newton, 2007). However, these factors do not take into account the critical role of the environment in wellbeing. Wellbeing is positively influenced by practicing higher levels of environmental sustainability and therefore environmental sustainability should be considered when determining the wellbeing of a population. As with many of the other factors considered when determining wellbeing, environmental sustainability is deeply intertwined with many other aspects of human life. Practicing environmental sustainability in daily life, through using clean energy, reducing consumption, and reducing pollution output, leads to stronger development of social relationships through shared interests and a sense of community. Individuals develop their sense of identity through involvement in environmental initiatives. A deeper connection to nature developed through environmental awareness can lead to stronger mental health. Physical health is positively impacted through improved surrounding environmental conditions. Through a combination of these impacts, wellbeing is seen to improve with greater involvement of environmental sustainability in daily life.
Populations with high levels of environmental sustainability could see strengthened social and interpersonal relationships, a major factor when determining human wellbeing. People often develop social relationships with others that share similar interests. A passion for protecting the environment becomes a universal shared interest among populations that practice high levels of environmental sustainability. Uniting a community with the shared goal of greater environmental sustainability can lead to the group achieving more goals together, as they have a sense of togetherness. Consequences of environmental change, such as natural disasters and poorer air and water quality, are not distributed equally; typically, the poorest populations experience the worst of the repercussions (van den Bosch, 2017). Communities that contribute to reducing the effects of climate change through environmental society are therefore contributing to the reduction of social inequalities. Barrington-Leigh shows in their paper Sustainability and Wellbeing: A Happy Synergy (2017) that populations with high social trust are correlated with stronger government environmental plans. Barrington-Leigh also shows that populations with increased environmental sustainability are more likely to be willing to share resources with neighbours, whom they already have a positive relationship with, and outsiders. Together, these indicate that communities that practice high levels of environmental sustainability have a stronger social trust in their neighbours and in their government (Barrington-Leigh, 2017).
Having a sense of identity is a key element that sets humans apart from other members of the animal kingdom and is a product of the social and physical environment of an individual. Many people partially identify themselves by the groups that they feel associated with, whether that’s through shared interests, similar morals, or past experiences. This sense of identity through association applies to individuals that participate in environmental sustainability. Individuals are able to develop their sense of identity through a feeling of association with environmental sustainability, and therefore improve their overall wellbeing. Humans have an innate connection with nature, as described by the biophilia hypothesis (Usher et al., 2019). As individual’s strengthen their awareness and involvement with nature through environmental sustainability, this connection deepens and further contributes to the individual’s sense of identity. Working towards the goal of greater sustainability and a healthier environment gives a sense of purpose and motivation in life; this feeling of purpose in life is a key aspect of a person’s identity (Barrington-Leigh, 2017). Increased levels of environmental sustainability positively contribute to an individual’s sense of identity and an improved overall satisfaction in life.
Despite the many positive impacts on wellbeing associated with higher levels of environmental sustainability, increased levels of stress or feelings of hopelessness are a valid and widespread concern. An increased awareness of the state of global climate change, biodiversity loss, and habitat destruction often goes along with environmental sustainability playing a larger role in an individual’s life. These concerns have led to the rise of stress called “eco-anxiety” (Usher et al., 2019). However, stress from environmental issues can decrease over long term if environmental sustainability actions are effective (Usher et al., 2019). If a population can see that their efforts towards environmental sustainability are producing results, they may gain confidence that there is hope for the future. As well, higher levels of environmental sustainability can lead a population to experience less stress regarding food security, safe water, and clean air (van den Bosch, 2017). While stress about the future of the environment is a very real concern with an increased environmental awareness, lack of understanding of the environment can also cause stress. Individuals that spend most or all of their time in urban environments with limited exposure to natural ecosystem can experience a fear of nature (van den Bosch, 2017). Nature can become associated with danger and risk, putting individuals on edge or cause them to feel uneasy around plants, animals, and abiotic components of the environment, such as water or dirt. This developing fear of nature is conflicting with our innate connection to our environment as mentioned above and could be preventing people from reaching their peak mental health. Spending time with nature has been shown to improve mental health and has been used in treatments for depression and anxiety disorders (World Health Organization & Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2015); however, if people have developed a fear of nature, these desired results may not be realized. Overall, stress and anxiety is more likely to decrease with higher levels of environmental sustainability and as a result general wellbeing is more likely to increase.
Practicing increased environmental sustainability can have several consequential physical health benefits. Communities that follow good environmental sustainability practices will likely see the health of their nearby ecosystems, such as wetlands, forests, and grasslands, improve. Exposure and interactions with these healthy ecosystems have been shown to improve the immune system development of fetuses leading up to birth, setting them up for improved health throughout their life (van den Bosch, 2017 World Health Organization & Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2015). Stronger ecosystems also provide services that benefit human health, such as clean air and water, flood prevention, and production of food products (van den Bosch, 2017; World Health Organization & Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2015). Implementing and maintaining green spaces in cities is often a consequence of efforts towards environmental sustainability. These actions themselves can have drastic immediate effects. For example, increased tree canopy in cities has been shown to reduce the effects of urban heat island, a phenomenon that explains why urban areas are often a few degrees warmer than their rural counterparts. A decrease in the effects of the urban heat island will reduce morbidity occurrences and other health effects due to heat exhaustion in summer months (van den Bosch, 2017). These health benefits show that improving the health of the environment directly improves the physical health and wellbeing of human populations.
It is undeniable that climate change is playing a larger role in human life. As a result, environmental sustainability is becoming more important in daily life and is affecting human wellbeing. Both interpersonal and intrapersonal skills are strengthened through higher levels of environmental sustainability. Despite short-term increases in stress and eco-anxiety, mental health improves with a stronger relationship with nature. Physical health is also positively impacted with better environmental sustainability. Recognizing the role that environmental sustainability plays in human wellbeing is key to encouraging widespread acceptance and participation in sustainability initiatives. If people understand that protecting the environment has direct positive impacts on their own personal wellbeing, they may take efforts more seriously.