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5 ways nature supports human health

© Benjamin Drummond

Editor’s note: This week at the UN climate summit (COP26), Conservation International launched “Hear me while you can” — a new campaign which invites you to explore the soundscapes of ecosystems around the world, from Africa’s savannas to the Amazon rainforest. 

As world leaders step up efforts to conserve critical habitats, Conservation News is highlighting how nature nurtures us — and why we must protect it. Here are a few of the ways nature supports human health. 

1. Nature fulfills our most basic needs 

The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat — it all comes from nature. 

According to recent research led by Conservation International, more than two-thirds of the population of the tropics — about 2.7 billion people — directly depend on nature for at least one of their most basic needs.

The study’s maps identify exactly where people depend on natural resources the most — and underscores the threats that climate change and the destruction of nature pose to human life.

“Depending on where you are in the tropics, threats include logging, unsustainable farming practices and mining — all of which can reduce access to food and clean water, building materials and endanger livelihoods,” said Giacomo Fedele, a Conservation International scientist and lead author on the paper. 

The good news: These maps can also help guide conservation by focusing efforts on the places most critical to human well-being.  

“Knowing where nature-dependent people live can help governments and decision-makers implement effective conservation and sustainable development strategies based on what resources these communities rely on the most,” said Fedele.


2. Nature can help prevent future pandemics

Environmental degradation, deforestation and wildlife trafficking drive disease outbreaks: Seventy percent of emerging viral diseases have spread from animals to humans. 

As humans encroach deeper into tropical forests, they are increasingly exposed to wild animals — and the diseases they may carry, such as Ebola and COVID-19. 

A recent study co-authored by Conservation International experts outlined a groundbreaking plan to decrease the risk of future pandemics by 27 percent or more — with a 10-year investment that is 50 times less than the cost of coronavirus response efforts to date. How? By protecting nature. 

The strategy is three-pronged: reduce deforestation, restrict the global wildlife trade and monitor the emergence of new viruses before they spread. Making sure that forests remain intact limits the chances that humans are exposed to zoonotic diseases, explained Lee Hannah, a Conservation International scientist and co-author on the study. 

“To help prevent the next pandemic, it is crucial for countries and businesses to incentivize protecting forests rather than destroying them,” he told Conservation News. 

“Not only is this good for public health, it will help slow climate change.” 


FURTHER READING: 

3. Nature is the world’s “medicine cabinet”

Conserving nature can help prevent infectious disease outbreaks. But did you know nature can also treat illnesses? Many modern-day medicines — including aspirin, penicillin, morphine and several chemotherapeutics — were derived from plants and fungi

“When we protect tropical forests, we also maintain ‘nature’s medicine cabinet’ — in other words, the wildlife and plants that could offer clues to solving illnesses such as cancer and cystic fibrosis,” said Dr. Neil Vora, a practicing physician and Conservation International’s pandemic prevention fellow. 

In some cases, marine life has inspired designs of medical technology, such as artificial shark skin that prevents bacterial growth when applied to hospital surfaces.

However, widespread biodiversity loss and deforestation could threaten reserves of medicine in the wild — including remedies that have yet to be discovered. 

“People have only harnessed the properties of a relatively small number of species,” Melanie-Jayne Howes, a biological chemistry researcher, told The Guardian. “Some of the chemicals that plants and fungi produce are so complex we still can’t produce them synthetically – take vincristine, used in the treatment of children’s leukemia, and vinblastine, used to treat Hodgkin’s disease.”

4. Nature is good for mental health and physical well-being

A growing body of research shows that nature has mood-boosting abilities. Spending at least two hours a week in the great outdoors can help combat depression, ease anxiety and increase serotonin levels. 

In some cultures, immersing oneself in nature is even considered a form of therapy. For example, the practice of “forest bathing” — known in Japan as “shinrin-yoku” — encourages people to immerse themselves in nature, letting its sights, sounds and smells wash over them. 

The health benefits of this type of “ecotherapy” are backed by science, with a range of studies linking prolonged exposure to green space to a reduced risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Some doctors support forest bathing and other nature-related activities as a supplement to conventional Western medical care. 

Studies show that just listening to recordings from nature can help relieve stress and increase cognitive performance. Listen here to intricate birdsongs, the murmur of insects and trickling streams from ecosystems around the world.


5. Nature can help stop climate change 

From severe heat waves to rising sea levels to extended droughts, the impacts of climate change could render some places unlivable, displacing hundreds of millions of people worldwide by 2070.

And global warming is already considered “the greatest threat to global public health,” leading to a variety of ailments – from cardiovascular and pulmonary illness to dermatological disease, the world’s leading medical journals recently warned.

Fortunately, ecosystems such as forests, peatlands and oceans are working around the clock to suck climate-warming carbon from the air, absorbing and storing about half of our annual global emissions. In fact, without Earth’s complex web of terrestrial and marine ecosystems — known as the biosphere — we would already be seeing far more severe climate impacts than we are now, according to a recent study led by Conservation International. 


“Without nature’s helping hand, the world would be on track to hit 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of the century — even if we drastically cut all other carbon emissions across our economies,” said Dave Hole, a Conservation International scientist and co-author on the study. “We already have the tools we need to prevent a climate crisis — and nature provides many of them.”

 

Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Children play in a tributary of the Volta River near Nabogu, Ghana (© Benjamin Drummond)