The Human Nature Stories Project seeks to capture people’s relationship to nature and engage with people from around the world in a conversation about nature.
The origins of the Human Nature Stories Project
~as told by the founder Sara Middleton
Setting the scene: the Anthropocene
We are living in an age of great human impact on our natural world – or what scientists call the Anthropocene. We’ve gone from a relatively insignificant mammal species living off the land for millennia, to dominating almost every corner of the globe with 7.5 billion of us. It has been estimated that humans have modified around 75% of the planet’s land surface. Today, land is used to feed, clothe and provide power for our gadgets and homes. Modern life has altered the shape of our natural world and our relationship with it.
This is particularly the case for over half of the world’s population living in the hustle and bustle of the city. City life often means working in offices or factories for most of our waking hours, with little time outside connecting with nature. Since the time of early human societies, we have swapped hunting and foraging time for screen time. Today, some of us only connect with nature through our television screens and are in awe of the images we see from nature documentaries such as Blue Planet.
The idea of the ‘self’ and ‘nature’ has been discussed by many scholars across different academic disciplines – philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and also environmentalists. Our connection with nature can be described through different perspectives or types, as summerised by nine types of ‘connectedness’ in the Biophilia hypothesis. The four main ones are presented below:
Material connections – nature’s ecosystem services for humans. We all have an inherit material connection with nature. We all breathe air, eat, drink water, which has been cycled through nature’s ecosystems. This also extends to all our clothes, gadgets and other objects in our homes. Most of the things we own derive from materials found in nature, from the cork in your wine bottles to the rare earth metals in your mobile phones.
Experiential connections – how people experience the natural world. Our early childhood exposure to the natural world shapes how we connect with nature as adults. Although culture (e.g. abundance and accessibility of green spaces) can also influence how we connect with nature as we grow into adulthood. Increasing levels of urbanisation are affecting how people interact and experience nature.
Cognitive/psychological connections – knowledge of the natural world. This type of connection examines our understanding of the natural world, such as local wildlife, origins of our food and natural processes. This extends to a recognition of how our behaviour and choices impact nature. In our modern urban lives, we are often physically and psychologically separated from the ecological impacts of our consumer choices.
Philosophical connections – how people relate to and value nature. A dominant philosophical view point, particularly in Western societies, is that humans dominate and control nature for their own needs. Thus, the main connection with nature is to benefit human society. This contrasts to other societies such as the Awá people in Brazil, who have an intimate connection to their rainforest home.
Growing disconnection from nature
Several studies have highlighted this disconnection from nature. A recent study by researchers at the London Business School and University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US analysed references to nature in popular culture such as books, films and music from the early 20th century, in a hope to gauge how our relationship with nature has changed through time. They discovered that references to nature in song lyrics and storylines had steadily declined, reflecting technological shifts together with increased time spent indoors, resulting in fewer encounters with nature. Today, much of our leisure time is now spent interacting with screens, in part substituting nature. This societal change is profound, as it shows we are disconnected from nature.
This disconnection from nature was also recorded in the RSPB‘s study on UK children, which found only around 20% of surveyed children were ‘connected with nature’.
These examples of disconnection with nature has real consequences for how we value the natural world, which impacts our actions or inactions towards many of our important environmental issues.
Humans vs nature
My interest in the human-nature relationship began after taking a class on Threatened Species during my Environmental Sciences bachelors. The class was, as the name suggests, about the extinction risk and conservation efforts concerning many of world’s species due to deforestation, poaching, climate change and a whole host of other human activities. Every week, my professor informed us of the state of affairs of our natural world. He presented a mostly gloomy outlook on how only X individuals of a species remained in the wild and how Y number of square kilometres of rainforest were cut down to make way for agricultural crops.
I noticed much of the wider discussion in solving these conservation and environmental issues often presented a dichotomy between people and nature: human development vs sustainability, human agriculture vs rainforests, etc. This seemed to reflect the dominant philosophical view of the connection, where humans are separate from and in some cases above nature.
These discussions set the scene for my deep interest in the human-nature connections. Over the years I read many engaging books such as The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken and What has nature ever done for us? by Tony Juniper. All these books explored the human-nature relationship using the various Biophilia connectedness types.
Through class discussions and reading, I gained an appreciation for the complexities in understanding the human-nature relationship or lack of.
In a world where we are increasingly urbanised, losing our natural world and seeing the effects of climate change, I am interested in understanding how this impacts the way we view nature. Human Nature Stories aims to collect accounts of what nature means to ordinary people from around the world.
To keep updated on the most recent stories, check out the Stories page.
Interested in knowing more about research into the human-nature relationship? See the Links page.
About the founder
Sara Lil Middleton is a plant ecologist, science communicator and nature photographer. She grew up in leafy Oxford (UK) and has always had a passion for nature and people! When she was a child she would love nothing more than exploring the big outdoors, building dens and watching insects and spiders.
Her interest in nature continued throughout her studies and she gained a BSc in Environmental Sciences at Oxford Brookes University. In 2017, Sara completed an MRes in Ecosystem and Environmental Change at Imperial College London. In between her studies, she has worked in primary schools, where she ran science and gardening clubs. She also volunteered in schools teaching a range of ecological and environmental topics. In 2018, she took time away from academia to pursue creative projects including the launch of Human Nature Stories Project.
Sara now is a PhD researcher at the University of Oxford, where she studies how different plant communities respond to global environmental change.
The Project combines her three main passions: nature, people and photography. She is looking forward to meeting people from around the world and capturing their nature stories.
~ Sara Lil Middleton