The loss of biodiversity is often seen as an aesthetic issue or something only scientists care about. Dr Susie Burke says her research shows that there are broader implications, including a noticeable decline in human happiness.
I recently presented a submission to the Inquiry into Australia's Biodiversity in a Changing Climate on behalf of the Australian Psychological Society (APS). It responded to questions about how reduced biodiversity affects human communities and how climate change adaption can be enhanced.
The submission showed that environmental degradation and the accompanying loss of biodiversity have an impact on human health and well-being and only a holistic approach will assist both people and natural environments to adapt to that change.
The APS recognises the importance of protecting Australia’s biodiversity in a changing climate. The biodiversity of healthy natural environments and ecosystems is integral to human health and well-being, and is of profound importance to people’s everyday lives and connection with the natural world. This importance goes well beyond human requirements for healthy, life-supporting, ecosystems and uncontaminated air, water, food ecosystem services. Biodiversity is also of great importance for meeting the psychological needs of hope and inspiration, connection to the natural world, restoration, recreation, and identity.
It therefore follows that loss of biodiversity has significant psychosocial impacts on individuals and communities. Those psychosocial impacts include things like direct psychological impacts (distress from actual or anticipated changes to the environment), as well as social and community impacts, such as changes to relationships as a result of changes in how people use and occupy a territory. So, it’s not just animals or the greater environment that suffers when biodiversity is threatened or lost. Changes to the environment affect people and communities at a range of levels.
Living in a stable, predictable environment is obviously an important contributor to people’s mental health and well-being, and that has often had been underestimated.
Research shows that nature plays an important support role in mental health and well-being. People feel reassured and comforted by living in, or having access to, a flourishing natural environment. A stable and healthy environment helps us to feel secure. It helps us to feel that all is right in the world and that things are in order.
We tend to separate human health and environmental health but we need to acknowledge that humans and the environment are interdependent, and look to developing strategies that secure the well-being of both, simultaneously.
One of the ways psychologists are contributing to discussions is by developing a set of strategies that engage communities in the development of human psychological resilience. Because of the interdependencies of human communities and ecosystems, we need approaches to enhance the resilience of our ecosystems which simultaneously build the resilience of communities as well. In this way, the resilience of the whole system grows.
This can be done in many ways, including facilitating the formation of and actions by community groups that care for the environment, supporting green economy jobs, and building infrastructure such as walking tracks and parks that enhance people-place relationships.
Changes in the environment inevitably have an impact on people and communities. Unfortunately, changes in ecosystems and biodiversity losses are more likely to harm already vulnerable people, including the world's poorest people, who are less able to adjust to these changes because they have limited access to substitutes or alternatives.
It is very timely to be looking at how we can build resilience in communities with the people who make up these communities, and promote protection of the environment at the same time..
Dr Susie Burke is a psychologist working at the Australian Psychological Society. Her work includes looking at the role that psychology can play in helping us understand the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change and other environmental threats, including natural disasters. The APS undertakes and encourages strategic research, holds forums, and produces position statements, submissions, tip sheets and media releases on a range of social issues, including disaster preparedness and response, climate change, media representations, and racism.