Hanna, Kathi, Coussens, Christine. "Human Health and the Natural Environment." Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment: A New Vision of Environmental Health for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2001.
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continues to lose species on a daily basis. Challenges also remain in assuring a safe and healthful food supply.
The natural environment, broadly conceived, can also enhance health, for example, many pharmaceuticals are derived from plants and animals, providing a compelling argument for preserving biodiversity. In addition, contact with the natural world may be directly beneficial to health. If so, then the field of environmental health needs to extend beyond mere considerations of toxicity. According to the speakers, research and policy must be directed toward understanding the interactions of human health and the natural environment, from the most personal level—that is, how individuals interact with the world around them—to the global scale—that is, how nations agree to reduce pollution, pursue sound agricultural and land use practices, and feed their citizens. Each of these issues is explored below.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTACT WITH NATURE
A theoretical basis for the notion that contact with nature is beneficial comes from E.O. Wilson, who introduced the term Biophilia almost 20 years ago, defined as the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. From an evolutionary perspective, a deep-seated connection with the natural world should be no surprise. Humans have been evolving for more than 2 million years, yet have lived relatively insulated from nature for only the last 10,000 years. As Wilson (1993) noted, “it would be quite extraordinary to find that all learning rules related to the natural world have been erased in a few thousand years, even in the tiny minority of peoples who have existed for more than one or two generations in wholly urban environments.”
This is not a new idea, claimed Howard Frumkin of Emory University. The human connection to nature and the idea that this might be a component of good health have a long and fascinating history in philosophy, art, and popular culture. There is ample evidence—from animals, plants, landscapes, and wilderness experiences—that we can build on this affiliation to enhance our health.
Animals have always played a prominent part in human life. Today, more people go to zoos each year than to all professional sporting events. More than half of all U.S. households own pets. Animals comprise more than 90 percent of the characters used in language acquisition and counting in children’s preschool books. A considerable body of evidence links contact with animals to human health. According to Frumkin, preserving the bond between people and their animals, like encouraging good nutrition and exercise, appears to be in the best interests of those concerned with public health.
Exposure to plants and flowers also nourishes a sense of our well-being. In a 1998 National Gardening Survey of more than 2,000 randomly selected households, half of the respondents agreed with the statement that flowers and plants at theme parks, historic sites, golf courses, and restaurants are important to enjoyment of these locations, and 40 percent agreed with the statement that