And breathe… the value of the natural world

And breathe…the value of the natural world to the health of the planet and us.

If you consult your doctor, you would probably not expect them to advise you to take a walk in the park. But the value of immersing yourself in the natural world has been recognised by a recent report from Griffith University. It is possible that park visits will become a routine part of prescribed healthcare. The report, titled ‘Economic value of protected areas via visitor mental health’, expands on the already recognised effects of  improved attention, cognition, sleep and stress recovery but now the economic value of nature in terms of impact on mental health has been investigated. The research estimated that the financial cost of poor mental health could be 7.5% higher without access and exposure to the natural world. Professor Ralf Buckley, the lead researcher, said, “Protected areas are there for conservation, which gives us a liveable planet and underpins our entire economy”.

One in five of these plant species faces risk of extinction

That conservation is key to sustainability should be considered holistically with the sobering reality that global biodiversity continues to decrease as a result of harmful human activity. In September 2020, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew will, in collaboration with international researchers, publish the first “state of the world’s plants” report. This report will set out what is known about the properties of plants and fungi, their value in economic terms and their potential to be used. Kew has previously estimated that 391,000 plants were ‘known to science’, with 369,000 of these flowering plants. But, one in 5 of these plant species faces risk of extinction.  In her introduction to that report, Professor Kathy Willis, Principal of Teddy Hall, and previously the Director of Science at Kew said that ‘plants are absolutely fundamental to humankind – they provide us with everything – food, fuel, medicines, timber and they are incredibly important for our climate regulation. Without plants we would not be here. We are facing some devastating realities if we do not take stock and re-examine our priorities and efforts.’  In 2017, it was reported that some 340,000,000 hectares of the earth’s vegetated surface burns each year, a figure which is likely to increase as evidenced by the impact of recent Australian bushfires.

Plants represent one of the most important constituents of biodiversity, the foundation of most of the world’s ecosystems, and hold the potential to tackle many of the world’s present and future challenges. Over thirty thousand plants are currently put to some use.  Each discovery of a new plant could herald a new food, fuel source or medicinal drug; today’s weed is tomorrow’s plant because we find a value to place on it. But, as fast as new plants are discovered, existing plants are threatened with extinction which could have reverberating effects. Plants are the Earth’s lungs. Through photosynthesis, they suck carbon dioxide out of the air and replace it with oxygen. As areas are razed, vast stores of biodiversity are lost and stores of carbon liberated which may affect our food supply, the food web and exacerbate climate change.

Through photosynthesis, plants are the Earth’s lungs

Used as a metaphor, a walk in the park suggests that something is easy to do. However, given the tension between all stakeholders, conservation of the planet to sustain physical, mental and economic health, will require cooperation between scientists, economists, governments and communities. Humans are conspicuous by our abundant presence on the planet and that should be matched by our abundant and conspicuous efforts at its preservation.

Image credit: ‘Y St. John’s Wort’ by CameliaTWU via CreativeCommons