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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Nature, Teaching Quietly

Nature makes people feel better. Studies have shown that hospital patients who can see a natural scene from their window—or even an image of nature—typically heal faster than those cut off from the outdoors.

But it may be that exposure to nature has social benefits, too, and that those ripple out into the nonhuman world. A recent study by a team of psychologists at Carleton University in Canada shows that people exposed to nature might make better decisions about the management of natural resources.

To test that, the researchers gave groups of university undergraduates a virtual fishing exercise. The participants could catch lots of fish quickly—thereby maximizing short-term profits—or they could harvest at a moderate pace, allowing the fish to reproduce for long-term sustainability.

Before taking the test, the participants watched a film about either nature or architecture. Those who watched the nature film were much more likely to make modest and sustainable decisions about how many fish to harvest.

The researchers speculate that exposure to nature—yes, even just a film—may inspire people to think more about the long-term consequences of their actions, and focus less on their own short-term interest.

The study underscores what stakeholders in many cooperative land-management processes have already learned: time spent outdoors kickin’ the dirt is more important than time spent in a conference room somewhere. When it comes to making good decisions about natural systems, it’s nature itself that may quietly prod us into doing the right thing.

Peter Friederici is a writer whose articles, essays, and books focus primarily on connections between humans and their natural surroundings. His most recent book is Beyond Climate Breakdown: Envisioning New Stories of Radical Hope (MIT Press, 2022). He also teaches classes in science communication and sustainable communities at Northern Arizona University.

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