My Brooklyn apartment is designed for sterility. The windows have screens to keep out bugs; I chose my indoor plants specifically because they don’t attract pests. While commuting to other, similarly aseptic indoor spaces—co-working offices, movie theaters, friends’ apartments—I’ll skirt around pigeons, avert my eyes from a gnarly rat, shudder at the odd scuttling cockroach. But once I’m back inside, the only living beings present (I hope, and at least as far as I know) are the ones I’ve chosen to interact with: namely, my partner and the low-maintenance snake plant on the windowsill.
My aversion to pigeons, rats, and cockroaches is somewhat justifiable, given their cultural associations with dirtiness and disease. But such disgust is part of a larger estrangement between humanity and the natural world. As nature grows unfamiliar, separate, and strange to us, we are more easily repelled by it. These feelings can lead people to avoid nature further, in what some experts have called “the vicious cycle of biophobia.”
The feedback loop bears telling resemblance to another vicious cycle of modern life. Psychologists know that lonely individuals tend to think more negatively of others and see them as less trustworthy, which encourages even more isolation. Although our relationship to nature and our relationships with one another may feel like disparate phenomena, they are both parallel and related. A life without nature, it seems, is a lonely life—and vice versa.
The Western world has been trending toward both biophobia and loneliness for decades. David Orr, an environmental-studies researcher and advocate for climate action, wrote in a 1993 essay that “more than ever we dwell in and among our own creations and are increasingly uncomfortable with the nature that lies beyond our direct control.” This discomfort might manifest as a dislike of camping, or annoyance at the scratchy touch of grass at the park. It might also show up as disgust in the presence of insects, which a 2021 paper from Japanese scholars found is partially driven by urbanization. Ousting nature from our proximity—with concrete, walls, window screens, and lifestyles that allow us to remain at home—also increases the likelihood that the experiences we do have with other lifeforms will be negative, Orr writes. You’re much less likely to love birds if the only ones around are the pigeons you perceive as dirty.
The rise of loneliness is even better documented. Americans are spending more time inside at home and alone than they did a few decades ago. In his book Bowling Alone, the political scientist Robert Putnam cites data showing that, from the 1970s to the late 1990s, Americans went from entertaining friends at home about 15 times a year to just eight. No wonder, then, that nearly a fifth of U.S. adults reported feeling lonely much of the previous day in an April Gallup poll. Loneliness has become a public-health buzzword; Surgeon General Vivek Murthy calls it an “epidemic” that affects both mental and physical health. At least in the United States, COVID-19 has made things worse by expanding our preferred radius of personal space, and when that space is infringed upon, more of the reactions are now violent.
That loneliness and biophobia are rising in tandem may be more than a coincidence. Orr wrote in his 1993 essay that appreciation of nature will flourish mostly in “places in which the bonds between people, and those between people and the natural world create a pattern of connectedness, responsibility, and mutual need.” The literature suggests that he’s right. Our sense of community certainly affects how comfortable or desirable we perceive time in nature to be, Viniece Jennings, a senior fellow in the JPB Environmental Health Fellowship Program at Harvard who studies these relationships, told me. In one 2017 study across four European cities, having a greater sense of community trust was linked to more time spent in communal green spaces. A 2022 study showed that, during COVID-related shutdowns, Asians in Australia were more likely to walk outside if they lived in close-knit neighborhoods with high interpersonal trust.
Relationships between racial and ethnic groups can have an especially strong influence on time spent in nature. In the 2022 study from Australia, Asians were less likely to go walking than white people, which the study authors attributed to anti-Asian racism. Surveys consistently show that minority groups in the U.S., especially Black and Hispanic Americans, are less likely to participate in outdoor recreation, commonly citing racism, fear of racist encounters, or lack of easy access as key factors. Inclusive messaging in places like urban parks, by contrast, may motivate diverse populations to spend time outdoors.
On the flip side, being in nature or even just remembering times you spent there can increase feelings of belonging, says Katherine White, a behavioral scientist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2021 paper on the subject. The authors of one 2022 paper found that “people who strongly identify with nature, who enjoy being in nature, and who had more frequent garden visits were more likely to have a stronger sense of social cohesion.” In a 2018 study from Hong Kong, preschool children who were more engaged with nature had better relationships with their peers and demonstrated more kindness and helpfulness. A 2014 experiment in France showed that people who had just spent time walking in a park were more likely to pick up and return a glove dropped by a stranger than people who were just about to enter the park. The results are consistent, White told me: “Being in nature makes you more likely to help other people,” even at personal cost.
Time spent in natural spaces might contribute to a greater sense of belonging in part because it usually requires you to be in public space. Unlike homes and offices, natural spaces provide a setting for unpredictable social interactions—such as running into a new neighbor at the dog park or starting a spontaneous conversation with a stranger on your walking path—which “can be a great space for forming connections and building social networks,” Jennings said. In a study in Montreal, Canada, researchers found that time in public parks and natural spaces allowed immigrant families to converse with neighbors, make new friends, and feel better integrated in their new communities, all for free. Similarly, there’s some reason to suspect that strong human relationships can help extinguish any disgust we feel toward the natural world. We learn fear through one another, Daniel Blumstein, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA, told me. The more safe and enjoyable experiences we accumulate in groups, the better our tolerance for new and unfamiliar things.
It would be a stretch to say that just getting people to touch more grass will solve all societal ills, or that better social cohesion will guarantee that humankind unites to save the planet. Our relationships with the Earth and one another fluctuate throughout our lives, and are influenced by a number of variables difficult to capture in any one study. But this two-way phenomenon is a sign that, if you’ve been meaning to go outside more or connect with your neighbors, you might as well work on both. “Natural ecosystems rely on different people” and vice versa, Jennings said. “You don’t have to go on long hikes every day to understand that.”