By: B. Mizne
Picture from: https://www.thewilderroute.com/tree-hugging/
If you've taken Geography, you've learned about the causes and consequences of urbanisation; a growing problem in society, which entails the migration of people into urban areas as it encroaches on our environments and stretches our living spaces. But, just like the Greenhouse Effect, it is a natural phenomenon that reflects the increase in human development. Today, around 55% of the population live in urban areas, especially large, densely populated metropolises like São Paulo, New York, and Shanghai. However, just 100 years ago, only 20% of families lived in urban communities.
When humans were hunter-gatherers, we scoured the land for nutritious food and regularly relocated settlements. Around 10,000 BCE, the advent of the Agricultural Revolution and the discovery of farming techniques upgraded the housing situation to semi-permanence. This meant communities could settle until the soil was depleted from extensive farming, when they had to return to their nomadic roots. From then on, agricultural and later industrial tools were developed to an unprecedented degree, aiding in the further urbanisation of bustling cities.
Unfortunately, the rise of deforestation is strongly attributed to increasing birth rates and, essentially, more mouths to feed.
Naturally, this results in less forests, rivers, and wildlife in our global backyards, which not only proves more risks to endangered species, but also to our own health, be it physical or mental. Studies by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that decreased exposure to nature leads to negative consequences in mental health, such as higher rates of depression and anxiety. In his 2005 book, "The Last Child in the Woods", Richard Louv coins the term "nature-deficit disorder", attributed to those who don't interact much with nature due to the explosive increase in technology and urbanisation, and thus feel worse about themselves.
Another consequence of urbanisation that affects mental health is increased pollution. An example of this is the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, known as one of the most polluted cities in the world. Around 25% of Mongolians lead a nomadic life, which means they reap the agricultural benefits of the Gobi desert's vast plains, raising horses, goats, even camels. In the summer, this is the norm, but when winter descends upon the land, nomadic households migrate to the comfort of cities. While this change might seem inconsequential, the sudden increase in population density causes an equally steep increase in pollution, since residents use coal as the main source of energy. A study conducted in the UK found that an increase in nitrogen dioxide levels (a main pollutant gas alongside carbon monoxide and dioxide) heightened the risk of contracting mental health disorders by 39%.
It may seem impossible to recover from depressive and anxious states brought on by a lack of nature or severe pollution, but Iceland has a simple answer. In March 2020, when a worldwide pandemic began to ravage the globe and strained people's mental health, the rangers of the Icelandic Forestry Service developed a strategy: hug a tree. Þór Þorfinnsson, a forest ranger, said it was "such a wonderful feeling of relaxation and then you're ready for a new day and new challenges". They encouraged people to embrace neighbourhood trees for only five minutes a day, and it produced surprisingly positive results.
This is because oxytocin (not to be confused with oxycontin!), colloquially called the "love hormone", is underproduced. It is often released when bonding with friends or cuddling with partners, along with other "feel-good hormones" like serotonin and dopamine.
So, before you yield to the dark spiral of anxiety or the void of depression, remember that sometimes all you need is a breath of fresh air and a little hug from Mother Nature.