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Trevor Hancock: Arts, nature and well-being are all connected

I have been thinking a lot recently about the connections between the arts, nature and well-being.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the connections between the arts, nature and well-being. Partly, this is a personal reflection because the arts, in one way or another, are important to me, as is nature — and my whole professional life has focused on health and well-being.

But it is the connections between these that I want to focus on, in the wider sense of the importance of the arts and nature for the health of the community as a whole, and for future generations.

One part of my life has been as an artist — I was a semi-professional outdoor photographer in the 1990s, with my own small, part-time co-op gallery. I am an avid Morris dancer and singer. But I also enjoy a broad range of the arts — literature, visual and performing arts — as a spectator and listener.

We all enjoy the arts, in one way or another. And we are more than willing to invest money in it. As a result, the arts industry is a large — if often underestimated and overlooked — sector of our economy. In a 2008 report, the Conference Board of Canada reported it was 7.4 per cent of GDP and employed more than one million people. Compare that to the health sector, which is around 11 per cent, oil and gas (five per cent), mining (four per cent) or agriculture (two per cent).

As to nature, not only does it provide our most vital needs for life and health, but being in nature seems to be important for our well-being. However, our societal lack of understanding of the fundamental importance of nature has led us into trouble.

We have come to believe that we are somehow apart from and superior to nature. That has led us to exploit our natural environment beyond its capacity to sustain us. We are living on borrowed ecosystem capacity, and thus on borrowed time. This is a massive threat to our health and the health of our descendants.

At the same time, there is growing public awareness of the threat of climate change, resource depletion, widespread pollution and species extinction. But that awareness does not seem to translate into action.

The juggernaut that is our global and national economy keeps on the same path, both propelled by us and dragging us with it. Around the world, people aspire to the same level of material wealth as we have and all its benefits. What we and they don’t see are the social and environmental costs, the ecological deficit we are leaving.

I have concluded that logic and rationality, science and evidence, are not alone enough to create the societal changes we need. Because at root, the changes we need are in our cultural values, and they are rooted in our emotions and feelings, our history and traditions. We need to re-create a sense of one-ness with nature, to see ourselves as deeply enmeshed in, part of and dependent upon nature.

Ecology is the science of nature, while human ecology — a field that includes public health — is about the science and art of our connection to nature. This is where the arts come into the picture. One vitally important way in which we can create that sense of one-ness with the Earth is through artistic and creative endeavour. We need experiences that tap into our heart and soul, not just our heads.

This week I am in Hastings, England, where — as a Green Man, a role I play in my Morris side’s annual winter Mummers Play — I am part of the Jack in the Green Festival (think Quebec’s Carnival in green). Rooted in a much-older tradition connecting people to nature, it is exuberant, colourful, full of music, dance and celebration. And it is a powerful reminder of the presence and importance of nature.

I am convinced that an important part of the way out of our dilemma is to engage people, in both public as well as personal ways, in connecting to nature through the arts and culture. We need more artists like Andy Goldsworthy, who creates works of art in and with nature, we need to get our kids out in nature doing the same thing, and we need more festivals and celebrations of nature. The well-being of our descendants might depend upon it.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.