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A green bill of health?

Natural England's claim that 'contact with nature' can improve mental and physical wellbeing is both silly and sinister.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

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Natural England – a conservation umbrella group that includes English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service – has launched a health campaign that aims to ‘encourage’ doctors and other health professionals ‘to make more use of the natural environment as part of the total healthcare they give to their patients’ (1).

According to William Bird, a Berkshire GP and Natural England’s health adviser, ‘increasing evidence suggests that both physical and mental health are improved through contact with nature’. A campaign factsheet claims that ‘aggression and domestic violence is [sic] less likely in low-income families with views or access to natural green space’, and ‘crime rates are lower in tower blocks with more natural green space than identical tower blocks with no surrounding vegetation’ (no references provided).

Dr Bird is worried that ‘people are having less contact with nature than at any other time in the past’ and insists that ‘this has to change!’.

Natural England’s campaign, which is endorsed by Britain’s deputy chief medical officer and the BBC and supported by a budget of £500million of taxpayers’ money, offers a curious combination of the silly and the sinister. On the one hand, the notion that a breath of fresh air and the sight of a few trees can cure the ills of both the individual and society has the aura of whacky green fundamentalism. On the other hand, Dr Bird’s schoolmasterish tone and his offer of a natural cure for a wide range of social problems clearly appeals to the authoritarian instincts behind New Labour’s public health policies.

While Natural England presents itself as the acme of fashionable environmentalism, its roots lie in the tradition of ‘nature therapy’ that flourished in Germany from the turn of the twentieth century and reached its peak in the Nazi Third Reich. Nature therapy combined hostility towards scientific medicine with enthusiasm for homeopathy and hydrotherapy and was closely linked with movements promoting eugenics and racial superiority. ‘Air, light, a healthy diet and exercise were recognised as the basis of good health.’ (2)

Though in its early days this movement drew support from across the political spectrum, in the 1930s it was incorporated by the Nazis, and the Reich Labour Service (Reicharbeitsdienst) became a means of mass conscription of the unemployed into conservationist – and health-enhancing – rural labour (3). Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal government in the USA followed the German example, with the Civilian Conservation Corps.

By the time that Brigadier Armstrong formed the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) in 1959, the movement had abandoned its coercive and eugenic features and had become a benign voluntary organisation devoted to practical conservation work (though in 1970 it acquired a deeply reactionary patron – the Duke of Edinburgh) (4). In the course of the 1990s, however, when Dr Bird became closely involved, BTCV moved back towards its nature therapy roots, promoting the countryside in terms of its supposed beneficial effects on contemporary health problems. With support from central and local government, and health authorities, BTCV has sponsored a network of ‘Green Gym’ projects, linking exercise to conservation (5).

The nature therapy revival has also attracted major corporate sponsorship. BTCV enjoys the support of Rio Tinto, formerly known as Rio Tinto Zinc, one of the world’s most rapacious – and environment-despoiling – mining corporations, and Barclays Bank PLC (from which a generation of students withdrew their accounts because of its involvement in imperialist exploitation in Africa). It seems that an association with environmentalism and health promotion provides a positive public relations front for capitalist enterprises with dubious reputations.

Natural England’s health campaign emphasises the healing power of nature, in particular in relation to children and those with mental illness. It claims that nature can tackle the obesity epidemic, prevent bullying, reduce ADHD and improve concentration, self-discipline and self-esteem (it is striking that modern nature therapy only deals with fashionable conditions). In common with current public health policies – such as the school meals crusade – Natural England focuses on the sections of society least capable of resisting the advance of intrusive and authoritarian health policies.

Let’s hope that the growing revolt against Jamie’s school dinners soon extends to the ‘back to the country’ fantasies of Natural England.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is author of The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle. An edited version of this essay is published in the British Journal of General Practice in December.

(1) See the Natural England website

(2) Weindling P, Health, Race and German Politics Between National Unification and Nazism 1870-1945, Cambridge, 1989

(3) Patel K., Soldiers of Labor: Labor Service in Nazi Germany and New Deal America, 1933-1945, Cambridge, 2005

(4) See the BTCV mission

(5) See http://www.greengym.org.uk/

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Topics Politics

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