Drawing links between nature and our health

Heather Pereira and her sister Kathryn Pereira fall kayak near Bobcaygeon, Ont., on Sunday, October 24, 2021.
Click to play video: 'Connections between climate change and health explored at COP15 Montreal'
Connections between climate change and health explored at COP15 Montreal
Connections between climate change and health explored at COP15 Montreal – Dec 6, 2022

What’s in a garden? In the case of Nina-Marie Lister’s, a hive of biodiversity.

Lister, a professor of urban and regional planning at Toronto Metropolitan University, doesn’t call her front yard a ‘garden.’ No, it’s an urban ‘meadow,’ teeming with all sorts of unwieldy grasses, shrubs, flowers and trees.

Weeds to some, biodiversity to others. She’s successfully fought the City of Toronto, whose bylaw officers were keen to see her meadow get mowed right down. This urban oasis is, for Lister, instead a recognition of the importance of the natural world, whether in your front yard or in the vast tracts of unspoiled Canadian wilderness.

“We have a long history, particularly in the settler, colonial tradition, of distancing ourselves from the wilderness, taming nature, paving it over,” she told Global News in an interview last fall. Cue the manicured lawn, which, Lister insists, is the antithesis of biodiversity.

To make that point, she’ll be travelling to Montreal this week to attend COP15, a major United Nations conference that’s all about protecting the planet’s natural ecosystems. The high-level goal of the conference is to protect 30 per cent of the world’s land and oceans by 2030.

It’s a smaller, more focused UN conference than the one that just wrapped in Egypt and had very little to show for it. The hope this time around is that environmentalists, policymakers and politicians can find enough common ground to conserve and restore more of the world’s natural areas.


Last month, a major report on the state of the world’s species found that more than 2,200 plants, fish and other animals in Canada may be at risk. Then there are the heat waves, floods and fires, which scientists expect will only grow in frequency and ferocity.

The good news, experts say, is a growing recognition around the world that people and nature cannot do anything but coexist.

“Canadians are understanding at a deep, instinctive level the importance of nature for our well-being,” says Gauri Sreenivasan, the policy and campaigns director at Nature Canada.

Getting out into nature, she says, was essential for people’s physical and mental health during the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. The pandemic, she adds, also made folks realize how closely tied everyone is to the natural world.

“Increasingly, people are starting to see the connections between how (these) essential life support systems keep all of us going, that we’re all a part of nature, and that we’re all connected.”

That recognition of protecting nature as a cornerstone of well-being is something the business world has a reckoning with as well. Mike Lyons, a managing director and partner with Boston Consulting Group, says more companies are realizing that cutting their environmental footprint makes good business sense.

“I think people are starting to ring the bell around proactive climate measures a lot more so than we’ve seen in the past.”

In October, his company ran a survey of 1,600 large companies, many of which connected emissions reductions with everything from improved reputations, to lower operating costs, to higher valuations.

From a legal perspective, there have been some novel measures to protect the world’s natural wonders as well. In Quebec, the Magpie River, a popular rafting destination, has been granted the status of ‘legal personhood’ in an effort to protect it from hydroelectric development.

It’s part of a growing global movement, pioneered by Ecuador, to extend legal rights to nature.

In Canada, Indigenous Peoples have known for centuries that steamrolling over nature without careful consideration comes with extremely negative consequences.

One hundred years ago, a lake in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, east of Vancouver, was drained to make room for farmland. Last year, the region was struck by devastating floodwaters that would have had a place to go had the lake never disappeared.

“I think if our people were listened to a century or more ago … we’d be in a lot better place now,” says Chief Dalton Silver of the Sumas Nation, which is adjacent to the floodplain.

“Why would people even want to do something like that?”

Indigenous Peoples have lived in the land now known as Canada for centuries before European explorers arrived, and, says Chief Silver, have harboured a relationship with nature that builds on the idea of living and learning with “everything around us.”

Overlooked for years, that traditional ecological knowledge will be a major part of the upcoming conference in Montreal.

That knowledge, adds Nature Canada’s Sreenivasan, has long offered “a better way of explaining our connection with nature (and) how humans are a part of nature.”


“We need to be drawing on Indigenous knowledge and expertise.”