Neighbourhood green space is in rapid decline, deepening both the climate and mental health crises

Matthew Adams– Principal Lecturer in Psychology, University of Brighton

Tom Falcon Harding / shutterstock

The past 20 or so years of housing development in England and Wales has decimated community access to green space. That’s according to a new report from think tank the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which has brought together data on the age of housing developments, public green space provision and public perceptions of green space in their local area.

As an academic researching and writing the role of access to nature in health and wellbeing I was shocked by the detail of the report.

“Green space” in this sense means any public area in a town or city that includes plant life or water features (sometimes referred to as blue space), set aside for recreation. This can be a whole park or woodland, street trees or simply a small patch of grass.

The new report points to some stark differences in the accessibility and quality of green space provision depending on when most of the houses in the area were built – and, as the report’s authors point out, the planning laws at the time that governed their design.

It turns out that in general, the newer the housing that dominates an area, the less the total amount of green space within a 1km radius. The most recent generation of housing, built between 2009 and 2021, has up to 40% less local green space than areas where the homes are mainly late 19th- and early 20th-century.

Unsurprisingly then, people living in post-2000 developments are significantly less likely to visit green spaces, a loss the NEF calculates as nine million fewer trips each year. They are also less likely to report having access to a private garden, or “feeling part of nature”. Basically, we’re creating a new generation of neighbourhoods with very little green space, adding to a well-documented decline in pre-existing public green space.

Access to nature is an equality issue

Why does this matter? There is now substantial evidence that points to the importance of green space for human health and wellbeing. Psychological studies suggest that if we spend time in nature regularly, we are more likely to report positive mood and cognition, lower anxiety, higher creativity, mindfulness and social connectedness. These benefits are greater if we have a strong sense of our connection to nature and take the time to notice our surroundings.

Person stands on grassy hill and looks over town
Nature is a mood-enhancer. Malgosia Janicka/Shutterstock

It follows that a widespread reduction in everyday nature contact, on the kind of scale reported by the NEF, means the reverse, with the potential to threaten the physical and mental health of thousands, perhaps millions of us.

This is why routine access to nature has become an equality and justice issue, with research highlighting existing inequalities in green space access, and campaign groups calling for local nature access to be established as a legal right.

Surprising? Possibly not. During recent lockdowns, with the usual distractions suddenly out of reach, many of us developed a new or renewed sense of the benefits of time spent in nature.

Good for humans, good for the environment

But there’s another reason, perhaps more surprising, to expose and reverse this decline in access to green space. Psychological research suggests that it also threatens our chances for averting environmental catastrophe, now and in the future.

Generally speaking, the higher the degree of our sense of connection to nature, the stronger our moral concern and care for the environment. This is reflected across a wide range of private and public practices, for example in higher reports of recycling or environmental volunteering. Contact with and connectedness to nature are not quite the same thing, but they tend to be mutually reinforcing – the more time we spend in nature, the more we feel connected to it and vice versa.

A widespread reduction in local green space reduces how often people access nature-rich spaces, which erodes their sense of a connection to nature, and combined these losses affect how much we are committed to care for and protect nature – even how much we notice its decline in the first place.

Potentially we then come full circle – with fewer of us feeling a strong moral environmentalist concern, we become bystanders as the climate and biodiversity crisis deepens, and options for human-nature relationships decline further, apart, perhaps, for the most privileged.

Being charitable to the UK government, we might say this is a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing – after all the UK is currently investing over £4 million in pilot “green social prescribing” projects, explicitly promoting the benefits of nature-based health interventions.

However, moves like this are meaningless if we take for granted the access to and quality of nature and natural environments in the first place, while willingly (or otherwise) overseeing its rapid decline. Healthy nature contact requires joined-up public planning and strong investment in infrastructure.

It is time for the government to oblige planners, developers and public bodies to make sure everyone can access and develop a connection with the natural environment. Neighbourhood green and blue space is an essential component of a sustainable transition for the UK, with the potential to help address a crisis in health and wellbeing as well as the wider environment.

Children’s physical activity dropped during COVID lockdowns but didn’t bounce back – new UK research

Ruth Salway– Senior Research Associate in Statistics/Epidemiology, University of Bristol


During the COVID pandemic, lockdowns and school closures brought about significant changes to children’s opportunities to be active. While the precise rules varied around the world, most countries experienced some level of restrictions for a time.

Unsurprisingly, when everything is closed and the guidance is to stay at home where possible, activity levels go down. For children, when schools are closed, there’s no walking or cycling to school, no physical education lessons, no playing in the playground and no clubs after school. Where their access to parks and play areas is restricted, and when sports clubs and facilities are closed, kids lose further opportunities to be active.

So it’s not surprising that evidence from around the world shows children were doing less exercise at the height of the pandemic. But what about when restrictions began to lift, and schools reopened? Our new research suggests physical activity among children in the UK didn’t bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.

What we did

In our study, we measured the physical activity levels of 393 children aged 10-11 and their parents, recruited from 23 primary schools in the Bristol area between May and December 2021. At this time, schools and many other venues had re-opened, and during that summer most legal limits on social contact were removed.

We then compared participants’ activity levels with data from 1,296 children (also aged 10-11) and their parents from the same schools gathered three years earlier. By using information from this earlier research, we were able to see if there were differences in child and parent physical activity when we conducted our study, compared with before the pandemic.

To measure activity at both time points, each child wore an accelerometer, a small device worn at the hip that is like a very accurate pedometer. For each child, we calculated the average time spent doing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day.

This is activity that gets children slightly hot, slightly sweaty and out of breath. The UK chief medical officers recommend that all children and young people should do an hour of this type of activity every day.

We also calculated the children’s average sedentary time – time spent sitting down or not moving very much – and collected information about travel to school, after-school clubs and screen viewing from both children and parents via questionnaires.

Read more: Children exercised less during lockdown – here’s how to get them moving again

We found that even though most COVID restrictions had been lifted by the time we collected our data, the children were less active compared to kids of a similar age before the pandemic.

On average, children did around eight minutes less moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day in 2021, compared with before the pandemic – a drop of 13%.

We also saw a rise in sedentary time of nearly half an hour per day during the week, and of 15 minutes at weekends. However, unlike some studies undertaken during COVID lockdowns, we didn’t see differences by gender or socio-economic background – physical activity fell and sedentary time was higher in all groups by about the same amounts.

We also found no difference in the physical activity of the parents in our study, when compared with our pre-COVID group. So unlike their children, any drop in physical activity parents might have experienced during lockdown reverted to normal levels.

A girl watches a smartphone screen.
COVID lockdowns have seen children doing less physical activity. beto_junior/Shutterstock

Some challenges

It’s tricky doing data collection and research during a pandemic. Some of our data collection was done remotely and some in person, while COVID outbreaks in schools meant we sometimes had to reschedule data collections at short notice. And it’s always possible that something other than the COVID pandemic is responsible for the trends we observed – although it’s difficult to imagine what, especially given the evidence from other studies and countries.

It’s important now to see if this pattern continues or changes over time. If the lower levels of physical activity do persist, we need to understand what’s causing this – and what we can do to encourage children to be more active again. We plan to explore these issues further in the next phase of our study, but we also need wider research in other parts of the UK, and other countries, to fully understand the scale of the problem.

Read more: Rewild your kids: why playing outside should be a post-pandemic priority

Physical activity is very important for children’s health and wellbeing. It’s a concern if what we perceived would be short-term reductions in activity during the pandemic may, in fact, be longer-lasting. Families, schools and communities need to work together to make sure the opportunities are there for all children to be physically active as we emerge from the COVID pandemic.

How filling the UK’s unused land with fruit and veg could help make us and our environment healthier – and help fight inequality

Jess Davies– Chair Professor in Sustainability, Lancaster University Charlotte Hardman– Senior Lecturer in Psychology of Appetite and Obesity, University of Liverpool Sofia Kourmpetli– Lecturer in Plant Sciences, Cranfield University

Campaigners are calling for the right to grow fruit and veg in the UK’s unused public spaces.

Communities should have a right to improve the unloved public spaces around them by growing fruit and vegetables, according to a new campaign that’s calling for a “right to grow” law in the UK.

This law, akin to the Countryside & Rights of Way Act that first gave the public the right to roam across parts of Britain’s countryside in 2000, aims to get local councils and landowners – such as the NHS and water companies – to open up parts of land in towns and cities for cultivation by local citizens.

Initiatives like Incredible Edible, who are leading the campaign, have been successfully taking over public spaces with food growing projects for over a decade now. We set out to understand how opening up these spaces to anyone who wants to grow food could contribute to improving environmental, physical and mental health across the country.

The security of our national food supplies in the UK is a question of growing importance. The pandemic and Brexit have given us a taste of what food shortages can be like: and with the invasion of Ukraine, and the cost of fuel and fertilisers rising, more turbulent times seem inevitable. Since 84% of fruit and 46% of vegetables eaten in the UK are imported, these vital food groups are particularly vulnerable to supply crises.

Plants in a planter, with a sign reading 'The revolution will be fertilised!'
Incredible Edible launched in 2007. Dunk/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Our research suggests that if all the green space across England, Scotland and Wales was used to grow food, it could provide around 40% of the fruit and veg currently produced in and imported into the UK. Publicly owned land makes up just under half of total green space, so even if just a small fraction of public spaces was used, it could make a huge difference to the availability of healthy food.

While this kind of urban agriculture is unlikely to ever replace conventional farming, it could play a big role in boosting food supply resilience and perhaps help ease some of the UK’s growing food insecurity.

Harvesting health

People get more than just fresh fruit and vegetables when going outside to grow: there’s now heaps of evidence for the health and wellbeing benefits of spending time in nature. Our research suggests that engaging in food growing might not only bring some of these benefits, but also lead to making healthier and more sustainable food choices.

A person smiles against a background of vertical plants
Urban growing can change how cities are structured. RawPixel

Urban growers in our surveys were more likely to have a higher quality diet when compared to non-growers. Our work suggested that this might be because growers care more about the food they eat, where it comes from and where it was grown.

Enhancing ecosystems

Nowadays, our food tends to come with an environmental cost. The agriculture and food sector plays a huge role in climate change, accounting for around a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture also has many other detrimental environmental effects, including being the primary contributor to biodiversity loss and a major driver of water quality problems.

The jury is still out when it comes to whether urban growing has a lighter environmental footprint than conventional growing, with a recent study suggesting we need better data to decide. But as well as producing healthier, more local food, urban growing also changes the environment of the city itself.

Our recent review of the evidence to date suggests that urban food growing spaces like farms and allotments can deliver as diverse a range of ecosystem benefits as other urban green spaces such as parks and school grounds. They can help clean the air, regulate local climates, store more carbon, cut the risk of flooding and encourage biodiversity to flourish.

A person stands outside a farm food shop
Food grown in cities, like here at Spitalfields City Farm, can help support community initiatives. Lucy Miller/East London Advertiser

Growing food in towns and cities could be a great way to make the most of our land, and at the same time address the pressing challenges we face when it comes to food, health, social and environmental inequalities. As acknowledged by the appointment of the House of Lords Land Use in England Committee earlier this year, deciding how to best use our land is a growing national priority.

We need land that supports better diets and helps lift people out of food poverty. We need land that fights climate change by reinforcing carbon sequestration and encouraging biodiversity, while still providing affordable homes and thriving places to live and work.

All this means we cannot afford to overlook those little fragments of land in towns and cities that are currently lying forgotten and unused. A “right to grow” law could be one way to bring these to life, while empowering people who love where they live to help improve it.

Walking is a state of mind – it can teach you so much about where you are

Aled Mark Singleton– Research Fellow in Geography, Swansea University

Walking connects you to your city. Cerqueira | Unsplash, FAL

During lockdown in 2020, governments across the world encouraged people to take short walks in their neighbourhoods. Even before COVID hit though, amid the renewal of city centres and environmental and public health concerns, walking was promoted in many places as a form of active travel, to replace car journeys.

This resurgence in urban walking has been a long time coming. Our first baby steps might still be celebrated. But since the explosion of car use in the 1950s, people in Europe and North America have walked less and less.

UK transport statistics show an annual increase of about 4.8 billion passenger motor vehicle miles (from car and taxi use) in the four decades to 1990. The last decade of the 20th century saw that growth slow. But until recently, our collective motor use just kept climbing.

The pandemic changed that. Passenger motor vehicle miles decreased by over 68 billion. And surveys suggest that 38% of the people who took up walking as a new pursuit aim to stick with it. My research shows walking is more than an activity: it both ties you to where you are and unlocks your memories.

How walking connects you to your city

In the 2000s, as part of their Rescue Geography project, geographers Paul Evans and Phil Jones facilitated group walks in the Eastside district of Birmingham, Britain’s third largest city. The idea was to “rescue” local people’s understandings of an area before it is redeveloped. They accompanied older former residents on foot through streets they’d known as children, before these inner-city neighbourhoods were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s and they had relocated to suburbia – a shift which saw the car become their only option for everyday transport.

Similarly, in my doctoral research I used walking to understand how a neighbourhood of Caerleon in south Wales had expanded in the 1960s and 1970s. I did many one-to-one interviews with people not sat down in a room, but strolling through streets they knew well. It became a way of exploring how spaces act as thresholds to memories and to levels of the unconscious, which may not otherwise reveal themselves.

People showed me the streets where they had lived at points through their lives. One person took me on the route he took to school during the 1970s, as a teenager. Passing certain shops prompted stories of how he’d walk to pick up a block of cheese or rashers of bacon for his mother. He told me how his family’s shopping habits had changed over time. After getting a freezer in the late 1970s, they started driving to the out-of-town supermarket.

I met another family who had lived on the same street for three generations. The grandfather was in his 70s, his daughter middle-aged, and his granddaughter 11. His daughter described how the streets she’d known as a child in the 1980s were now so much busier, and more dangerous, because of the cars. She described her daughter’s world as being “narrower”, as a result.

Two people in jeans walk past a boarded up B&B on a Scottish street.
Research shows how walking down streets you once knew well can trigger memories you might not otherwise have recalled. Stephen Bridger | Shutterstock

How walking unlocks our memories

Walking changes the way we tell our life stories. Taking a street we once took often unlocks things: we might not struggle as much to remember specific dates. We find a freedom of sorts to go deeper into our memories.

This chimes with the non-representational theories championed by geographer Nigel Thrift. Broadly this approach highlights how physically being in a specific place can help us retrieve feelings or knowledge that are deep within the subconsious.

In her research with migrant communities in the UK, sociologist Maggie O’Neill has used walking and participatory theatre as what she calls biographical methods for exploring ideas of borders, risk and belonging.

In a similar way, I collaborated on two public group walks with a dancer, Marega Palser. I planned lines on the ground which linked environments such as houses, shops, schools, busy roads, paths, and green spaces. And Palser turned material I’d gathered from my walking interviews into short pieces of street theatre that we would share, as a collective.

Palser’s interpretations were deliberately disarming and playful, and they triggered unexpected responses. In one case she used toy vehicles to recall a car crash from the late 1960s.

A group of walkers take part in an outdoor performance.
Dancer Marega Palser intervenes on a group walk in Caerleon. Author provided, Author provided

One person recalled how a relative in the 1960s had accidentally pierced the gas pipe (a very new technology at the time) in their council house kitchen. While the anecdote had initially seemed unimportant, we learned that the incident had happened on Christmas Eve and that the council had come straight away to sort out the problem.

Minds were cast back to a time when technologies now common were only just emerging. Many more attendees came forward and shared stories from their lives in the mid-1950s to mid-1970s. They relayed how central heating had arrived with new-build houses on suburban housing estates and how supermarkets had offered more choice.

As with Evans and Jones’ Rescue Geography project, I found that it was through touching and feeling these geographical spaces that people were able to connect with their memories. Walking, one person in middle-age told me, “takes you back yourself, on a journey, to the places you’ve lived”. They spoke about the “packed connections” these places hold, of being taken back to childhood and thinking about people who have spent their entire lives living in one place.

Sun setting with lens flare and warm colours, over a traditional British neighbourhood.
Traipsing through a neighbourhood you once knew well brings back memories you aren’t aware you had. K303 | Shutterstock

Walking is about slowing life down and thinking about the local. It enables conversations. It develops empathy.. More than a simple physical activity, it is a way of thinking and a state of mind. From online resources for composing walks and apps for tracking them to the online walking communities of people who cover each street in their city – the every-single-streeters – there are plenty of ideas for you to get walking too.

Bee highways: how they work and why we need them

Morgan Morrison– PhD researcher, pollinator ecology, conservation and disease ecology, Royal Holloway University of London

Hannah Wolmuth-Gordon– PhD researcher in the epidemiology of bumblebee disease, Royal Holloway University of London

Miles of bee highways are being linked up around the UK. Shutterstock

Hundreds of miles of bee highways are being created across the UK to halt the drastic decline in the insect’s population.

The public is currently being encouraged to leave their lawns untouched for a month, to help provide more habitats for insects as part of No Mow May.

In the UK, there are hundreds of species of bee, as well as thousands of other pollinating insects, such as butterflies, moths, bats and birds. However, 40% of them are at risk of becoming extinct.

Crucially these species help provide the food we eat, the flowers we see and the vast biodiversity on the planet. Bees transfer pollen between plants, which is needed for crops to grow and produce food. Therefore, a decline in the number of bees is alarming. This rapid drop in bee numbers is due to several factors including the loss and fragmentation of habitats, particularly wildflower patches. Large areas of wild meadows have been turned over to crops, reducing the availability of the wildflowers and plants that bees need for food. In addition, large areas of open land have been used to build houses as towns and cities expand.

The B-Lines project plans to help tackle this by connecting existing wildflower areas together. This makes it easier for bees and other pollinators to travel through our cities, towns and countryside. Bees can become being isolated and unable to fly if there are no plants they can get food from.

To create this large network, the project used maps to identify wildflower-rich areas, such as grasslands and heathland. A combination of computer modelling and local conservationists, landowners, stakeholders and local authorities were used to identify places with and without bee-friendly areas.

The highways are about 3km wide and connect wildflower areas together by creating and restoring wildflower-rich patches. Wildflower seeds are planted and growth is encouraged by restricting mowing. The highways are needed because bees have a limited flight capacity to find food, so patches need to be close together for the bees to reach them. Think of these patches as stepping stones, shortening the distance between the richest wildflower areas, so pollinators do not have to travel as far to find food. Councils are encouraging the public to get involved, by providing free wildflower seeds, and campaigning to stop the public mowing their lawns. Wildflower meadows are also being planted in parks and alongside roads.

Read more: Bees: how important are they and what would happen if they went extinct?

The project has already restored and created 1,500 hectares of wildflower habitat around the UK. The long term goal of the project is to create 150,000 hectares of new wildflower areas out of habitats less suited to bees. When a group or individual creates or restores a new wildflower patch they are encouraged to add the patch to the B-Lines map to help track the progress of the project. The network map is publicly available and the public can look at where their nearest wildflower patch is.

A map of the bee highway

A map of the UK with red and blue lines.
Bug Life

Wildflowers are important sources of nutrients for pollinating species. The nectar from these plants is their main source of energy, while pollen is needed for protein.

Restoring wildflower habitats will be beneficial to bees, while also providing habitats for spiders, birds, small mammals and plants. They should also help to buffer the effects of climate change. Climate change is causing weather patterns to change, which may mean an animal is no longer suited to their current habitat. When temperatures rise bumble bee nests can overheat leaving bees less able to fly. Higher connectivity between habitat patches will enable animals to travel between patches to areas with a more suitable climate.

There will be other benefits to this project. Farmers will see increased populations of bees and other insects, which should increase food crops.

Bee-friendly areas disappeared

Increased urbanisation and technology use means that many people are becoming more disconnected from wildlife. Helping with a local B-Lines project could also help reconnect many, particularly young people, with nature. Getting outside, and learning about nature can be a brilliant way to disconnect from everyday stresses and to help relax.

While there are many benefits, there are also some risks. Planting patches of wildflowers provides a very concentrated source of food for bees and other pollinating insects and therefore these patches may become very crowded. It is very common for diseases to be passed between bees on flowers where they are concentrated in a small area. This particularly happens during the summer when there are a large numbers looking for food.

We do not know yet if disease transmission will increase, or even if this will only occur for a small number of diseases. Therefore, it is important for bees to be regularly monitored for signs of disease. Particularly, because some diseases can make them more vulnerable to other stressors they are exposed to, such as pesticides.

The creation of bee highways around the country is one step forward in tackling the insect population crisis. They should have far-reaching benefits on the production of food crops, and for a large variety of wildlife.

Right to roam: why activists are reviving the mass trespass protests of the 1930s

Ben Mayfield– Lecturer in Law, Lancaster University

The trespassers take a break on Kinder Scout, April 24 1932. Dave Bagnall Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

By ascending the plateau of Kinder Scout – a mountain in England’s Peak District owned at the time by the 10th Duke of Devonshire and guarded by gamekeepers from his nearby Chatsworth Estate – around 400 walkers committed one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in British history on the weekend of April 24 1932.

The Kinder Trespass, as it became known, included members of the Young Communist League and British Workers Sport Federation. Their trespass that day was met with violence. Six men were arrested for assaulting the gamekeepers, unlawful assembly and breaches of the peace. Supporters, landowners and newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian followed the subsequent trials with fascination. Ultimately, the episode gained attention for various clubs and organisations campaigning for greater public access to the English countryside.

The Peak District was a symbolic choice for the trespassers. Not only was the area rich in outdoor space and natural beauty, it was also accessible to several industrial towns in the North and Midlands of England, providing a weekend escape from working life. The first world war was still a close memory, and many walking clubs included former soldiers who recalled being asked to fight for the fields and woodlands of home.

The residents of Totnes in Devon and their supporters recently invoked the spirit of the 1932 mass trespass 90 years on with an organised trespass on the Duke of Somerset’s estate in Devon. Their reception was markedly different, however. These trespassers were able to sit, play music and eat picnics. Some explored the woodland, clearing up empty shotgun cartridges and litter from the estate’s pheasant shoot.

Despite the environmental grants and farming subsidies paid to many landowners, it is claimed that only around 8% of land in England is open to the public. Just 1% of the population owns half of the land in England according to another claim, though the secrecy afforded to property trusts and corporate landowners make it difficult to provide an exact figure.

Unlike the mass trespass of 1932, there will be no high-profile court cases. Instead, the Devon trespassers have been able to use more modern methods to raise awareness of their cause. Someone in the group discovered a pit of rubbish and dead pheasants on the Duke’s land and shared the images on social media, contrasting the care taken by the trespassers with the behaviour of the landowners.

Still, there is much that unites the trespassers of 1932 and 2022. Groups that lobby for wider access to the land have always included environmentalists and ecologists eager to study and protect fenced-off nature. Both generations of campaigners have also drawn attention to the power disparity between landowners and the general public, and urged that more must be done to unite people with a countryside that should belong to everyone by right.

The right to roam

So what has changed, legally and socially, since 1932? In 2000, access activists would have been forgiven for thinking that the battle had been won. The Labour government was poised to introduce its wide-ranging Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW Act) which promised to open up great swathes of the English and Welsh countryside for public access. When environment minister Michael Meacher introduced the act to the House of Commons, he even claimed it would bring “to reality the dream of [prime minister] Lloyd George that nobody should be a trespasser in the land of their birth”.

A sign saying 'private woodland no public right of way' on a wooden gate.
Much of Britain’s woodland remains under lock and key. D MacDonald/Shutterstock

The CRoW Act introduced a limited compromise between walkers and landowners. People were given the right to explore mountains, moors, heath and down (unfertilised, chalky grassland) as well as registered common land. Campaigners estimate that this only covers about 8% of land in England and Wales. The CRoW Act excepted woodlands, grasslands and waterways in private hands, which remain closed to the public. Some landowners were even able to spread fertiliser to change the plant species growing on their land to exempt it from the new rules before the mapping process could be completed.

That the Guardian recently claimed that “there is no right to roam in England’s countryside” is testament to the limitations of the 2000 CRoW Act and to the frustrations of the access lobby two decades on.

The pandemic demonstrated the importance of outdoor recreational space to our physical and mental health. The right to enjoy footpaths and moorland became a contentious issue once more, as some walkers were targeted by police for exercising in the Peak District during the first national lockdown.

As the cost of living crisis bites, many people ought to question how private landowners are funded and whether the public gets good value for the money it pays in taxes. Trespassers on the Duke of Somerset’s land noted that the Duke was in receipt of public money to maintain his woodland, yet this funding came with no requirement to share the land with the public. Just as in 1932, the political and moral case for a wider right to roam is compelling.

As mass extinctions loom, these philosophers could help us rediscover our place among other animals

Rachael Wiseman– Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Liverpool Clare Mac Cumhaill– Associate Professor of Philosophy, Durham University


Children think that pigs are as deserving of kindness as dogs and cats, and as readily condemn cruelty to hamsters as cruelty to other children, a recent study has shown. The moral hierarchy of animals – with humans at the top, followed by pets, farm animals and pests – that governs much of adult thinking is not, it seems, an innate one. Despite being born in 1919, this result would not have surprised the late philosopher Mary Midgley.

When raising her own children, Midgley noticed that infants are brought up in a mixed community. They may grow up among cats, dogs, hamsters, horses and budgerigars, as well as young of their own kind. At the start of their lives – at first on all fours, then standing – their view of the living room is, quite literally, closer to Tabby’s (table legs and the flanks of chairs) than to their parents’.

Species-imprinting, the means by which an animal acquires its sense of species identification, tells the cub it is a lion and the cygnet that it is a swan. This mechanism has its work cut out in a human infant who may list the family dog ahead of her cousins in a ranking of friends.

In fact, children have to be taught to think that they only have moral obligations to other humans, Midgley wrote in her book Animals And Why They Matter. The species barrier – the boundary which seems to exclude other animals from the moral and social world of humans – she observed:

imposing though it may look, is rather like one of those tall wire fences whose impressiveness is confined to the upper reaches … Down below, where it is full of holes, it presents no barrier at all. The young of Homo sapiens … scurry through it all the time.

The image of an impassable wall, with humans on one side and animals on the other – and dogs and cats offered temporary visas – is a construction of the human imagination. And so too, Midgley wrote, is the idea that humans belong anywhere other than with the animals. As she wrote in Beast and Man: “We are not just rather like animals; we are animals”. The fact that we are on hind legs and peering at the other species from above is no reason to think ourselves apart.

For Midgley, the task of coming to understand our animal nature was not just a scientific one, but something that would require a leap in our imagination. This conceptual leap has never been more urgent. Without transformative changes to the way humans live in the world, nearly a million species face extinction.

Scientific studies can remind us of our kinship with animals, but on their own they cannot help us understand the meaning and importance of that kinship, nor its moral and political implications. For this, we need to examine our concepts and ideas about animals – a task that requires philosophy.

Language and human life

As children grow up, they learn to think in terms of a variety of dichotomies, such as man and beast, nature and reason. The job of the philosopher, Midgley argued, is twofold. She must examine the way these dichotomies work on our imaginations, and affect our ways of acting and being; and she must articulate, or bring forth, new images that will free our imaginations from their hold.

Humans do, of course, have exceptional capacities that make them different from, and also especially dangerous to, other kinds of animals. The idea that humans are different must be respected. We are not alone in eating other species, or in hunting and hurting them for play, as all cat lovers know. But language transforms these natural activities and gives us the power to alter our environment in ways that go far beyond that of other animals.

Midgley’s friend and fellow philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote about the ways in which the acquisition of language affects human life. She noted that there are some things you can get a person (or indeed a dog) to do without language. But if you can get them to make a promise or sign a contract – two activities reliant on human language – the possibilities for involving them in your plans become vast.

Advanced technology, industry, culture and art depend on the sorts of cooperation that would be impossible without human language. And each of these alters the way our natural animal instincts are realised in the world. Money, banking, commerce and trade allow our animal desire for warmth and shelter to be realised through hoarding resources. Territorial instincts, common to most animals, are reshaped through property rights. We farm at an industrial scale and eat other animals not just because we are hungry, but because to do so culturally signifies wealth or status.

How to overcome the species barrier

Though it is our language that makes us the most dangerous of all the animals, Midgley thought it was nevertheless in language – rather than in science or technology – that our environmental salvation must lie. In her book Science and Poetry, she writes about the way in which metaphor and metre can return us to our childhood perspective – to looking under the fence that separates humans from other animals.

A toddler bends down to see eye to eye with three goats behind a wire fence.
The supposed separateness of animals is less evident to children. Irina Wilhauk/Shutterstock

When Midgley and Anscombe were teenagers, studying philosophy at Oxford in the late 1930s, it was widely agreed that the days when philosophy and poetry were seen as sources of knowledge were over. But when the war intervened, other voices had the lectern: women and refugee scholars and conscientious objectors. One among them was Donald MacKinnon, later a well-known theologian – if still now a (practically) forgotten philosopher. He would not let the old way of thinking go. “We are metaphysical animals”, he taught Midgley and Anscombe, metaphysics being the branch of philosophy that asks the most general and fundamental questions about what exists and why it matters. Wonder and poetry are as natural to us as play.

What would it mean to take up Midgley’s way of thinking about our relation to other animals and to the natural world more broadly? If Midgley is right, then we can draw an important lesson from the children who participated in the scientific study. Their attitude reminds us what we, adults, have learned to forget: that we are animals, just like dogs and pigs, and that it’s only our imagination that stands in the way of us extending the moral concern that we have for humans to other kinds of animal.

Five ways the new sustainability and climate change strategy for schools in England doesn’t match up to what young people actually want

Elizabeth Rushton– Associate Professor of Education, UCL Lynda Dunlop– Senior Lecturer in Science Education, University of York

Youth protestors in London in 2019. Ben Gingell/Shutterstock

The UK government has introduced a new sustainability and climate change strategy for schools. However, our research shows that it does not go far enough to meet what young people and teachers want.

Last year, together with colleagues, we conducted research with over 200 teachers, teacher educators (the people who train teachers) and young people aged 16-18 from the UK to understand how they wanted schools to tackle sustainability and climate change. Participants were recruited via email and Twitter.

Our research allows us to assess how far the government’s new strategy aligns with what teachers and young people want. Here are five key things that teachers, teacher educators and young people would like to see in schools – and how the government’s sustainability and climate change strategy matches up.

1. Sustainability education for all

Many teachers already provide opportunities for pupils to learn about sustainability, such as eco-clubs, recycling projects and sustainable fashion shows. However, this work is optional and tends to happen outside the curriculum, meaning that not all young people have opportunities to take part.

Teachers and young people in our research wanted environmental sustainability to feature across the curriculum, not just in geography (which not all students study after the age of 14) and science.

Illustration of woman at podium surrounded by environmental slogans
Art for the manifesto resulting from our research, by Maisy Summer. Author provided (no reuse)

The government’s strategy includes a new natural history GCSE, which will be taught from 2025. This will increase opportunities for young people to learn about the natural world and sustainability. However, this subject will be optional and so will not ensure that every young person has access to climate change and sustainability education, regardless of their age or subject choice.

The government’s new strategy does include other ways to learn about the environment. Pupils can take part in a climate leaders award, carrying out extra-curricular activities in connection with sustainability, but this is also optional. This means that environmental sustainability remains unlikely to be prioritised or to involve everyone.

2. Training for teachers

Teachers we spoke to wanted professional development opportunities so they could feel more confident teaching sustainability in the classroom. As one teacher said: “We can lack confidence because we are navigating this ourselves and do not feel like experts where we might in our subject.”

While the new strategy offers support for teachers through resources and training, there is no promise of time to access this, and there is no fundamental change to existing school or teacher education curriculums in England.

3. Put knowledge into action

Teachers and young people do not just want to pass on knowledge – they want to be able to make a difference. We heard that teachers and students wanted education to be more about critical thinking, data literacy, doing research, taking action and communicating and networking with others. As one young person said:

We should be taught about big business and corporations – what their impact actually is. A lot of greenwashing goes on with big companies making individuals feel as if they are solely responsible … Education should empower us to demand change and to demand the rights we should have.

The focus of the government’s strategy is on learning more about sustainability, climate change and the natural world, not empowering young people to act for the environment or challenging the root causes of climate change.

4. Make schools sustainable

Teachers and young people wanted greater attention to environmental sustainability in school operations, including handling of energy, waste, transport and food. There is currently little requirement for schools in England to learn about or act for environmental sustainability.

Illustrated annotated map of UK
Art for the manifesto resulting from our research by Maisy Summer. Author provided (no reuse)

The government’s strategy focuses on net zero targets and promises action on waste by requiring schools to increase recycling and reduce landfill. It also promises at least four new low-carbon schools and one college.

In other aspects of school operations – food, transport and energy – there is encouragement and support in the strategy, which may or may not translate into action.

5. Make schools community hubs for climate action

Young people and teachers saw schools as community hubs where people from across different generations could take part in sustainability focused activities. They saw starting sustainability education with young children and incorporating this throughout their lives as vital.

Introducing the climate leaders award provides a way for the contribution young people are already making to environmental sustainability in schools and communities to be recognised and valued. The young people we worked with called for such a scheme and wanted it at no cost. However, the description of the climate leaders award in the government’s sustainability and climate change strategy references existing awards such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s award, which is not free of charge.

Teachers and young people told us that at present, there is little support for environmental sustainability in education. The government’s new strategy does little to change this status quo.

We need further change to put sustainability and climate change at the heart of education. This could be done by climate change and sustainability into the core curriculum, making it part of exam specifications and school inspections and part of the core framework for teacher training – in other words, the things that teachers must prioritise.

Relying on carbon capture to solve the climate crisis risks pushing our problems into the next generation’s path

Avit K Bhowmik– Assistant Professor of Risk and Environmental Studies, Stockholm University Neil Grant– PhD Candidate in Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London

Models suggest that CCS tech alone won’t be enough to avert climate disaster. Marcin Jozwiak/Pixabay

As the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes clear makes clear, the 2020s must be a decade of transformation if we are to stand any chance of achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is widely anticipated to play a key role in this transformation by helping to cut carbon emissions worldwide. But relying on CCS may overshadow solutions that focus on reducing our energy demand and making behavioural changes that put sustainability first.

Over the coming years, global greenhouse gas emissions need to fall rapidly in accordance with the Carbon Law, a relatively simple equation developed by scientists to achieve decarbonisation: halving emissions by 2030, then continuing to halve them every decade until 2050 to reach a level that can be stored by “natural carbon sinks” such as forests, pastures and peatlands.

Current strategies to rapidly cut emissions have proved inadequate. Many governments are now looking to CCS technologies that capture and store carbon dioxide (CO₂) released by burning fossil fuels and other industrial processes. CCS also includes systems that capture CO₂ from burning organic matter (BECCS) or directly from the atmosphere.

CCS may be a critical technology to cut emissions in some sectors. For example, cement production is currently responsible for 8% of global CO₂ emissions. Of this, 60% are “process emissions”, meaning they can’t be avoided, even if fossil fuels stop being used in the cement manufacturing process entirely. This is where CCS can step in to capture that carbon.

Yet CCS has been struggling to get off the ground, with more than 80% of projects ending in failure thanks to complicated infrastructure and a lack of policy support. Relying on CCS too much could therefore be risky.

Model evidence

Along with the Exponential Roadmap Initiative team, author Avit Bhowmik has modelled different ways in which we might be able to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2100.

Together, we’ve mapped greenhouse gas emissions across six sectors – energy, industry, buildings, transport, food, and agriculture and forestry – to assess whether existing solutions, including circular business models, renewable energy tech, and low-carbon heating and cooling systems, can eliminate emissions without using CCS.

We found that if solutions that don’t rely on CCS were implemented within Carbon Law guidelines, global emissions could be cut from 54 billion metric tonnes in 2020 to 34 billion metric tonnes in 2030.

With the accelerating development of renewable energy, energy sector emissions could be reduced by three billion metric tonnes by 2030. In the buildings sector, automating energy usage and retrofitting buildings could cut emissions by five billion metric tonnes by 2030. And electric vehicles, digital carpooling services and remote meeting platforms could cut another 3.5 billion metric tonnes from the transport sector.

A labelled image of plants in a forest
Food forests can help trap and store more carbon. Zack Dowell/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

What’s more, adding nature-based solutions such as managing cattle grazing and rebuilding forests could not only rapidly reduce emissions by preventing land degradation, but could also add 9.1 billion metric tonnes of capacity to carbon sinks. For example, creating “food forests” – layered forests with crops built in – could sequester up to one billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gases annually.

If we manage to put these plans into practice, we’d be able to achieve net zero emissions in the next two decades and significantly reduce our reliance on CCS. But that’s only half of the story.

Renewable power

The cost of renewables has plummeted over the past decade. Wind and solar power are now the cheapest forms of electricity in most parts of the world. But economic models have struggled to keep pace, sometimes using overly pessimistic renewables costs. New research by author Neil Grant and colleagues explores what happens when these cost assumptions are updated to reflect the amazing progress of the past decade.

We found that cheap renewables reduce the need for technologies such as CCS, with the economic value of CCS falling by 15-96% by 2050. However, this effect varies strongly across sectors.

Two people install solar panels
Renewables continue to drop in price. GPA Photo Archive/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

For example, while cheap renewables slash the value of CCS in electricity and hydrogen production by 61-96%, CCS remains valuable in cement production and CO₂ removal, where its value only falls 15-36%. It seems like targeting CCS where it’s most needed could be a better strategy: less “spray and pray”, more “select and perfect”.

Discounting climate

Models of a low-carbon future need to decide how to spread the effort of tackling climate change over the next century. They often use “discount rates” to achieve this. Discount rates determine how a dollar’s worth of action today – for example, a dollar spent installing a wind turbine – compares to a dollar’s worth of action in the future.

A higher discount rate means it’s cheaper to spend the dollar in the future, creating an incentive to delay that action. The problem is that many models still use relatively high discount rates of 4-5%. This leads to a tendency to do less now – and compensate for it later.

Neil’s research shows that when lower discount rates of 1% are used – to reflect the importance of future generations’ wellbeing – the value of CCS plummets across sectors. In particular, the value of BECCS is cut by more than half. Avoiding this means BECCS, while still a useful tool, becomes much less valuable.

While capturing carbon will be essential in tackling the climate crisis, it shouldn’t be used to delay action now. We should update our models to better consider the needs of future generations when designing climate policy, since large-scale reliance on carbon capture might be a dangerous game to play.

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