Building back better with a National Nature Service

“Even with all our medical technologies, we cannot have well humans on a sick planet”—Thomas Berry

As 2020 threw us into a world of social distancing, health services had to adapt and many of us experienced high levels of fear and anxiety. We gained further understanding on the interconnectedness of issues that we face in the years ahead.

At present, ecological devastation, high levels of unemployment, increasing inequality, and the climate emergency—which all lead to significant health problems—are the staples of our global and local lives.

Although we are aware of Menken’s truism that for every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong, we think that there is a simple solution that can address each of the problems listed above: the National Nature Service (NNS).

Based on Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, the NNS would be a paid national programme delivered at a local level, funded by the government, to give good quality on-the-job training in the green economy and to restore our depleted nature at the same time.

The service would initially be targeted to unemployed 18 – 25 year olds. Over time, the service will be expanded to include other groups—for example those with mental illness or physical disability, groups whose access to employment is likely to be difficult. Planning will involve all engaged stakeholders, and will be tested and refined by regional young people’s assemblies.

Recruits to the NNS would engage in year-long programmes of training and work in the natural environment, doing activities that will accelerate progress towards net zero carbon emissions and/or strengthen ecosystems and biodiversity.  For example, they could create infrastructure to protect against environmental degradation, provide a natural means of preventing flooding, plant trees, work in regenerative agriculture, help with community food growing, and create urban green spaces and parks to increase access to nature.

Alongside the job-specific skills such as wetland management or tree planting and care, other skills and experience would be accrued in the areas of project management, leadership, fundraising, teaching, digital, and IT skills

Implementing the NNS will offer a radical, but feasible opportunity for a true “win win.”

Nature providers and NGOs (such as Groundwork, The Wildlife Trusts, and the RSPB) have been noticing the human and planetary co-benefits of nature based work for years. There are strong national networks already in place that can be used to facilitate the scaling up of existing local projects, including in the most deprived parts of the country.

Examples of potential projects include working with The Heart of England Forest. This Trust has already planted 4,000 acres of broad leaf forest with the intention of planting 30,000 acres. They are highlighting the benefits for the local economy and providing work-based training for local people. Another is the Trillion Trees project. In both, the main activity will be linking groups of unemployed people to skilled rangers who can teach forest management through active engagement in tree planting and associated tasks. The outcome will be that a number of unemployed people get permanent jobs, more trees will be planted, more carbon will be sequestered, and a number of communities will be prevented from flooding.

In addition, the Wildlife Trust’s ambition to restore 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 shows how national coordination can build on local efforts to engage people in working with nature.

To incentivise a longer-term commitment to agriculture and other rural jobs, another pilot project could be building carbon zero houses on 0.2 acre plots linked to agricultural work on selected farms.  Starting with a maximum of 5 on a 1000 acre farm, these could provide the core of small communities. The state could put in basic infrastructure of a solid foundation, such as water, sewage and electricity, and offer an interest free loan to cover building costs.

As health professionals and concerned others who want to “do no harm” we can no longer ignore the larger context of our patients’ health. The evidence base is strong and growing: inequality, unemployment, and climate impacts such as air pollution, extreme weather events and food insecurity impact negatively on health at a far greater rate than our attempts to treat symptoms.

A greener, more positive strand is emerging—the environmental, economic, and health benefits we reap if we rejuvenate nature as part of our response to the climate crisis. The NNS would harness these co-benefits: exposure to and feeling a connection to healthy blue and green spaces is linked with improved physical and mental health outcomes; the training element will provide future job opportunities and an experience of purpose and mastery; being involved in climate solutions tackles the anxiety, grief and hopelessness of eco distress.

This perspective opens our eyes to new ways of improving health outcomes that are outside the consulting room. Can we begin to see health professionals, health centres and hospitals playing a more interconnected role as part of a local nature-friendly ecology? Getting behind an initiative like the NNS is a way to start, and advocating for this and other similarly whole-system solutions is a powerful way to use our voice and influence.

We understand that a proposal for an NNS, shaped by the nature conservation charities, and supported by the youth sector, is sitting with No. 10 and Defra and awaiting a go ahead. We anticipate that health sector support for such a policy will be very helpful.

Catriona Mellor, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.

Robin Stott, executive member of UK health alliance on climate change.

Beth Thoren, Director of Environmental Action & Initiatives, EMEA Patagonia.
Competing interests: none declared.