The new green agenda is mental strife
Challenge magazine, Spring 2008
People’s politics. Taking our message to where people are, not where we want them to be. Two of the buzzwords coined by the new leader of the Liberal Democrats before, during and after the close-fought leadership election.
It is, indeed, one of the besetting sins of politicians that they think policy exists in neat bundles defined by the responsibilities of different government departments.
This particularly affects the green agenda, even in the Lib Dems, despite all the efforts to put some bright green idea on every page of the last manifesto. The truth is that, where people are – where it affects their real lives – the green agenda is inextricably bound up, for example, with the health agenda.
Do we ever see them linked together in political rhetoric, even by Lib Dems? Well, occasionally, but generally speaking, you will search in vain through the green sections of the manifesto about the impact on health and vice versa – the massive impact on heart attacks of living near urban motorways, or the new NHS resources that would be available if we could sort out air pollution, for example.
This political blindness means that it is often harder for politicians to see the new issues as they emerge than it is for everyone else – even in the broader green ‘quality of life’ agenda. And one of those that are emerging fast is mental health.
My own organisation, the New Economics Foundation, and academics like Sir Richard Layard at the LSE, have both been struggling to knit together a political manifesto that puts well-being – rather than economic growth – at the heart of our political objectives. Both have put improving mental health high on their list of emerging well-being issues.
It is because a similar blindness besets economists and policy-makers that they don’t see the massive weight of unhappiness, of rising mental problems and depression, that afflicts the population – a fifth of the population suffering from depression at any one time, 31 million prescriptions for anti-depressants a year, and a wait for four years for cognitive behavioural therapy on the NHS.
This unsustainable effect of modern society on people – stress, debt and consumerism – is a mirror image of the unsustainable effects of that same society on the environment, but it is so far only on the fringes of the green agenda.
Yet all that looks likely to change, thanks to a range of new pieces of research, mainly in the Netherlands. We already know from there that mental health problems are enormously higher in high-density concrete estates without grass or trees. But it is now also clear that:
- 71 per cent in one Mind survey reported lower levels of depression after walking in a country park (22 per cent found an equivalent walk through a shopping centre made them more depressed).
- 24 per cent fewer sick visits among prisoners in Michigan in cells that overlooked farmland and trees.
- Shorter hospital stays, fewer painkillers, less medication for Pennsylvania patients when they had views of trees.
These are important findings, and the Netherlands now has 600 ‘care farms’ in the countryside to tackle depression, integrated into their health service (we have 42). They imply that human beings have a basic need for green, natural space and trees.
One study in Seattle even found that turnover in shops were higher when there were trees in the shopping street, so there are direct economic links as well.
All this also implies that the green movement, in the UK at least, is partly responsible for the rise in mental illness. Green campaigners have been at the forefront of calling for high density cities, and high density flats, over the past two decades, and high densities necessarily means less greenery.
The hideous results – at least for those who have to live in them – are all too obvious, just as they were two generations ago when environmentalists and architects last ganged up to raise urban densities. Then as now, it was the poor that suffered – without any obvious reduction in traffic either.
But the third implication is more urgent. There is a political opportunity here, because there is – hidden in this research – a note of hope. We can have an impact on the epidemic of depression that is undermining our society.
We can do so by making our cities greener, by building what Mind calls ‘ecotherapy’ as a treatment for mental distress in the NHS, and we can massively increase the effectiveness of our hospitals and prisons by accepting that patients and prisoners have a massive need for nature.
Imagine just what a 24 per cent reduction in the budget for prison medical services would mean. Imagine what we could do in hospitals too.
As a green Liberal Democrat, I have come to believe that our main enemy is now the technocrats who reduce the humanity – especially of the poor – by treating them like machines. I can think of no greater praise for this new green awareness than that technocrats will hate it.
We should, at the very least, back Mind’s campaign to make access to green space and exercise a core issue for the Healthcare Commission, the Commission for Social Care Inspection and the Prisons Inspectorate.
But we can also develop this as part of a wider theme in the overall Liberal Democrat narrative. The reason our public services are so expensive is that they are ineffective – and they don’t work partly because they reduce those in their care to easily measureable automatons, controllable by targets, drugs, threats and financial sticks and (occasionally) carrots.
It is the essence of Liberal Democracy – green or otherwise – in the years ahead that we understand human beings are more than that, and by doing so we rescue our public services from the sclerosis that is overwhelming them.
David Boyle is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation, and the author of Authenticity, The Tyranny of Numbers and Blondel’s Song. www.david-boyle.co.uk