Every year, NY literary agent John Brockman asks a group of folks to answer the "Edge Annual Question." This year's query is, "What should we be worried about." Below is my answer, a blend of some recent blog posts plus a new idea or two. Hope you enjoy. And feel free to check out this answer and the many other responses on Brockman's Edge website.
We should all be worried about the gaping psychological chasm separating humanity from nature. Indeed a strong argument can be made that bridging this divide deserves to be ranked amongst the most urgent 21st Century priorities. Yet so far the human-nature divide hasn’t even made it to our cultural to-do list.
For the past several decades, numerous scientists and environmentalists have been telling us that we must change our ways and strike a balance with nature, or face catastrophic consequences. I myself have often participated in this echo chamber, doling out dire statistics in hopes of engaging people in action. The unspoken assumption has been that cold, hard facts are all that’s needed for people (including business people and elected officials) to “get it” and alter their unsustainable ways. To date, however, virtually all the key indicators—from greenhouse gas emissions to habitat and species losses—are still heading in the wrong direction. The blade of the “hockey stick” continues to lengthen.
The problem is, humans aren’t rational creatures. At least, not when it comes to shifting their behaviors. As marketing executives have long understood, humans are far more susceptible to emotional messages, especially when conveyed through imagery. Want to escalate sales of some new car model? Beautiful people driving through pristine natural settings are far more powerful motivators than statistics on horsepower and fuel efficiency.
But what emotion is needed to foster a sustainable shift in human behavior? In a word, love.
As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould once claimed in an uncharacteristic moment of sentimentality, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” The good news is that, thanks to a lengthy evolutionary tenure living in intimate contact with the nonhuman world, the capacity to form an emotional attachment with nature probably lays dormant within all of us, waiting to be reawakened (think E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia”).
The bad news is that, as a species, we’ve never been more disconnected from the natural world. Thanks to a variety of factors—among them fear of strangers and an obsession with screens—children’s firsthand encounters with nature in the developed world have dropped precipitously to less than 10% of what they were just one generation ago. The average American youth now spends seven to ten hours per day staring at screens compared to a mere handful of minutes in any “natural” setting. The result of this indoor migration is a runaway health crisis, both for children (obesity, ADHD, stress, etc.) and the places they live.
Science has been one of the primary forces driving a wedge between humans and nature, prompting us to see nature as objects rather than subjects, resources to be exploited rather than relatives to be respected. Yet science, particularly over the past few decades, has also empirically demonstrated our complete embeddedness within nature, from the trillions of bacterial cells that far outnumber human cells in our bodies to our role as newbie actors in the 14 billion-year evolutionary epic.
Do we need more science? Of course, and the general public must learn the necessary facts, dire and difficult though they may be. We’re also going to need all the technological help we can get to help us navigate a sustainable path into the future. Yet knowledge and technology without emotional connection simply won’t cut it. The next generation of humans must learn to see their relationship with the natural world in ways that will seem alien to our current anthropocentric, reductionist, and materialistic perspective.