Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Human-Nature Divide

 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. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Nature Tips

We humans have a rather bizarre relationship with nature. We seek out nature to stroll, run, bike, rollerblade, climb, swim, skydive, surf, sail, commune, birdwatch, whalewatch, and stargaze, spending billions of dollars a year gearing up for and traveling to these activities. While there, we might collect bugs, rocks, driftwood, fossils, counts of bird species, or, most commonly these days, photographs. Closer to home, we grow nature in our gardens, place it in pots that adorn our living spaces, cherish it as pets, and hug stuffed manifestations of it to our sleeping bodies. Increasingly, we also consume digital versions—books, documentaries, movies, and videos—that allow us to travel to wild places without so much as stepping beyond the front door.

On the flip side, we also kill nature for sport and place it in cages for our amusement. We rip it from mountainsides, scrape it off the ocean’s bottom, harvest it for raw materials, befoul it with various toxins, and destroy it in vast quantities to accommodate humanity’s sprawl. Most fundamental of all, we chew up and swallow substantial amounts of nature daily simply to fuel our bodily selves.

How can we possibly eat nature and love it too (beyond the taste, that is)? More to the point, how exactly do we go about connecting with this thing called nature?

The heart of the answer, I’ve come to think, is embodied in a simple question. Do you think of yourself as inside or outside of nature?

Our present dominant worldview places humanity outside and above nature, reducing it to mere resources. This “denaturing” has been ongoing for thousands of years, driven by such forces as agriculture, science, and technology. If we’re going to develop a true compassion for nature—a matter of urgent importance for this century—we must understand that the human-nature divide is a delusion. Cutting edge science now demonstrates that we are fully embedded within nature, and also that nature is embedded within us. All life forms on Earth, it turns out, are our kin.

The human-nature disconnect is a cross-cultural phenomenon, blind to skin color and household income. It applies to urban, suburban, and rural families. Today millions of people are aware that we must reinsert nature into our lives, and especially those of our children. But, in this time of increasing urbanization, helicopter parenting, and digital obsession, parents and educators don’t know how to begin the process, let alone foster a lasting nature connection in children. A critical first step, then, is to map out the signposts common to this journey wherever it is undertaken.

Several years ago, I came to the realization that re-establishing a strong emotional attachment with nature was critical for the health of our children and the places they live. Given all the organizations that profess to be connecting people with nature—among them natural history museums, botanical gardens, zoos, planetariums, aquariums, science centers, nature centers, and schools—I assumed that the process of nature connection must be well documented. What I found when I went out to search for answers, however, was an abundance of disparate articles and research papers, but no general audience summaries. So I’m now in the midst of writing a book on nature connection intended for parents, teachers, and anyone else seeking to connect themselves and others with nature.

Yet, rather than waiting for the book’s publication to reveal the process of nature connection, I’ve decided to launch a Facebook site that will, among other things, serve as the home of weekly “Nature Tips” during 2013. These tips, typically posted on Thursdays (just prior to the weekend), will provide direct advice for connecting kids and adults with nature. My sincere hope is that you will find them useful in your own nature-bonding efforts. Of course, please feel free to share them with anyone else that you think might benefit.

Ultimately, nature connection comes down to developing new habits of interacting with the other-than-human world, habits of body and mind that encourage us to experience natural wonders firsthand.

So I cordially invite you to check out the inaugural Nature Tip, all about engaging the senses, on my new Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/DrScottSampson. And, of course, feel free to share with others who might be interested!

I sincerely hope that you enjoy Nature Tips. And may 2013 be a banner year of nature connection for you and others in your life! 

Scott Sampson