Thursday, November 29, 2012

Falling in Love With Nature

Yesterday, I discovered a remarkable TED talk by David Roberts. Roberts is a blogger who writes about energy and politics for Grist. His aim in this 15-minute presentation, remixed with music and extra imagery, is to summarize and simplify the science of climate change. Just the facts ma’am. Now, I study fossils, not climate, so I’m not on a first-name basis with all the relevant data. Yet, given my understanding of current climatological consensus, Roberts has his facts straight.

His core message is, to put it bluntly, terrifying. On our present trajectory (“business as usual”), the forecast for the end of this century is at least a 4-degree Celsius increase in global temperature, generating rampant coastal flooding, inland desertification, and human suffering on a vast, unfathomable scale. A couple of centuries after that, we may be facing a scorched Earth, unlivable for humans in many regions.

For me, the exactness of such projected increases in global temperatures, habitat loss, and species extinctions is not the issue. If you accept the scientific method as valid, and respect the strong consensus of the world’s top scientists, we’re on the fast-track to Hades, with less than a generation to make a major course correction.

This, of course, is not exactly breaking news. For the past few decades, scientists and environmentalists have been telling whoever would listen 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, the kind the Roberts offers us, are all that’s needed for people to “get it” and alter their unsustainable ways.

The problem is, humans aren’t rational creatures. At least, not when it comes to shifting their behavior. If you doubt this claim, look at the tactics used by the true experts in behavior modification.

Marketing executives have long understood that humans respond to emotional messages, especially through imagery. Want to persuade a lot of people to buy a new car? Beautiful, scantily clad bodies in pristine natural settings are far more powerful motivators than horsepower or fuel efficiency statistics. So what’s the emotion we need to foster if we’re to shift human behaviors in the direction of sustainability? In a word, love.

As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould once claimed [1], “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 fall in love with nature lays dormant within all of us, waiting to be reawakened [2]. Embracing this emotional need, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently launched a “Love, Not Loss” campaign [3], arguing that we must replace the standard doom-and-gloom message with one of love. (Check out their powerful video here.) Our goal, they say, must be to help humanity to once again fall in love with nature. I could not agree more.

And the best time to initiate this love affair? Childhood.

Today, few kids escape the frightening barrage of bad eco-news, frequently learning about our rampant environmental destruction early in elementary school. And the stunning images they see—polar bears standing on shrinking chunks of ice; Amazon rainforest leveled under a mechanized onslaught—too often generate fear rather than love, numbness rather than action. Here I concur with David Sobel [4], who argues that, when it comes to education, there should be no disasters before fourth grade.

So how do we turn things around and help people fall in love with nature? Well, a growing mountain of evidence suggests that the best place to start is wherever you happen to be—that is, your local place. Plenty of firsthand, multisensory experience, together with a healthy dose of wonder, are essential ingredients, especially for children. Learning about the history and workings of your local environs are also critical.

In contrast with traditional approaches, place-based learning is all about hands-on, inquiry-driven, often outdoor activities [4, 5]. Going beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries like math and social studies, emphasis is placed on integrative projects that transform communities into classrooms.

Far from being parochial, learning in place simply begins in local landscapes and migrates outward. Better to understand that nearby oak or fir forest before trying to comprehend (let alone care about) the Amazon rainforest. Many are surprised to learn that a place-based approach to learning fosters not only a stronger connection with local nature, but heightened academic performance across the board. And it isn’t just for schoolteachers. To fully take root, parents, caregivers, and informal educators must embrace this revolutionary approach.

In short, falling in love with nature begins at home, preferably as children, in our local communities, inspired by wonder. A strong sense of place rooted in emotional connection reveals the beauty of the natural world, the truth of our embeddedness within nature, and the goodness inherent in caring for one’s home ground. It provides the foundation for Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Don’t misunderstand me. If we are to navigate a sustainable path out of our current predicament, we have to be honest with ourselves and learn the facts, difficult though they may be. And we are going to need all the technological help we can get along the way. Yet knowledge and technology without emotional connection are simply not going to be enough. That’s why helping children fall in love with nature deserves to be an urgent international priority, on par with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving species and wild places.

1.    Gould, S. J. 1993. Unenchanted evening. Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History. Norton, New York. Quotation from p. 40.
2.   Sampson, S. D. 2012. The topophilia hypothesis: Ecopsychology meets evolutionary psychology. Pp. 23-53 in P. H. Kahn and P. H. Hasbach (eds.), Ecopsychology: Science Totems, and the Technological Species. MIT Press, Boston.
4.   Sobel, D. 2004. Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities. Orion Society, Barrington, MA.
5.    Sobel, D. 2008. Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. Stenhouse, Portland, Maine.

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