Videophilia replacing love of nature

In the late 1900s researchers like E.O. Wilson and Stephen Kellert began using the term “biophilia” to describe the basic love of other living things that humans seem to exhibit–an affection that encompassed nature, other species, diversity. So strong an affinity, so powerful an affect, was biophilia that the researchers decided it must be instinctive, built into the human brain by natural selection because it was an aid to survival.

Or else it’s part of God’s (intelligent, by definition) design–to make gardeners who love the garden. I’m betting on the latter hypothesis.

But there’s a competing impulse, a dark attraction that fights for the affection of humans. Is it money? Sex? Power?

No, it’s actually video screens. There is a strong negative relationship between the amount of time people spend on the Internet, playing video games, and watching television and movies, and the amount of time people spend outside in nature. Humans seem to have a (built-in? instinctive?) love of flat screen TVs and handheld video devices.

Biophilia is being replaced by videophilia.

So say researchers Patricia Zaradic and Oliver Pergams, both of them parents and scientists, who set out to discover why fewer and fewer people are visiting natural areas like national parks. The problem? After 50 years of increasing visits, a shift has occurred. Total visits are still up, barely, but per capita visits are down by 23 percent over 20 years.

Zaradic and Pergams noticed the same trend in other measures of nature interaction, according to their article (PDF version) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They call it a “fundamental and pervasive shift” in the way people interact with nature for fun. They detected declines in hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, and visits to national parks not just in the U.S. but in international data.

More worrying is the vicious cycle this fundamental and pervasive shift creates. When people don’t visits parks, when they don’t camp or fish or hunt, then public support for the maintenance of those opportunities begins to fall off. Parks are underfunded, then closed. Natural areas get privatized, developed for housing, oil, coal, and natural gas, and put off-limits or ruined. Then it gets harder to find nature experiences, and the cycle repeats.

Nature is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. If natural areas are under-explored, they’ll be under-funded. A mall-rat culture, in the next generation, doesn’t value natural areas the way nature nuts do, obviously. But the use-it-or-lose-it designation applies to the affection itself, and not just to the object of that affection.

Loving nature, it turns out, is not just an instinct but a virtue. Like nature itself, the virtue of loving it requires cultivation. There’s no question that the trait of biophilia is good for us and good for God’s garden, but we aren’t able to retain a love for nature simply because it’s built in. We must actively create, and re-create, every generation, a culture that loves, and therefore tends and keeps, God’s garden.

To quote researcher Zaradic:

“We need environmental stewards now more than ever. Yet we are raising a generation of young people whose primary experience with nature is virtual. Real nature is a full sensory experience, with frequent open-ended problem-solving opportunities and no off switch. We should all make outdoor play a priority for our children and ourselves. Nature: use it or lose it.”

Sources: P. Zaradic, 2008. “Confronting Videophilia,” Scientific American 3.0, 18(5):24; O.R.W. Pergams and P. Zaradic, 2008. “Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation,” Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences USA 105:2295-2300 (PDF).

To find out more about the study of people’s changing relationship with nature, check out the work of the Red Rock Institute.

Rusty Pritchard is a natural resource economist and president of Flourish, a Christian non-profit dedicated to revitalizing lives and landscapes. You can join him at the first Flourish conference in May 2009, and can enjoy a discount on registration by using the code “flourish25″ when registering.

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