Are we Afraid of Nature?
Are we headed for a world where people no longer feel comfortable with nature?
In a recent study conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago, trends in the number of Americans visiting natural areas like State Parks, National Forests and campgrounds were analyzed. Investigators also reviewed trends in the numbers of outdoor licenses (fishing, hunting, trapping, backpacking, etc.) issued during the study period. Results indicated that the number of visits by Americans to natural area peaked between 1981 and 1991 after 50 years of steady increases. They further showed that visits have steadily decreased since that peak at a rate of approximately 1% per year.
According to Patricia Zaradic of the Environmental Leadership Program and co-author of the report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. “It would take 80 million more visits this year to get the per capita number back up to the level it was in 1987.”
According to a study published by the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning group;
“If children’s natural attraction to nature is not given opportunities to be flourish during their early years of life, biophobia, an aversion to nature may develop. Biophobia ranges from discomfort in natural places to contempt for whatever is not man-made, managed or air-conditioned. Biophobia is also manifest in regarding nature as nothing more than a disposable resource.”
Communing without nature…
This aversion to nature has become increasingly common in people raised in suburban surroundings where nature is tolerated only in as much as it cooperates as a decorative accent. We are creating a world where young people prefer to learn about nature though Podcasts, interactive computer games, television and surfing the web rather than by actually experiencing it.
Have we become a society where we are more comfortable with technology than nature?
And there’s more to this than just the allure of those nifty electronic devices… Richard Louv, chairman of the Santa Fe, N.Mex.–based Children and Nature Network and author of “Last Child in the Woods”, ascribes the change to increasing school and work pressure on children and parents. He’s also concerned about the fear factor. “You didn’t have the concept of stranger danger [in the past],” Louv says. If you are raising a generation under protective house arrest, will they have a joyful experience in nature?”
Now that we have a media more interested in making news than reporting it, the concept of ‘stranger danger’ (much like that of killer pibbles) has been blown utterly out of proportion. Sadly, 85% of all children who are molested are the victims of people they know well, they are not attacked by strangers. Statistically speaking, your child is likely in more danger at home or at school as he or she is out on a hike. But the never-ending string of heart-rending stories about children kidnapped and brutalized by random strangers hyped by the media not only affects us all – it also gives us a false sense of danger.
Your creepy uncle Edwin is likely far more dangerous to your child than that random killer you’ve never met. Not just because Edwin is, statistically speaking, far more likely to molest your child but also because your deep, (understandable) but misplaced fear of that nameless, faceless stranger keeps you from allowing your child to experience the joy, beauty and freedom that time alone with nature provides.
Watching a spider build her web, eating fresh picked gooseberries, catching frogs, climbing trees, looking for shooting stars, and seeing fantastic creatures appear and then evaporate away in the shapes of clouds – you can’t reproduce those kinds of experiences electronically.
And without those kinds of direct, hands-on experiences, the value of nature is lost on us. Without it, we can’t know how inexplicably beautiful and awe-inspiring nature is and its impossible for us to have a real idea of how our actions impact the environment.
I could devote an entire book to how and why modern Americans fear nature and another one to the deleterious effects of that fear. Instead I’d like to propose a remedy for the epidemic. I believe that dogs are that remedy. Despite what Jon Katz, the author of “The New Work of Dogs” says, I think that one important reason we have been blessed with the companionship of these wonderful creatures is – their ability to re-connect us with nature.
If you have a dog, you need to walk it. Walking a dog means you have to be outdoors. Being outdoors with a dog involves spending time with a being that finds inexpressible joy in the smells, sights and sounds of nature. To a dog, urine is beautiful, bugs are interesting and grass is made to roll in. Walk your dog. Listen to your dog. Find the joy in the weeds in your lawn, the spider in your basement, the mice in your garage and the stars in the sky. Put away the iPod and your computer. Shut off your television, get out of your car and experience the world with your dog. I guarantee it’ll make you a better (and happier) person.