Environmental journalist Jeremy Hance, a regular ALERT contributor, describes how people who lose contact with nature tend to value it less than those who keep it in their lives. His essay resonates in a world in which ever-more of us are living in towns, cities, and mega-cities.
I once spent a day with a family in a rural part of the Dominican Republic.
They loaded up their motorbikes and set off to a nearby river. There, the children swam in crystal pools while the adults killed a live chicken they’d brought and cooked lunch. This was how the family enjoyed their Sunday: swimming, laughing, and eating beneath the shade of a forest.
People like this used to be in the majority. Now they are a minority.
Today, more than half of the world’s people live in cities. That might not sound surprising for those of us born into our increasingly urbanized world. But in 1800, only 3 percent of the population lived in cities. For most of human history we have been hunter-gatherers and then, for just a blink of an eye, farmers.
Things have really accelerated in the last century. By 1950, 30 percent of all people lived in urban areas. By 2050, two-thirds of us are expected to be urbanites.
This represents a watershed shift in human experience that is too rarely noted. We are no longer a population living with nature -- but urban and suburban dwellers, in tune with high-rises, traffic, concrete, and manicured lawns. Few people have direct, everyday experiences with wilderness, wildlife, or relatively pristine nature.
Has this profound urbanization altered our ability to conserve nature?
LOSE NATURE, LOSE APPRECIATION
Maybe. A recent study found that rural Brazilians who spent less time in forests attached less value to them for their natural wealth and non-material benefits, such as spiritual value and recreation.
Hunters in the same area valued forests the most, according to the research. But hunting wasn’t the only indicator: the best way to identify a forest-lover was simply how much time they spent in the forest.
But worryingly, the researchers found that people don’t have to move into cities to lose touch with nature. Those living in rural but deforested areas valued forests less too.
Such implications should not be missed: When an ecosystem is destroyed, people may value it less, not more.
This is an example of shifting baselines. The theory is that, as environmental conditions deteriorate, people forget -- during the course of just a few generations -- what the environmental conditions were once like.
This can even happen in the span of a lifetime. We update our mental baselines repeatedly, so individuals can even forget lost species or vanishing wilderness. We see things as they are, not as they were. Environmental degradation, if and when it occurs, becomes the new normal.
For example, a rather bleak study in China showed that children in urban areas were more afraid and less enamored of wildlife and nature than their rural peers. They were also less willing to support conservation efforts.
And what about hunters? They may value forests today -- but what happens when the animals are gone? Many studies have shown that bushmeat hunting is becoming catastrophic for nearly any vertebrate species large enough to shoot (see here, here, and here). And the rise of lethal snaring is worsening the crisis.
In West Africa, for example, where people once ate antelopes, today they trap and eat rats.
The rural family I visited in the Dominican Republic is no exception. If their local forests are felled, if their river is polluted, if the animals disappear, they would likely forget too.
This all sounds terribly depressing. Is our appreciation for nature doomed?
No, thankfully, it’s more complicated than that. Other research has shown that wealthy and growing economies – including those that are urbanized – tend to have high levels of environmental concern and awareness.
What it might come down to is this: The best way to value nature is to find a way to make it a meaningful part of our lives – and our children’s lives.
If we can’t live in and among nature, perhaps we can appreciate it via other means – such as visiting parks, birdwatching, ecotours, fishing and hunting, and trips to zoos and aquariums. Even nature programs on TV might open doors in young minds.
As people increasingly live in cities and suburbs, how can we help them stay connected with our shrinking natural world?
It’s a challenge we all need to think about.