Is TV hurting nature?

The articles appeared in February 2008.  The Associated Press, network & cable news, NPR and countless websites all latched on to a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The first headline I saw was “Is Television Hurting Nature?”

The study proposed a correlation between the time people are spending with screens of all kinds (TV, movies, internet, video games, social media) and the time they spend outdoors in nature.

Shocking I know…one is going up and the other is going down.

The research measured time spent “in nature” by tracking 16 kinds of activities, including visits to national parks, the number of hunting and fishing licenses issued and hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

Overall, the data documents declines between 18% and 25% (adjusted for population) between 1981 and 2006 in the U.S and Japan (arguably the two most digitally-connected cultures on the planet).  “All major lines of evidence point to a general and fundamental shift away from people’s participation in nature-based recreation.” [1]

Nurture vs. Nature?

The authors of the study, conservation biologists Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic, looked at a wide range of possible explanations, and only one held statistical force: “the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.”  In an earlier paper (2006) they had coined a term for it: videophilia.

Television production has been my career.  What about the fantastic nature and adventure programs on PBS, NatGeo, Discovery and Planet Green?  They show us wildlife and phenomena we’d never see ourselves, no matter how much time we spend in nature.  Who would argue that these are not inspiring and motivate many to get out into nature.  But are they a replacement for the real thing?  And will I be able to update my facebook page while I’m there?

The real attention-getter in this 2008 paper lies in its assertion that the less contact we have with nature, the less we will care about preserving natural places.

“We think it probable that any major decline in the value placed on natural areas and experiences will greatly reduce the value people place on biodiversity conservation. Accordingly, it becomes less likely that attempts to raise public awareness of the current biodiversity crisis will succeed,” wrote Pergams and Zaradic.

Living in a virtual world

The study received extraordinary media attention.  NBC Nightly News called its report “A Nation of Indoorsmen.”  Here’s a link: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032619/vp/22993204#22993204

The gaming community responded too.  In one comment posted on Gamespot.com TckeyTheGlove wrote:  “I don’t think anyone wants to go to national parks, let alone just gamers.  All that’s there are trees and animals, all of which can be seen in games.  (God, blame everything on games.  It will be cancer next.)” [2]

The majority of humans now (since 2008) live in cities.  Why should the people living in a city-on-the- plain care about forest management in some distant mountains?  What do people who live in a city-by-the-sea care about the upland river valleys or coastal wetlands?

In a published commentary, Peter Kareiva, a chief scientist with The Nature Conservancy (which funded the study) and the Environmental Studies Institute, wrote:  “Successful nature conservation and sustainable ecosystems will require a battle for the hearts and minds of people. Every day humans face stress and uncertainty regarding jobs, health, and security. If people never experience nature and have negligible understanding of the services that nature provides, it is unlikely people will choose a sustainable future.” [3]

This is not a case of nature is good/civilization is bad.  This is the real economics of our dependence on the natural world.

If a casualty of our nature deficit is individual awareness and political will, what of that  deeper ineffable:  the soul-sustaining connection to the natural world which is described in all the world’s nature writing?  A world disconnected from nature is the world that science fiction has always warned us about.

Into the woods

It’s been more than two years since the publicity surrounding Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic’s research, and they’re continuing their work on several fronts. [4]

During their 2008 media blitz, a recurring question came up:  are parents becoming more afraid to take their kids out into nature?  In playgrounds and parks we’re surrounded by other people.  Do we feel more vulnerable when we venture out further?  Fear-mongering about the jungle is easy; is it affecting our walks in the woods too?

Pergams and Zaradic have been partnering with organizations that provide nature experiences for children, to help evaluate and strengthen their programs.  The Children and Nature Network is one.  (www.childrenandnature.org)  “Leave No Child Inside” events are another.  (www.kidsoutside.info)

This week I had a vision of the kind of parenting that will help sustain us, as traditional cultures teach, seven generations on.

I was in Wells, Maine, at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.  Along the path you look out over an expansive salt marsh to the Atlantic Ocean shining in the distance.  Early autumn–the air was cool and still–and acorns were falling from the tall oaks like an intermittent hailstorm, landing all around us.  I met a mother walking with her son, who offered me an acorn.  James is a little over a year old.  His mother tells me they’ve come here many times, but this is James’ very first time walking on his own.  She laughs and says, “We should have worn a helmet today!”

****

[1]  Oliver R. W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. February 4, 2008.  http://www.videophilia.org/uploads/PNAScomplete.pdf

[2]  Peter Kareiva, “Ominous Trends in Nature Recreation.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 26, 2008  http://www.videophilia.org/uploads/2757.pdf

[3]  http://www.gamespot.com/news/6154478.html

[4]  For a description, go to http://www.redrockinstitute.org

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About John Wackman

A writer since I learned to hold a pencil (no, not like that...hold it like this!). Long-time writer/producer for television, now organizer of Repairs Cafes in the Hudson Valley (13 & counting!) -- Program Manager of Solarize Hudson Valley, non-profit, state supported, community sponsored renewable energy program. We're all re-inventing ourselves. It's a sci-fi world, isn't it?
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2 Responses to Is TV hurting nature?

  1. marai wise says:

    I suppose you have read Richard Louv’s The Last Child in the Woods…It made a big splash a few yrs ago in the Montessori community, and then the enthusiasm seemed to die down and trend toward other things This is an extremely soapbox issue for me being in the classroom w/ young children for 20 years. What I have been witness to in that setting from children and parents, and observed generally, create much concern about the lost connection w/ “real”play outside, interactive w/ the natural world and with peers and family in imaginative exploratory ways. This loss is huge, and will take a commitment from society, and community to restore this loss. Where are the children playing in yards? Parents have often arranged their child’s life out of fear of “what’s out there” because of their own disconnect, and fear that that “wasted time ” will keep their 7 yr old from getting into the Ivy league school they have their hopes pinned on. Meanwhile we get children that are fearful or at least estranged from the pleasures of the magic and mystery and science found in/w dirt, puddles, sticks, string, etc… and what it feels like to be happy among the trees. In my opinion, children today would grow stronger and smarter w/ a little benign neglect allowing them time and space to think and dream, not be just “entertained”.

  2. I think your readers will enjoy this site. Check out MEET ME AT THE CORNER (www.meetmeatthecorner) and the interview with the Park Ranger at Balboa Park in San Diego, California.
    Children learn about the history of Balboa Park, the Pan America Exhibition and the work of a park ranger. Take a look at the upcoming shows for fall including a visit with author Kathleen Krull, an episode about the history of the banjo and just in time for Veteran’s Day, an interview with a World War II Veteran
    Along with the original content created by the professional staff, MEET ME AT THE CORNER is open to kid- produced content.The current video was submitted by 11 year old Sam. He interviews an animal behaviorist at the Denver Zoo. It is obvious that the episode was written and filmed by Sam but the MMATC staff did a great job of editing and adding photos and links to take the episode to a new level
    MEET ME AT THE CORNER, Virtual Field Trips for Kids (www.meetmeatthecorner.org) is a series of educational video podcasts for kids ages 6-12. New episodes are uploaded every two weeks, with a Learning Corner of questions and extended activities, a list of recommended books and links to fun websites about each topic.
    This is a great website for kids, parents, teachers and homeschool families.

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