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.” 
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.)” 
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.” 
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. 
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)
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!”
 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
 Peter Kareiva, “Ominous Trends in Nature Recreation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 26, 2008 http://www.videophilia.org/uploads/2757.pdf
 For a description, go to http://www.redrockinstitute.org