Archive for May, 2017

In most Western societies, the physical distance between people and nature is growing. There are, for example, studies showing that since the 1980s, visitation per capita to national parks and other natural places has been declining in the USA, Japan and Australia. This is part of a more general trend for outdoor activities to be replaced by indoor and virtual forms of recreation. As Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic have suggested, “videophilia is replacing biophilia”.

Not surprisingly, there is now growing evidence that the physical isolation from nature is showing up as a pervasive cultural disconnect. The messages our minds are receiving from the words we read, the images we see and indeed the songs we sing are directing our attention less and less to the natural world.

Does it surprise you to learn that a study of 60 Disney and Pixar animated films made between 1937 and 2009 found a decline in the depiction of outdoor scenes and less biodiversity and more human impact in the scenes that were portrayed?

And what about this? An investigation of 296 children’s books that won Caldecott awards from 1938 to 2008 reported a similar decline, accompanied by an increase in the portrayals of human-built environments.

Films and books of fiction are cultural “products” and, as such, they reflect their creators’ minds and the cultural scene on which these minds are drawing.

If these creators have limited encounters with nature in popular culture, nature is less likely to feature in their work. And as communicators, they are less likely to refer to nature if they do not expect nature to resonate with their audiences. Is this, in fact, what is going on?

The answer is, Yes, and here is a graph that illustrates the reason for this answer.


As you can see straight away, the graph tells a story that spans the 100 years of the 20th century. It is also easy to see that it is a story that falls into two parts, one across the years to 1950, the second spanning the following 50 years.

The story can be told because the data bases and the technology are available to chart, year-by-year, the relative frequency with which words, phrases and other units of language have appeared in selected bodies of writing. The red line in the graph is just such a chart.

It shows, as a percentage of all words, how frequently 186 nature-related words were used in all fiction books published in English between the years1900 and 2000. In 1920, for example, the 186 words accounted for 0.40% of all words published; in 2000, the figure was close to 0.34%. The black lines in the graph show the overall trends in the figures.

The nature words (nouns and verbs) were objectively and very systematically chosen to cover four categories: general – e.g., hill, river, sunset; bird names – e.g., finch, heron, lark; tree names – e.g., birch, willow, poplar; and flower names – e.g., camellia, daisy, marigold.

What is clear from the graph is that, since 1950, the appearance of nature-related words in fiction books has fallen substantially and steadily. The same trend was not displayed by words, such as building, door, curtain, highway and computer, relating to the human-made environment.

The researcher responsible for these findings is Associate Professor Selin Kesebir from the London Business School. As part of the same study, she investigated trends in the number of references to nature for two other “products” of popular culture – song lyrics and film storylines.

Professor Kesebir found that references to nature in both lyrics and storylines exhibited the same downward trend as was detected in novels. This led her to conclude:

Nature features less in English popular culture today than it did in the first half of the 20th century.

She summarises the implications of her research eloquently and powerfully.

The pattern we documented is disconcerting in light of the strong evidence documenting the positive effects of contact with nature. To the extent that the disappearance of nature vocabulary from cultural conversation reflects an actual distancing from nature, the findings suggest unrealised gains to human health and well-being, as well as lost opportunities to nurture pro-environmental attitudes and stewardship behaviours.

There is another reason why these findings are of concern. Cultural products not only reflect the prevailing culture, they also shape it. Socialization that helps people to form, maintain, and reinforce particular worldviews. The flagging cultural attention to nature means a muting of the message that nature is worth paying attention to and being talked about. It also means a loss of opportunities to awaken curiosity, appreciation, and awe for nature.

The loss of physical contact with nature, combined with a parallel loss of symbolic contact through cultural products may set in motion a negative feedback loop, resulting in diminishing levels of interest in and appreciation for nature. In this light, our findings do not look auspicious. We hope that an awareness of the existing trends will be instrumental in instigating cultural leadership to reverse it.

Valid, eloquent and powerful as these words are, they are unlikely to change anything. In the face of the tide of popular culture, they are futile. It pains me to say this because I have written hundreds of thousands of words in the same vein. Naively perhaps, I once believed that if people were made aware of the value of a nature connection for them personally and collectively and for planet Earth, they would open their lives to nature – at least to some degree.

What do I think now? Well, I am still coming to terms with what is actually happening. But one thing I still believe is that there is a part all of us nature “lovers” can play in helping others reconnect with nature. How? – simply by inviting family, friends and acquaintances to join us in our nature-based activities. We need to do this in a patient, mindful, considerate and sensible way, of course, guided always by the “gradualism” principle. Success is not guaranteed but we owe it to others, ourselves and the future of planet Earth to try.










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