“Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.” Richard Louv
The United Nations predicts that by 2030, more than 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. By then, in the U.K., city dwellers will represents 92% of the population. It is quite a sharp contrast to back in 1950, when the world’s urban population represented only 30%. While this new reality clearly shows a growing physical disconnection with nature, another reality, much more subtle, is making people believe otherwise.
When I grew up, there were people who spent a lot of time in nature, and there were people who simply did not. The “outdoor” people were usually fishermen, hunters, campers, hikers, etc. They cared about nature because they spent time in it. The people who rarely ventured away from the asphalt, were, with no shame, just not concerned with the wild world. The environment was not really a debate, but rather a destination. What we learned in school about nature was more scientific, like ecology and biology, alongside geography and history. On television, you had Jacques Cousteau, Jim Fowler, David Suzuki, and David Attenborough. Each was a nature journalist, reporting on the wilderness, out there and out of reach. They showed us wild worlds with amazing animals, feeding our growing appetite for adventure. Back in those days, loving nature didn’t equate with being a vegetarian, or to campaign against animal cruelty. In fact, all the television personalities mentioned above fished or even hunted.
Today, the picture could not be more different. Technology has totally transformed our perception of the wild word. While nowadays we rarely spend time in nature, people are constantly made aware of it. Discovery and National Geographic stream 24 hour/day entertainment shows. Social media makes it possible for anyone to care about environmental causes, anywhere, independently if they are well informed or affected by it. The Internet allows any individual to post anything they want without any particular context or further explanation. Not one day goes by without seeing a photo of a baby panda, a dolphin, a shark being butchered or a dead seal entangled in a fishing net. Nature has become an ideology people are fighting for. It is no longer a destination but rather the emotionally charged and personified notion of an animal’s struggle to survive, whether it is the “march of the emperor penguin” or the “fate of the polar bears”. We now live in a world where natural realities are being blown out of proportion and every minute struggle in an animal’s life is over empathized for. Living in cities, feeding ourselves from grocery stores and spending our weekends in the park around the corner, the natural world has become a beautified concept, a Disney story and a pretty picture on the wall. Anything that contradicts this notion is deemed anti-nature or anti-animals. Animal welfare organizations, based in cities, are raging wars against society and anyone who doesn’t agree with their belief that any creature has a soul and humans have no right to take it away. In their view, plastic, genetically created meat, and soy-everything, is the way for the future. A meat eater, a fish eater, or a person wearing leather or fur, independently where and how it was processed, is targeted as cruel and against the natural world. For the indigenous people, who have lived off the land and the sea for millennia, with sustainable practices and honoring their connection with the earth, this intrusion from people who know nothing about their lifestyle and culture is seen as extremely hypocritical and shallow.
Worse, Google Earth and sites like theBlu are advertising themselves as places where one can “explore” the world. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times stated: “It’s a living, breathing ocean that you can “dive into,” exploring underwater habitats from the Indian Ocean to the Sea of Cortez while encountering thousands of fish — as they swim across your computer screen.” The computer screen is nothing like being out in the wilderness. It is nothing like exploring other countries for real or mingling with other cultures. Pressing keys on the keyboard does not make you an explorer nor and adventurer, and even less a naturalist or an environmentalist. Clicking the “Like” button on a Facebook Cause does not mean you care or simply understand what you clicked for. Watching Blue Planet on BBC doesn’t mean you love the ocean. What you love is being entertained by something beautiful. But the natural world is not just a cute teddy bear that you can spend your nights cuddling with. Nature is a raw chaotic world where each creature competes with each other, culminating in a very complex, intertwined balance that took millions of years to create, and CONTINUES to evolve .
By being so physically disconnected from it, we have totally forgotten what nature really is all about. We even go as far as to personalizing it, characterizing it as a female, “Mother Nature”. This concept of singularity simply doesn’t exist. In the natural world, both constructive and destructive forces are essential. Both the attack and the defense are crucial for survival. What is motherly? Volcanoes, hurricanes, droughts? Hyenas eating an antelope alive? A pod of orcas drowning a whale calf?
We have to be careful because our lack of relationship with nature and our disconnection from its dynamics and forces, can have grave consequences. As the Arctic is being developed, westernized countries and their mediatically-sensitized populations will most likely clash with indigenous people and their culture, as it just happened in Greenland. The Inuit have been hunting seals for as long as they can remember. And looking at the number of seals, they have done quite a good job at making sure that their hunt was sustainable. Compared to the western world which has had a reputation of decimating everything it goes for, from whales to fur seals, from wolves to buffalos, from tuna to mackerel. Because we have done such a bad job with the planet’s resources, or such a good job of exterminating them, we now project our guilt onto others. The EU ban on seal products has created devastating effects on the Inuit’s culture and economy. The ban came after emotionally charged media campaigns, portraying fluffy white baby seals being clubbed to death and skinned. In the name of animal welfare, the EU decided to impose the ban. What people didn’t know was that the Inuit have an ancestral right to hunt. The ban didn’t reduce the number of seals hunted every year in Greenland. What it did, was strip away the right of the Inuit to make a living. Consequently, there are over 300,000 skins in stock in Greenland worth millions for the Inuit. Most likely, the skins will be destroyed, taking away with them the welfare of several communities.
It is crucial to do everything possible to take children outside of the cities, away from the computer and television. They need to experience the real natural world, not the urban or virtual version of it. Tim Kasser, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Knox College, correctly points out in his report: “Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability”
“While not typically seen as an “environmental issue,” those concerned about the environment should be sobered by the increasing commercialization of childhood, as the same generation of children that is being encouraged to prioritize wealth, consumption, and possessions is the same generation that, if current trends continue, will need to drastically reduce its consumption patterns so as to prevent further global climate disruption, habitat loss, and species extinction… What’s more, recent research shows that the materialistic values encouraged by advertising messages are also quite problematic for environmental outcomes. For example, studies around the world make it clear that the more people care about money, wealth, and possessions, the less they value protecting the environment and the less concerned they are about how environmental damage affects other humans, future generations, and non-human life. Other research shows that materialistic values negatively correlate with how frequently adults and children engage in pro-environmental behaviors such as commuting by bicycle, reusing paper, buying secondhand, and recycling.”
Furthermore, We also have to be careful with what we promote and how we promote it. Social media and the Internet won’t make people change their daily routines. It might inform them, make them aware of something, but it is certainly not enough to change them. Writing “Cigarettes will kill you” on a pack doesn’t make someone stop smoking, but paying close to $10 for a pack might.
We might have the knowledge, but we greatly struggle with applying it. Social media, the Internet, computers and television are not a replacement for true wilderness, traveling, or exploring. We must be careful of the pretentious western environmental imperialism we so easily practice. Lets change our own tragically unsustainable culture first. Lets put in place the right legislations, lets decrease our production of garbage, lets reduce our consumption, lets show our children that there is more to life than cities and technology, let ourselves first reconnect with the natural environment and its realities, before telling others, who might be living off the land and sea and have done so in a sustainable way for generations, what they should do.
“We have two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practice and another which we practice but seldom preach. “ Bertrand Russell