Losing touch with nature

Can technological nature replace the real thing?

The benefits of our connection to nature have never been more apparent. Yet our relationship to the natural world continues to be radically restructured by human advancements. In a world increasingly divided by the natural and the unnatural, rediscovering our connection to our environment is vital, writes Peter H. Kahn, Jr.

For many of us – especially during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic – it is obvious that interaction with nature nurtures us. It might be a woodland walk, urban gardening, sitting in the sunshine, or even just a few seconds tracking a bird in flight overhead. The stress seems to ease. We feel more alive.

Some decades ago, this idea that nature benefits people physically and psychologically was viewed with caution by the scientific community. Now, with many hundreds of empirical studies in hand, scientists generally agree that it is true. Interaction with nature has been shown, for example, to reduce stress, depression, aggression, crime, and ADHD symptoms, and improve immune function, eyesight, and mental health, and increase people’s social connectedness. If there was a pill that could do all of that, with barely any side effects (besides an occasional sprained ankle), it would be considered the wonder drug of the century.

Why these effects? At a broad level of explanation, we can start thinking not like a mountain, which the ecologist Aldo Leopold suggested we do, but like an evolutionary psychologist, in the way that E. O. Wilson does. From this perspective, for tens and even hundreds of thousands of years we came of age with nature: hunting, tracking, sleeping under the stars, foraging for wild berries, nuts, and tubers, and walking the land as a nomadic people. No wonder that many exercise physiologists say that if we can do only one exercise, make it walking. We have walked the land ever since we have been a species. We co-evolved with nature, and that helps explain why today we derive so many health benefits from interacting with it.

That said, three world trends are now radically restructuring human existence. One is the destruction of nature. It is happening quickly, within a few generations. Climate change (climate havoc) is one of the results. The second trend is the increasing worldwide movement of people from rural areas to cities, and of the rise of polluted and congested megacities. Seoul, for example, has over 25 million people; Delhi, 27 million; and Tokyo, 38 million. People are adapting to these urban environments. But due in part to the loss of connection with nature, they are not doing well: obesity, diabetes, asthma, heart disease, mental depression, and suicides. The third trend is the exponential growth of technology. Take a dollar and double it every day. After a week you have $64.00. That is nice. After a month you have over a billion dollars. That is wealthy. That is an exponential function. On a global level, we are at the “knee” of the exponential curve where technological change – the human experience of this change – is becoming like Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on th’ other –.”

The first two trends above – the destruction of nature and urban density – are leading people to have less access to nature, and to suffer physically and psychologically. The third trend enables a possible solution: Technological Nature. This term refers to technologies that in various ways mediate, augment, or simulate the natural world. For example, television networks provide us with mediated digital experiences of nature: the lion's hunt in sub-Saharan Africa, crocodiles in the swamps of the Florida everglades, and climbing high into the Himalayan peaks. All the while we can sit on a couch. People "harvest" crops in digital worlds, even though digital food is not so easy to eat. People fall asleep with audio recordings of the lapping of ocean waves. People immerse themselves in virtual reality nature environments. Children play with robotic dogs. Elderly find some comfort, we are told, though interacting with the robot seal, PARO. If we think of humans as part of nature, then humanoid robots are part of Technological Nature as well. People will form relationships with humanoid robots. Some people already have sex with them.

Now to the question at hand: Can technological nature substitute for actual nature? By substitute I mean, can they at a minimum provide equivalent physical and psychological benefits and experiences as actual nature?

To begin to investigate this question, back in 2008 my colleagues and I conducted a study where we created a "technological nature window" by installing an HDTV camera on top of a building on our university campus. We then displayed a real-time local nature view on 50-inch digital screen "windows." In an experimental study, we compared the physiological and psychological effects of experiencing the technological nature window view to a glass window view of the same scene and to no view. We found that in terms of heart rate recovery from low level stress, the glass window nature view was more restorative than no view. Second, in terms of this same physiological measure, the technological nature window was no different from the no view condition. In other words, in terms of stress reduction, the actual nature view was better than the technological nature view. Finally, when we controlled for when people where actually looking at each stimulus, we found looking out the glass window was more restorative than looking out the technological nature window.

This does not mean, however, that there are no benefits to a technological nature window. There are. For example, my colleagues and I conducted another study in which we installed these digital nature windows in windowless offices of faculty and staff in a university setting. Over a 16-week period, we assessed participants’ practices, judgments, beliefs, and moods. Results showed that participants enjoyed the plasma-display window and benefited from it in terms of their psychological well-being, cognitive functioning, and connection to the natural world.

This general pattern – that technological nature is better than no nature but not as good as actual nature – held up across other studies my research group has conducted over the last 20 years. I bring many of these studies and ideas together in my book Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life.

If we employed technological nature only as a bonus on top of our interactions with actual nature, then we would be in good shape. Unfortunately, we keep degrading and destroying actual nature, and are becoming increasingly impoverished for it.

This trend is difficult to reverse because it is hard for humans to believe it is even happening. For example, if you try to explain what we, as humans, are missing in terms of the fullness of the human relation with nature, a well-meaning person can look at you blankly – it has happened to me many times – and respond "but I don't think we're missing much." We are missing plenty. Why do we not know? A large part of the reason likely involves what in my earlier work I termed environmental generational amnesia. The basic idea here is that each generation constructs a conception of what is environmentally normal based on the natural world encountered in childhood. With each generation the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation tends to take that degraded condition as the non-degraded condition, as the normal experience. It is hard enough to solve environmental problems, such as global climate change, when we are aware of them; it is all the harder when we are not. Thus I believe that the problem of environmental generational amnesia will emerge as one of the central psychological problems of our lifetime.

We are like animals in a zoo. We are caging ourselves. There are millions of children who have never slept out under the stars. There are millions of children who have never in their lives even seen the stars because of the air pollution and light pollution in their cities. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine a child growing up and having never having seen a star in the night sky? And then having some technologist come in and show her “stars” on the ceiling of her bedroom, or on her smartphone. The technologist tells her “this is it!”

Look at a caged elephant in a zoo. It survives for years in the space of a small parking lot, while its biological programming and its ancestral self wants and needs the wild and vast spaces of its origins. We are like that elephant. The difference is that we are caging ourselves.

The way to recover from our amnesia? One way is to maintain the nature we do have, in whatever environment we live in, even highly urban environments, and to increase their more wild forms, and our interactions with those forms. This solution fits within the body of work called biophilic design, and interaction pattern design. In essence, we need to rewild the landscape, and rewild ourselves..

Some twenty miles from my cabin lies a remote wilderness area. Trails, if they can be found, are usually slight etches on the landscape, and cannot be followed for long. You are on your own navigating. Summers are hot. Water scarce. When I was in last August, I left a river valley and set out cross-country up a desolate ridge that had been burned in fires a few years ago. Since then this area had regrown with endless tall thickets of thorn bushes; and so as I was hiking upward I sought with each step to find both good footing and a way through the thorns. I could still smell the burned fallen trees. Sometimes I climbed over them. My body was smudged with charcoal. It was hot. I knew I needed to be pretty good with my route finding, because I only had two liters of water for the full day, as I sought to cross from one mountain drainage to another. While I was climbing, I sensed a slight hint of green up a distant slope. I set course for that. When I got there I saw that the green vegetation was double my body height. I dropped my pack, and poked around the thick plants and then pushed my body into them. And there I found a little spring of water. It was a hand wide and a hand deep, coming out of that harsh ridge. I drank my full. It was an oasis. It was a spot of time that stretched forever.

I did not control that little spring. I did not control the ridgeline or that entire landscape. I needed to find a way to live with it all.

In other writing I have suggested that one of the overarching problems of the world today is that we see ourselves as dominating over nature, and over other people. If you are drawn to technological nature, I would just ask you to pay attention to that. Do the interactions with technological nature leave you refreshed? Do your thoughts and actions flow with freedom and clarity? Are you ever humbled? In awe? Are you more deeply caring for others and for Life?

I should be clear. We are a technological species. We always have been. But given the exponential growth of technology that I mentioned earlier, we are spiraling out of control, to our detriment. In our technological lives we must rediscover the affiliation for actual nature, and a more wild nature, that lies deep within the architecture of the human mind, body, and spirit. We need it, as past is prologue.

Main Sources and Further Reading

Frumkin, H., Bratman, G. N., Breslow, S. J., Cochran, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., Lawler, J. J., Levin, P. S., Tandon, P. S., Varanasi, U., Wolf, K. L., Wood, S. A. (2017). Nature contact and human health: A research agenda. Environmental Health Perspectives, 125(7), 075001-1. doi:10.1289/EHP1663

Kahn, P. H., Jr. (2011). Technological nature: Adaptation and the future of human life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kahn, P. H., Jr., & Hasbach, P. H. (2013). The rewilding of the human species. In P. H. Kahn, Jr. & P. H. Hasbach (Eds.), The rediscovery of the wild (pp. 207-232). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.



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