The new flight from Eden

videophilia.jpgFresh air, wildlife, purple mountains’ majesty.  This country’s national parks have long been considered a jewel in the crown of American democracy — all accessible to anyone for a nominal charge or even for free.  And ever since ol’ Teddy Roosevelt established the park system, Americans and people from all over the world have flocked to them for inspiration, recreation, and escape.

Until recently, that is.  After half a century of steady increase, from the beginning of regular record-keeping in 1939 through the late 1980s, visits to National Parks increased steadily.  But then, something curious happened: visits began a decline, equally steady, that continues to this day.  What happened?

Two years ago, Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic, who first documented this pattern, stirred up a lot of  attention and controversy by showing that the rise of electronic entertainment (time spent on the internet, playing video games, and
watching movies) was a remarkably strong statistical predictor of this downward trend in park visits.  They concluded that:

“we may be seeing evidence of a fundamental shift away from people’s appreciation of nature (biophilia, Wilson 1984) to ‘videophilia’, which we here define as ‘the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media’.  Such a shift would not bode well for the future of biodiversiy conservation.”

Indeed. That study rightly generated major attention and controversy.  Commentators suggested several possible reasons why the national park visitation data might not be representative of nature recreation as a whole, incluing declining market share of parks relative to other outdoor lands, decaying park infrastructure and staffing declines, etc.

Now comes a new paper from Pergams and Zaradic that tackles these criticisms with a wide variety of new data sources.  Building on their initial data from American national parks, they examined data from national forests, state parks, and land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as well as visits to national parks in Japan and Spain.   The quality of data varies among these sources, but all show downturns in recent decades.  As do the trends for fishing and duck hunting licenses.  In summary, “most reliable long-term per capita visitation measures of nature recreation peaked between 1981 and 1991, are declining at approximately -1.2% per year, and total to date -18% to -25%.”

The graph below shows the time trends for visits to American national parks (NPV), national forests (NFV), state parks (SPV), BLM lands (BLMV) and foreign parks (JapanNPV, SpainNPV).


This news is not just a sad reflection on the declining state of American life, although it is assuredly that.  It is more fundamentally disturbing for several reasons.  Scientific studies show that direct experience with nature in childhood is the best predictor of environmental awareness and commitment to conservation among adults.  And, as Nature Conservancy scientist Peter Kareiva notes in a commentary on the Pergams and Zaradic paper, “A poor understanding of basic natural history is sure to undermine our ability to solve environmental probems.”  Perhaps this growing disconnect from nature is one reason that, although 80% of American say they favor stronger standards of environmental protection, they consistently rank the environment in last place after the economy, health care, Iraq, social security, taxes, and even moral values.  Now that’s going to undermine our ability solve environmental problems.

This is a tough problem — at the moment I sit here writing this, hunched over the computer, my 10-year-old son models my behavior by hunching over his own computer, playing with animals in Zoo Tycoon II rather than hunting frogs and bugs and what not in the backyard (I do admit to some relief that he is playing with animals, even virtual ones, rather than the more popular activities of destroying virtual planets, gunning down virtual cops, or committing virtual grand theft auto).  What’s a parent to do?

cnn.jpgIt’s time to mobilize.  The Children and Nature Network (C&NN), founded and inspired by Richard Louv’s revolutionary book, Last Child in the Woods (see also here), has emerged as a growing national alliance of people dedicated to healing our broken bond with nature.  The network has spawned local chapters all over the country.

We need one here in southeastern Virginia (and in your community, wherever you are)!  C&NN has just released a Community Action Guide (PDF here) to get one off the ground.  It’s well worth reading.

Let’s get started!  Who’s ready to commit?

[Original source: Pergams, R.W. and P.A. Zaradic. 2008. Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA. 4 February 4 2008, 10.1073/pnas.0709893105  (download PDF here)]

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Education, Politics, Sustainability and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The new flight from Eden

  1. The response is not appropriate to the problem. I have never learned much about wildlife conservation from visiting parks. 99% of what I have learned has come from books (on conservation biology)! That is also where learned about how important it is to STAY OUT of wildlife habitat (from writers like Dave Foreman and Edward Abbey). Considering how many MILLIONS of people engage in mountain biking these days (luckily, NOT in national parks), it is obvious that being in nature does NOT cause people to want to protect it. The same goes for snowmobiling and hunting. If you really care about children and conservation, you will work to get conservation biology into their curriculum, where it is currently almost nonexistent.

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    To quote the great 19th century biologist Louis Agassiz, “Study nature, not books.”  Of course, I like books too.

    Actually, Mike, there is good quantitative evidence supporting the claim that childhood experience with nature does increase commitment to environmental protection, as cited in the original paper mentioned here. That doesn’t mean the experience changes a person into a nature mystic — they might still litter, or enjoy nature with a gun. But they are more likely to be allies in protecting the environment than someone who grew up in a darkened basement playing World of War, or whatever. Remember that hunters (notably Teddy Roosevelt) have been some of the most active and faithful proponents of wild land conservation.

    My strong (admittedly subjective) sense from everything I have learned about human nature over the years is that that banning people from entering natural areas can never be more than a small part of the solution. It will simply never be acceptable to the majority of voters who, after all, will decide what happens to the land. Yes, we need wilderness areas and we should work hard to maintain those special, highly vulnerable places home to highly vulnerable species (pandas, snow leopards, etc.).  But it is painfully obvious that, when the earth’s human population eventually stabilizes at roughly twice what it is now, with a substantial rise in quality of life (and thus, per capita environmental impact) for all those people, there will be very little wild land left. That’s not being pessimistic – it’s simply the reality of where we are in history.

    I am convinced that the central challenge in conservation is finding ways for humans to coexist with nature, that is implementing reconciliation ecology.

    I am totally on board about getting conservation biology — and more generally nature study and environmental science — into K-12 curricula. But it is even more important to get kids outside seeing and touching and smelling and, yes, even eating, living things. Otherwise all the classroom study will be just another bunch of dull stuff that kids have to memorize, and which they will quickly forget.

    This all sounds really depressing and, to be frank it is.  But Richard Louv’s book is incredibly refreshing in being very hopeful and upbeat — I highly recommend it.  People are doing something about this problem and making real progress.

  3. Suxie says:

    To be in contact with nature is essential yes, and fun for most kids that get the chance. It´s easy to fool yourself that it´s easy to by them a new video game, but in the long run it´s not. If you get out a bit you´ll get kids that sleep like logs in the evening, if you let them play all day long they´ll get aggressive and hyperactive.