Disconnection from Nature

There is persuasive evidence that our concerns about the environment, as well as our attitudes and values, are influenced by the extent to which we feel ourselves to be part of the natural world.1 On a continuum of connectedness with Nature, some people experience themselves as wholly separate and have an ego-centred self-concept, while others experience themselves as inseparable from the natural world so that their sense of self expands to encompass the biosphere and beyond. Cultures vary. Reviewing some of the evidence, Wesley Schultz and colleagues conclude:2

In essence, respondents from the United States and Western Europe tend to be less biospheric and more egoistic in their approach to environmental issues, while respondents from Central America and South America tend to be more biospheric.

On the other hand, the rise of Western environmentalism since the 1960s, stimulated by the works of writers such as Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau and Arne Naess, can be understood as an attempt to persuade us to reconnect.

The modern concept of 'progress' embodies the idea of separating ourselves from Nature both physically and psychologically. The processes of urbanisation and technological advance have been aimed at isolating humans from the effects of nature, and especially the weather. The distancing has not necessarily meant we have become hostile to the natural; it is possible that our distance from the natural environment makes it easier to adopt an idealised or even romantic view of Nature, one that we can sustain because we can engage with it in our own time and on our own terms. That would explain the popularity of eco-tourism, camping, bushwalking and widespread support for wilderness protection across Western countries over the last few decades.

While these activities can be motivated by the aesthetic appeal of unspoiled landscapes, for some there has always been a deeper urge. Encounters with nature can re-establish or reaffirm the sense of connectedness, a re-linking that can induce a shift from self-focused to biospheric value-orientation.3 Even so, while contact with nature can have a transformative effect, our attitudes to the natural world are often complex and contradictory. Some people actively dislike wild places and avoid them. A study of children required to encounter wilderness on school excursions found that for many nature is 'scary, disgusting and uncomfortable'.4 They are afraid of forests, insects, snakes and wild animals, disgusted by the perceived dirtiness of the environment and discomforted by exposure to the elements. This recoil may have evolutionary roots, but they are reinforced by peers, parents and the media, including 'nature nasties', a documentary style popularised by crocodile-wrangler Steve Irwin, in which the excitement of interacting with and provoking animals to extreme behaviour takes the place of the respect and wonder elicited by more traditional observational nature documentaries such as those featuring David Attenborough.

Disconnection from nature is a modern phenomenon. Before the advent of the scientific and industrial revolutions Europeans had a conception of the self radically different from that typical today. Indeed, those revolutions were at heart the remaking of consciousness that began with the arrival of the so-called mechanical philosophy at the end of the seventeenth century. If in order to respond to global warming we need a new consciousness, a fruitful way to understand the prospects for such a shift is to study the last major revolution in consciousness. In other words, if we can understand how we became radically disconnected from nature, this should help us understand what it would take for us to become reconnected once more. The intellectual and social history of the rise of the mechanical philosophy is complex and contentious and a full account would take a book in itself, so the argument I give here should be understood as no more than a stylised outline of a much more detailed story.5

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