This article in The Atlantic by Alan Lightman points out how biophilic we have been historically as a species, and how that’s changed only recently.
None of this, of course, helps with the climate emergency and the concomitant biodiversity collapse. I read the WEF Global Risks Report for 2022 and, well, I’ve read more hopeful documents.
Most of the minutes and hours of each day we spend in temperature-controlled structures of wood, concrete, and steel. With all of its success, our technology has greatly diminished our direct experience with nature. We live mediated lives. We have created a natureless world.
It was not always this way. For more than 99 percent of our history as humans, we lived close to nature. We lived in the open. The first house with a roof appeared only 5,000 years ago. Television less than a century ago. Internet-connected phones only about 30 years ago. Over the large majority of our 2-million-year evolutionary history, Darwinian forces molded our brains to find kinship with nature, what the biologist E. O. Wilson called “biophilia.” That kinship had survival benefit. Habitat selection, foraging for food, reading the signs of upcoming storms all would have favored a deep affinity with nature. Social psychologists have documented that such sensitivities are still present in our psyches today. Further psychological and physiological studies have shown that more time spent in nature increases happiness and well-being; less time increases stress and anxiety. Thus, there is a profound disconnect between the natureless environment we have created and the “natural” affections of our minds. In effect, we live in two worlds: a world in close contact with nature, buried deep in our ancestral brains, and a natureless world of the digital screen and constructed environment, fashioned from our technology and intellectual achievements. We are at war with our ancestral selves. The cost of this war is only now becoming apparent.
I am not so naive as to think that the careening technologization of the modern world will stop or even slow down. But I do think that we need to be more mindful of what this technology has cost us and the vital importance of direct experiences with nature. And by “cost,” I mean what Henry David Thoreau meant in Walden: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” The new technology in Thoreau’s day was the railroad, which he feared was overtaking life. Thoreau’s concern was updated by the literary critic and historian of technology Leo Marx in his 1964 book, The Machine in the Garden. That book describes the way in which pastoral life in America was interrupted by the technology and industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries. Marx could not have imagined the internet and the smartphone, which arrived only a few decades later. And now I worry about the promise of an all-encompassing virtual world called the “metaverse,” and the Silicon Valley arms race to build it. Again, it is not the technology itself that should concern us. It is how we use that technology, in balance with the rest of our lives.