Modern life could teach children to fear nature

This article was originally published by Hakai Magazine.

Growing up in Japan, Masashi Soga loved spending time outdoors, catching insects and collecting plants. His parents weren’t big outdoor fans, but he had an elementary school teacher who was. “They taught me how to collect butterflies, how to make a specimen of butterflies,” Soga recalls. “I really enjoyed nature.”

That early encounter helped foster Soga’s appreciation for nature, he says, and today Soga is an ecologist at the University of Tokyo. Soga specializes in the psychological benefits of nature. He studies how people’s interactions with nature affect their attitudes toward it, and his research contributes to the growing body of scientific literature showing how spending time outdoors positively impacts people’s well-being.

Within Soga’s field, research on biophilia – which examines the consequences of humans’ affinity for the natural world – is more extensive than studies on biophobia, the fear of nature. But in a new opinion paper, Soga and a team of researchers argue that biophobia is a growing phenomenon that appears to be increasing as cities develop. They go one step further and posit that biophobia is amplified and perpetuated by society, which can have detrimental consequences for people’s physical and mental health. Existing research already suggests that people with biophobia are less likely to support conservation efforts, meaning growing biophobia could also harm wild ecosystems.

In order to prevent or even reverse biophobia, it is important to understand how it begins. The researchers’ concept of the “vicious circle of biophobia” assumes that people tend to fear pain and try to avoid it. Negative reactions such as disgust can also lead to avoidance behavior.

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When a person begins to view nature as something to avoid—because of direct experience, family or friends, or the media—that sets the stage for biophobia, Soga and colleagues write. Over time, this can lead someone to avoid nature or, worse, try to eliminate it. The person’s increasingly rare experiences in nature can lead to a sense of disconnection. And because people are generally afraid of the unknown, this can increase the phobia.

Even just one person’s phobia has worrisome implications, the researchers say. If a person lacks the knowledge to handle wildlife safely, or never learns to tell the difference between accessible and potentially dangerous species beyond avoiding the great outdoors, they become ignorant of the natural world. This ignorance often leads to sharing sensational stories and spreading misinformation. The result is growing biophobia on a societal level and fewer people interacting with nature. And since people are unlikely to protect something they fear, the end result is environmental degradation.

To reverse the cycle, the researchers say, education is essential. Children are particularly suggestible, and early exposure to nature in a safe environment, such as a teacher or parent, could change their attitude. Parents’ behavior also has a major impact on children, says Soga.

Outside of school, educational programs in places like museums and parks can increase people’s knowledge of nature. Science-led walks or activities like gardening can provide positive first-hand interactions. In places where access to nature is not easy, Soga suggests that virtual reality can play a role.

Creative solutions will be necessary because as cities get larger and denser, access to green space becomes more difficult for many, especially those in low-income communities, says Linda Powers Tomasso, an environmental and health researcher specializing in human-nature relationships. The Chan School of Public Health in Boston, who was not involved in the study, specializes in interactions at Harvard TH. What used to be routine daily interactions with nature is disappearing, which negatively impacts people’s attention spans, physical activity levels and stress resilience, she says — not to mention the spiritual benefits of connecting with something bigger than yourself.

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While Powers Tomasso “absolutely agrees” with the researchers’ ideas, she notes a different mindset between biophilia and biophobia that leads to the same consequences as biophobia: indifference. “If you don’t care about something, you won’t take the next step to protect it,” she says. That’s why education, mentoring in nature, and making natural places and urban green spaces welcoming and accessible are so important to conservation and human well-being, she says.

“We only protect and care for what we know, what we love,” says Powers Tomasso. “If we don’t have an opportunity to get to know something, we’ll never develop that feeling of love.”