Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Do you have a fear of spiders?
How about snakes, bears, wolves, bats or bugs? If you answered yes, then you're not alone. The catalog of nature-related phobias is pretty cavernous and appears to be growing.
However, these phobias are more than stand-alone afflictions; each is a symptom of biophobia (fear of nature), a condition that is surging across the globe and of growing concern to ecologists and child psychologists alike.
Modern life is a veritable cornucopia of marvelous tools and technologies that streamline workflows, increase comfort and beckon weary minds and bodies to find respite in a bottomless world of entertainment, amusement and distraction. But are modern comforts acting to our benefit or might they also be a siren song, luring humanity and the planet toward peril?
With the advent of modern technologies, it appears our environmental generational amnesia (the "kids these days" effect) has deepened and appears to be threatening both to the planet and to our physical, emotional and mental well-being.
As noted in Nature, anxiety and depression, in particular, have skyrocketed in recent years; becoming reacquainted with nature may be exactly what the proverbial doctor ordered to reverse that trend, according to Harvard Medical School. But, paradoxically, a communicable fear of nature may be separating many in the human family from the very thing that can lift their spirits and provide relief.
Our modern estrangement from the natural world and the accompanying enmity between people and nature is generations old and appears to be worsening. Fear of nature is becoming a way of life — particularly among children.
While there are inherent benefits to avoiding organisms with the potential to cause harm, Masashi Soga, an associate professor of conservation biology at the University of Tokyo, told a Center for Biological Diversity publication last year: "These days (children) avoid even harmless animals such as butterflies and dragonflies."
Masashi is one of a number of researchers that recently published a study of more than 5,300 children in Japan and their perception of various species of invertebrates. The result? A collective "ew," according to that report from The Revelator.
Soga added that his and his peers' findings "echoed" others from around the world. Fear of nature is on the rise and appears to be deepening from generation to generation. The accelerating spread of negative attitudes toward nature appears to be directly tied to increasing urbanization of wildlands and what Soga and his coauthors call a "feedback loop."
Many of the children surveyed revealed that their parents harbored the same fear or disgust that they expressed during the study. Parental emotions and perceptions were found to be so influential that they could "overwhelm any positive experiences the children might have gained from direct experiences with nature," the article added.
In an interview for Scholastic's Parent and Child magazine, Richard Louv, author of the book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," argues that alienation from nature has been tied to "depression, obesity and attention deficit disorder" among children. Adding that "(kids) who have direct access to nature are better learners."
Louv is hardly a maverick in these claims. The benefits inherent to both adults and children who benefit from regular access to the natural world have been well documented.
An analysis published in the open access journal Hindawi found the youth nature camp experience has been shown to "positively (affect) participants' relationship with nature; (increase) relaxation," as well as decrease stress, increase positive emotions, decrease negative emotions and increase a sense of wholeness and enhanced social interactions.
Beyond the well-documented physical and emotional benefits, there is a troubling question at the heart of modern ecological woes: Is a society rife with biophobia and thoroughly alienated from the natural world capable or sufficiently motivated to take the critical steps needed to save and restore our planet's faltering health?
U.S. wildlife officials last month declared an additional 23 animals extinct, adding to some 680 vertebrate species previously declared extinct since the 16th century. Current estimates concluded that 1 million surviving species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades, according to the United Nations.
While environmental successes of the past century like the Endangered Species Act have blunted extinction trends, "Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history" — as a consequence of human activities, extinction rates are accelerating, that U.N. report stated.
The United Nations Environment Programme states that plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980 and urban areas have doubled since 1992. Fire seasons are worsening dramatically — the eight worst fire seasons have all occurred since 2005, NPR reports.
Add to these woes, a decadeslong megadrought in the West is estimated to be the worst in 1,200 years and it appears that modern generations are living in perhaps the most ecologically consequential time in human history. In short, much depends on current generations and whether they are sufficiently acquainted with nature and natural systems.
Will biophobia torpedo humanity's prospects of instilling rising generations with the ecological literacy and affinity for nature needed to confront and resolve the mounting ecological crises? Will the extinction of experience and familiarity with nature prove to be the greatest threat to the environment and the collapsing ecosystem services humanity depends on?
What can you do to fix biophobia?
There's no need to go overboard and channel your inner Bear Grylls or Survivorman.
Overcoming biophobia starts with a willingness to learn and the courage to abandon even long-held assumptions and beliefs about nature. Where children need an ecological education, adults often need a reeducation to overcome ingrained assumptions and behaviors.
Since exposure to nature is reportedly in decline, take simple steps to reverse that trend. Louv recommends leaving portions of your yard "untamed," where kids can dig and find interesting rocks and weeds. He further suggests that children help in the garden, run around at a local park, as well as hike, camp and explore.
- Other suggestions include going on outdoor and indoor safaris for bugs or animals. Apps like iNaturalist by National Geographic can help you identify and learn about various plants, animals and bugs near your home.
- The attitudes and perspectives of friends, family and the community are such powerful influencers on ourselves and our children's perceptions. These all help to reject popular misperceptions of nature that feed biophobia.
- Prioritize understanding, especially of creatures that often inspire fear or disgust. Like people, the value of the natural world can not be accurately appraised based on appearances.
- Learn how your actions, even at home, are improving or degrading the environment and take action to improve your impact and the impact of your community on the environment.
- Be patient but don't procrastinate. Frequent and positive experiences in nature during childhood greatly influence lifelong behaviors and concern for the environment. Early and consistent investment in ecological literacy and repeated efforts to dissipate biophobia have the ability to pay remarkable dividends and greatly improve personal health along with the health of the planet.