Why Do We Fall in Love with Nature? And Does It Mean Conservation is in Trouble?

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Published on October 7th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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I have made a habit of asking ardent supporters of conservation — from members of The Nature Conservancy’s board of directors to the volunteer docents at a neighborhood nature reserve — why they care about conservation. The answer, almost inevitably, is some memorable or inspiring experience in nature.

So what will happen if future generations of potential conservation supporters aren’t having those direct experiences? Is conservation then in trouble?

That is essentially the question asked by Patty Zaradic, Oliver Pergams, and myself in a new article now published in the journal PLoS Online. We analyzed long-time series of data regarding donations to major U.S. conservation NGOs and rates of nature-based recreation in the United States.  Our results are provocative: We find evidence that per-capita rates of backpacking and hiking are strongly related to per-capita rates of conservation giving.

Specifically: Each hiker or backpacker translates to $200-300 of future annual giving to conservation, typically 10+ years after their hiking and backpacking experiences.

But why does that mean conservation might be in trouble?

Obviously, the statistics in these analyses are complicated and the evidence is not as compelling as an experiment — we are talking about “correlations.” Critics will say correlation does not imply causation. We agree. But when you do the sort of randomization approaches we used to assess the significance of our results, you realize how hard it is to uncover a significant link by chance alone.

There are some fine points of this analysis worth belaboring:

  • First, it is “per capita,” and everything is in terms of the per-individual likelihood of supporting conservation, and the individuals’ probability of having gone out and hiked or backpacked. Hiking trails near large urban centers may well be crowded with hikers, yet on average individuals in that city are less and less likely to go hiking on their weekends for acne.
  • Second, the exact type of nature recreation matters. We find this link between hiking and backpacking and giving — not for just visiting Bureau of Land Management lands, or for playing soccer in the great outdoors.

The reason our analyses should be followed up by better studies is simple: If our conclusions are right, then conservation could be in big trouble. Why? Because after one accounts for growing population levels, the current generation of children is simply not getting the nature recreation that previous generations did. How can you love nature if you do not know nature?

My experience is that conservation is a passion — it is not something you do because scientists write papers about its value, papers that The New York Times then covers. All that analytical science stuff is backfill after our heart has been grabbed.

But I love science, too. And there is a big scientific question that is begging to be studied. Increasingly, children experience the world virtually. Does “virtual nature” — videos, movies, TV and so on — have the ability to spark that love affair with nature? Or will only the real thing do?

We’ve all read stories about people falling in love over the Internet without actually meeting. If the same can happen with nature, then the Conservancy and all conservation NGO’s might consider a radical new approach to reaching the next generation of conservationists.

(Image: A female hiker walks beneath the canopy of a coast live oak tree at Happy Camp Canyon Regional Park, a 3,000 acre wilderness area and trial corridor located on the slopes of the Santa Susana Mountains connecting Moorpark and Simi valley, Ventura County, southern California. Credit: Bill Evarts.)

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Comments: Why Do We Fall in Love with Nature? And Does It Mean Conservation is in Trouble?

  •  Comment from Miguel Vieira

    One thing I’ve seen in outdoors groups is a shift from hiking and backpacking to less passive activities like rock-climbing, mountain biking, paddling, and skiing. Just go into any outdoors store and look at how much floor space is devoted to them to see how popular they are. Will the rock-climbers, kayakers, etc., also care about conservation?

  •  Comment from Kirby Adams

    I think they will, Miguel. Most of the paddlers I know are ardent conservationists. I’ve also noticed the guide services for activities like kayaking are starting to stress conservation. The guides are often an essential part of people’s first experience with a new outdoor activity like kayaking, climbing, or canyoneering. I think they are a critical component of the effort to instill the conservation ethic in people that get to see nature two weekends a year.

  •  Comment from tony romano

    I wrote my senior thesis on outdoor activity trends among rural and urban college students and their associated views of conservation. It wound up being clear that people who go hiking, camping, etc. are a lot more invested in conservation than their peers.

    I really don’t think “virtual nature” will have the same personal impact as genuine experience.

    p.s. I’m a rock climber who cares ;-)

  •  Comment from Lori Latimer

    Falling in love with Nature that you will love her and tend her with all kindness, comes from appriciation for that whole beauty. The smells, the sounds and other living things after living surrounded by concrete and steel, will cause a lifetime of love and giving.

  •  Comment from Jim Griggs

    I have done several “slide” show programs for 5th grade geography classes in our area about Tanzania and the Galapagos Islands. These kids love the programs but are even more anxious to go with me to see for themselves the wonder and excitement of the places I talk about. The TV programs they watch and the things they do on the internet seems to make them more interested and educated. I also do the same programs for adults EXCEPT in the adult version I put in more maps! The kids all know where Tanzania and the Galapagos are located on the globe plus they know some of the symbiotic relationships and are always anxious to tell me all about them. I only wish the adult crowd were as educated.

    I think the schools need more of these type programs. I love doing them and the kids grow up and tell me how much my simple program instilled in them a need to learn and get out and see more, experience the world. That really makes me SMILE!

  •  Comment from Eric

    Thanks for this important post. I’m a believe in the concept of nature deficit disorder, and it’s distressing to see that the experiences that raise environmental awareness among younger people (who later become donors) are on the wane.

  •  Comment from fishSNORKEL

    Given that Planet Earth has never and will never stop changing, it seems perfectly obvious to me that conservation (resisting change) was doomed from the start. This is a dynamic planet, not a static utopian playground.

  •  Comment from April Lorier

    The title asked why we fall in love with nature. I can only say that I was a severely abused child and nature was my escape and my friend. It filled me with wonder and awe, and made me understand that my Creator loved me with beautiful love!

  •  Comment from Robin Stanton

    The Outdoor Industry Foundation has been doing a lot of research into the kids and outdoors question – obviously it’s bread and butter to the makers of outdoor gear, as well as something that they care about as individuals.
    One thing they’ve found is that parents play a huge role in whether the kids get outside or not, but outdoor mentors can be effective too.

  •  Comment from Abdullah

    I love this man

  •  Comment from B-Dub

    fishsnorkel writes:
    Given that Planet Earth has never and will never stop changing, it seems perfectly obvious to me that conservation (resisting change) was doomed from the start. This is a dynamic planet, not a static utopian playground.

    According to this “logic,” since the earth changes, we may as well pave it all now. The best conservation allows natural places and systems to change in accordance with their own sorts of wisdom. As Gary Snyder puts it, “Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order. When an ecosystem is fully functioning, all the members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive.”

    •  Comment from Robert Lalasz

      B-Dub, I think your definition of conservation is outmoded. Look at our website to see how dynamic a process good conservation is — with adaptation as one of the core tenets of our approach to climate change, for instance.

  •  Comment from Penny G

    I agree with the notion that passion for conservation comes from exposure to nature through recreation, especially from a young age. I also agree with one of the above comments though that there are different kinds of “outdoorsy” people. Some are just there for the activity, while others are there for the integrated experience of the activity and the environment or just for the environment itself and the activity such as cycling or walking is solely a means to experience it. The 4WD culture in Australia can be a concerning exception to the theory that love of the outdoors goes hand-in-hand with environmental responsibility and a frustration for minimalist adventurers.

  •  Comment from Escudilla

    Dear Fishsnorkel, You just don’t get it, do you? Conservation isn’t about rescreation and playgrounds, it’s about a liveable future for humans and respect for the species upon which we depend and with whom we sahe the planet.

  •  Comment from Lin

    How can you imagine something you’ve never seen? Young people are unaware of plant, insect, etc. biodiversity and unlandscaped landscapes. In our area, the bicyclists, etc. destroy remnant biodiverse native plant habitats; they clearly don’t have a clue about nature or the environment. As we go towards 7 billion people and up, there will continue to be a lowering of the % of people who have seen natural places, and who care about natural places.

  •  Comment from Jennifer

    I get most of my nature on tv or in my backyard. I don’t camp or hike or backpack. “Outdoors” usually results in a rash or headache or breathing problems. However, I am seriously interested in conservation and protecting the ecosystems. I understand that I need to protect the environment to maintain the quality of my”indoor” life as well as your recreation. TV gives me a view of wild animals that I would certainly miss otherwise. I doubt that I would ever personally witness elephants being born, penguins feeding their young or even mice running from a snake, except for television. I think that television has greatly enhanced our appreciation of nature.

  •  Comment from paula phillips

    I lived on a 21,000 acre nature preserve operated by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for 12 years. The majority of visitors didn’t know how to act outdoors. They were noisy, demanding and threatened to write letters to the executive director because they would have to get out of their cars to view the wonders of the preserve. We must have conservation because of this simple fact: there’s too many people. Humans have to address the fact that we have to bring the population of the world under control if we hope to even have a shred of wild places left to even photograph and have TV shows about.

  •  Comment from Ruth S. Sperling

    The question presented in this article is a hard one for me to answer because from the time I was a little girl, I experienced nature — even if it was just the large Old Growth trees lining Chicago’s streets or the lake or the bears in zoo-parks. I also had experiences in more wild places and forested places, because my family liked to go to them. I was a little freaked when I was working in Los Angeles years ago, which has the Santa Monica mountains and the Angeles National Forest practically as “back-yards” to the urban areas, and someone in the office had never been to the mountains or the forests. I knew, you see, from personal experience that you could take a public bus to within walking distance of these mountains – but still this lady who had grown up there had never been to them. Was she for conservation? I don’t know. You see, I had so many positive experiences that I loved with nature growing up, even in Urban environments, that protecting it has always been important to me, but from when I read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in High School, I also appreciated the scientific reasons for protecting it. For some reason, it has always been obvious to me that we need to protect nature because it is an important part of the whole web of life on this planet that we depend on. Ask the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago why it has a Dairy Farm in it — milk does not come from a bottle or a carton …. !! Or why you can see chickens hatch there!! Conservation is just something we will always need to do for all life – and I don’t understand why anyone else doesn’t understand that!!

  •  Comment from Valerie

    I’m wondering if Peter Kareiva, author of the “Why Do We Fall in Love With Nature” article, investigated the correlation of horseback trail riders and their annual conservation contributions of volunteer labor. A per-capita equivalent of $600 per year represents an average contibution of volunteer labor by equine trail riders. Many contribute much more. The equine trail rider statistics are available from Back Country Horsemen of America. What about other forms of recreational activities….don’t stop with the hiker/backpacker crowd.

  •  Comment from Marlowe

    This is obviously a belated comment, but I believe I might have a solution to your question “How can you love nature if you do not know nature?”

    Sadly, most people – especially youth are either too busy or too afraid to get to know nature, but there is an incredible filmmaker, Jan Nickman who is connecting viewers with nature in deeply meaningful ways.

    I urge you to see his work at http://www.sacredearthpictures.com

    His films are not only inspiring a deep love and stewardship of the planet, but people are writing in with stories of healing and for some, a reason to live.

    Thank you for a very timely and important report on the relationship between how we feel about nature and how this translates to how we protect it.

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