Biophilia or videophilia?

Anyone writing about the future has to try and become conscious of their prejudices when evaluating weak data. I’ve stumbled slightly over one of mine when writing about biodiversity and enjoyment of wildlife. The strongest argument that we need to relate to lots of other creatures is Ed Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis. I’ve always been suspicious of this on the grounds that a) it amounts to saying that everyone else is really, at heart, like Ed Wilson and wants to be friends with the animals – or ants in his case – and b) it seems a crude use of the argument from the environment of evolutionary adaptation, that all-purpose explainer.

So, already believing that a liking for “nature” is as much culturally learnt as instinctual, I was much taken with the findings reported by Oliver Pergams of the University of Illinois in 2006 that visits to national parks in the USA have gone down by a quarter in the last two decades, and continue to decline by around one per cent a year. Two years later the trend was confirmed in a broader study which looked at other nature-based recreations in the USA, and also included data from Japan and Spain. The data suggest that the time spent visiting national parks is being taken up by playing video games, surfing the net and watching movies – videophilia is displacing biophilia, as they put it. It seemed to fit. City folks (that’s me) don’t see wildlife much except on TV, and don’t miss  what they don’t know.

My perspicacious editor queried this, pointing out that the US is not necessarily representative, nor pointing the way the rest of the world is heading. And it turns out – courtesy of a paper highlighted in a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review – that the finding isn’t actually that robust. A 2009 paper in PLOS Biology reports that a survey of 280 protected areas in 20 countries showed a decline in visits in the US and Japan, but a general increase elsewhere.

So perhaps conservationists can take heart – they still have a large constituency who crave the pleasures of a landscape with at least some flora and fauna. I think my prejudice remains more or less intact though. Even if this is true, it is not obvious how it relates to biodiversity on a global scale. Put aside the fact that, for all I know, train-spotting is as satisfying as bird watching. Even if it is not,  our biophilic needs might be met rather simply. I have been in a tropical forest and found it impressive, but I don’t feel desperate to go back. I’ve been on a boat ride which afforded a glimpse of a (rather small) whale, which was nice. But I’m pretty content with my thrice weekly run round the park, watching the insect life in my small garden, and occasional trips to the English countryside and (better) coastline. Maybe I’m an unwitting sufferer from what the US journalist Richard Louv rather fancifully, if rather wonderfully, dubbed “nature deficit disorder”. But I am an urban creature, and happy to be so.

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One Comment on “Biophilia or videophilia?”

  1. jonturney Says:

    more on this, suggesting that visiting wild places changes people’s outlook, here

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