Note: I offered some of the following remarks during the opening plenary session with Richard Louv and Andy Samson at the Nature & Technology Summit that was part of the C&NN’s 2015 Children & Nature Conference in Austin, TX. They were drawn in part from my co-authored books, “Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species” and “The Rediscovery of the Wild.” To learn more, visit my website: www.northwestecotherapy.com — Patricia Hasbach
We are a technological species. From digging sticks and stone axes to the digital computational technology of today, we humans are tool makers. That aspect of us has been adaptive, and forms a part of who we are as a species. We are also a species that came of age deeply embedded in the natural world – a world far wilder than the one we live in today. We co-evolved with nature that shaped the very architecture of our bodies, minds, and spirit. We still need our connection with wild nature to flourish as individuals and as a species.In Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species, my co-author and I called this kinship with nature our ‘totemic self,’ and we postulated that one of the central challenges of our time is to embrace our totemic self and to integrate that with our scientific culture and our technological selves.
That challenge was part of what brought 125 people together at the Technology & Nature Summit in Austin, Texas last April, to explore the role of technology in nature particularly as it relates to our children. It’s a complex topic and one that has a wide range of thoughts and opinions surrounding it. One perspective that I brought to this important conversation is that from the field of ecopsychology. As an ecopsychologist, I make the assumption that our inner world and the outer world are intimately connected; and, we are profoundly impacted by cultural and ecological influences.
One cultural influence that impacts all of us is the technology we create. Our kids are spending more than 7.5 hour each day engaged with some sort of screen.There are roughly two billion internet users and five billion cell phone users worldwide. That represents staggering, global connectivity. Yet, ironically, many individuals report feeling more isolated
Technology is also changing the way we interact with the natural world. For example, GPS navigation devices provide many people access into wild environs. But to navigate the land with these devices, our eyes must be focused on the digital screen rather than reading the land’s natural features. Will we soon forget how?
Similarly, technology can lead us to engage less intimately with nature. For example, for many people today, the activity of “going camping” means sleeping in the RV that comes equipped with all the amenities of home. That’s a different experience than sleeping in a tent or in a sleeping bag under the night sky filled with stars. Our mindful attention to the patterns that are forming around our technology usage is part of the challenge we face.
An important consideration when assessing our use of new technologies, especially digital technologies that mediate our connection with the natural world, are the metrics we rely on to establish their costs and benefits.
Aldo Leopold said that well-meant environmental education and economic efforts will fail unless we also can change people’s internal “emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions” and move people toward “an intense consciousness of the land.” Leopold was probably talking about more than just getting people to go outdoors. He was likely referring to the quality of our interactions with nature and the depth of our experience.
This provides a metric that allows us to ask about whether a technology leads people toward or away from “an intense consciousness of land.” For example, a good pair of binoculars might allow you to get up close and personal with an Osprey; a camera may help you to “see” a landscape in a more intimate way; and, digital field guides can help you identify a tree, or a wildflower, or a bird.
To understand how spending time in nature benefits us psychologically, researchers have identified several components of restorative environments. One component of restorative environments is “being away” – that sense of getting away from everyday life that happens when we venture out on a hike in the mountains or a day at the beach. But can we feel like we are “away” when our cell phone is vibrating in our pocket?
Another component of restorative environments is “soft fascination” which refers to what in the environment readily holds our attention in an undramatic way – such as clouds, sunsets, or the motion of leaves in the wind. This soft fascination mitigates the directed attention required in everyday life that often exhausts us. As we think about the metrics for assessing our use of technology in nature, we might look at whether the technology supports the restorative benefits of our interactions with nature or potentially takes it away.
There is something else that direct contact with nature allows for – that sense of wonder that Rachael Carson referred to — the mystery of being a part of something so much bigger than our individual selves.
Most of us have experienced that mystery – perhaps in moments of solitude in wild nature. What role did technology play in that experience for you? Did the technology lead you toward or away from “an intense consciousness of land”?
Many of us have made it our life work to protect nature, to advocate for it, to teach about it, and to introduce the next generation to it. What sparked that passion for you? What experiences supported that inherent biophilic tendency to deeply connect with the natural world? What is your story of nature and the development of your totemic self? In a recent interview published in Orion Magazine, Richard Louv discussed the importance of narrative stories in the work of connecting children with nature. He shared that people tell him stories everywhere he travels, especially stories from their childhoods. But he noted that the younger people are, the less likely it is that they have those stories to share.
Our stories make us human. What role did technology play in your story? What role will it play in the stories that your children and grandchildren will tell about how their experiences in nature? These are important questions to explore.
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