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The worth of wilderness; the need for nature

POSTED 25 JANUARY 2007

The evocation of evolution
'A world without wilderness is a cage.' -David Brower, American environmentalist. What explains the pull of the wild? One compelling answer comes from evolutionary psychology -- the idea that the human experience and the processes of evolution have shaped how our brains operate. We tend to favor situations that promoted our survival, and to fear the opposite type of situations.

The notion cannot be tested scientifically, but there are some intriguing arguments in its favor. Since the 1970s, says Roger Ulrich, a professor of landscape architecture at Texas A&M University, social scientists have found a striking similarity in human preferences for certain types of landscapes. "We now have more than 100 studies of esthetic preferences for different kinds of outdoor scenes, using roughly comparable methods, across very diversely different societies and locations, and we find a strong pattern of agreement. Almost all nature scenes are esthetically preferable to almost any built or urban scene lacking nature," he says.

In fact, preferences are much more specific. Studies show a near-universal preference for specific features in a nature scene, such as flowing water, small, innocuous animals, and an open, tree-studded view. Undesirable elements include large animals staring back at you, snakes, venomous insects, and deep, dark forests.

Pass the squirrels, but hold the tigers...
The most logical explanation for the broad human agreement on a desirable landscape, Ulrich says, is our evolutionary background. "Because of millions of years of human evolution in natural settings, modern humans, as a partly genetic remnant of this long experience, have a predisposition to respond positively to certain types of nature content and settings that were good for us, and fostered survival."

Landscapes with open views, many scientists have noted, would have helped our ancestors spot predators or hostile humans. And having some food, some shade and some water can only increase the chance of survival -- and make us tend to feel calmer in safer places.

Swirling crimson-orange clouds above a blue-black lake, with canoe in foreground
Sunset on a canoe trip in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. If this sunset doesn't explain the call of the wild, maybe it is inexplicable! Photo: ©David Tenenbaum

Natural selection could also explain the widespread benefits of exposure to nature and wildness, Ulrich adds. "By the early 1990s, there were more than 100 studies, internationally, on the psychological benefits people realize from experiencing nature and wilderness." Studies in different societies, he says, "show a striking similarity in the result. People report experiencing tranquility when they go into nature, or they get a restorative benefit, what we could term stress reduction. It cuts across all types of wilderness, and diversely different recreational activities."

Ulrich has long studied how nature and the environment can play a role in health care. In 1984, he found that surgery patients who saw trees outside the window left the hospital a day sooner than similar patients who got to savor a view of a brick wall. Other scientists have found that walking in a park will lower the blood pressure more than a walk in an area with heavy traffic, indicating greater stress reduction.

At the base of a majestic waterfall, a rainbow forms
Saving California's Yosemite Valley was the personal quest of pioneering mountain-man (and Sierra Club founder) John Muir. Photo: NPS

A wild hope
Watching nature photos or videos cuts the need for pain meds during surgery, and taped bird songs can reduce disorientation and anxiety in patients with advanced dementia. (We'll be coming back to this research in a future Why File.)

Beyond making us feel good, there are some signs that experiencing nature could actually change human behavior. For example, Pease compared farmers who set aside land for wildlife habitat to those that did not. The difference between the two groups, he says, "is largely predictable, based on the kind of things they engaged in during childhood: hunting, fishing, camping, having a wild place to be alone. They learned to value wild things, wild places. They tend to have a very different set of values, compared to farmers who don't keep places for wildlife on their land." Both sets of farmers watch the bottom line, he says, "but wildlife-oriented farmers say, 'I've got to make enough money to live, but that's not one of my core values.'"

A wild despair
If exposure to wilderness is so important to the human psyche, what does the future hold? The United Nations recently predicted that more than half of the world population will soon live in cities. Satellite images show ever more natural habitat being gobbled by cities, highways, mines and farmland. At the same time, television, movies, video games, and miscellaneous other stand-ins for reality continue usurping face-time in the young.

Add two and two, and the sum is fewer opportunities to experience nature.

Woman enjoys view of a lush river valley, soaring mountains in distance
A braided river at the 20-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which encompass every arctic and subarctic habitat: mountain, tundra, boreal forest, barrier islands, coasts and rivers. The refuge harbors the greatest wildlife diversity of any protected polar area: Birds from four continents, and 45 species of mammals, many found at no other refuge. (It's so grand that we can only say: "It's the ideal place to drill for oil!") Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

And so where will the next impassioned advocates of nature come from? "It worries me," says Pease, who teaches environmental education at Iowa State. "I see a real change in the student body. When I started here in 1985, the kids came from a very experiential background; they camped, took wildlife photos, watched birds, hunted, fished. Now we are getting students who have their hearts in the right place,"A cyclist churns through the stunning scenery of a peaceful, placid lake but whose outdoor "experience" comes from zoos, the Discovery Channel, or Animal Planet.

"That's really disturbing," Pease says. "We've had to change the curriculum to try to give these students real experience in the outdoors. They don't have a clue, most of them, what the outdoors is really like."

Biking in Ullswater in England's Lake District. Photo: UK Environment Agency

Direct experience matters, Pease says. Researchers who have studied the effect of early experience have linked childhood interaction with wild nature to positive attitudes and behavior toward nature among adults. Children who experienced tamed nature (gardening, for example) also exhibited a positive attitude toward nature, but the experience made little impact on their behavior as adults. "It seems that the wild part of the experience is the part that makes a difference in actual behavior in later life," Pease says.

No getting' wild in the bibliography, hear?

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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