With a majority of Earth’s human inhabitants living in urban and suburban areas, a phenomenon is occurring that has never previously existed: An increasing number of people are afraid of nature.
This is striking, considering that we are natural beings, we have co-evolved with all other natural creatures and forces for millions of years and we share biology with both plants and animals. Nonetheless, so many people are now afraid of nature that this is a recognized mental disease.
In the bible of psychiatric diagnosis, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, both fear of animals and fear of natural environments are listed as phobias. As people remove themselves from nature and increasingly become estranged from plants, animals, and all types of wild and natural environments, they lose familiarity with nature, and often become afraid.
According to the World Health Organization, a full 70 percent of the global population will live in cities by 2050. This will only exacerbate our alienation from nature – and our fear of it.
In his 2009 book Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv described the increasing occurrences of nature phobia, especially among children. As parents keep children indoors to keep them safe, the children lose their innate affinity for nature, and instead of familiarity and appreciation for nature, it is regarded with fear and suspicion. Unlike my friends and I, who grew up playing in the woods almost every day of our childhood, many children have never once been in a forest or an unspoiled natural place.
Harvard naturalist Edmund O. Wilson described biophilia, “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life,” as an instinctive bond between human beings and all other living systems. But in the face of urbanization and over-protection of children, many are now growing up biophobic instead – either somewhat afraid of, or just outright terrified of nature. This unprecedented breakdown of the fundamental bond between us and all living systems has disastrous consequences for our health, and for planetary well-being.
One of the consequences of this nature phobia is a lack of care for what is happening in the increasingly imperiled natural environment. Removed from nature and its creatures, people are less aware of the ever-increasing environmental devastation caused by extractive and polluting industries like petroleum, mining, forestry, fisheries, chemical manufacturing and toxic agricultural practices. Thus, they are less attuned than ever before to the extent that nature is being damaged beyond repair.
According to recent UN reports on the global environment, over 60 percent of natural eco-systems are already damaged – many beyond any capacity to regenerate. And with increasing population and urbanization, this damage is intensifying.
There are millions of reasons to love, protect and spend time in nature, including reasons of health. Dr. Aaron Michelfelder, of the Loyola School of Medicine in Chicago, has chronicled some of the noted health benefits of walking in the woods. Citing improved immune function, increased production of natural protective killer cells, and reduced blood levels of stress hormones, Michelfelder is one of an increasing number of medical scientists advocating greatly increased time in nature for enhanced mental and physical well-being.
A large body of research out of Japan shows that not only is walking in the woods beneficial in the ways described above, but additionally trees give off chemical compounds called phytoncides that naturally boost our immunity and enhance how we feel overall. An increasing body of science shows that those who spend more time in the woods experience improved health. For any of us who regularly spend time in nature, the benefits are perfectly obvious.
It is utterly bizarre that as natural beings endowed with an intrinsic affinity for nature, many humans are now just plain afraid of nature in its grandeur and diversity. But both traditional wisdom and modern science point us in the same direction – go to the woods, fields, streams, mountains, deserts, lakes and oceans.
Take regular long walk in nature. Breathe the air, admire the beauty, and keep yourself in better mental and physical balance. Re-establish the all-important biophilia, and reconnect with your intrinsic self.