The Internet made me what I am today: Nature deficit

Calypso orchid. (Bureau of Land Management [Public domain]: https://bit.ly/36hkNFX ). Will this photo suffice, or would you rather encounter the real thing in a bog?

his is my second essay in a short series about technology, another stab at promoting nuance and critical thinking. My target is the not-infrequent claim that new technologies are always, or mostly, good. Or, at least, that the benefits far outweigh the costs, so we can consider the costs negligible.

I’d like to make a case that something akin to “full cost accounting,” as used in sustainability analysis, can also be helpful in evaluating technological advances, even if only in a qualitative sense.

I’m urging nuance and discrimination. Let’s consider both the good and the bad.

The use of the Internet in educational technology has myriad proven benefits. Computing power’s exponential increase (thanks for the Law, Moore) has put information and processing power undreamed of just a few years ago within pocket reach. Data analysis programs and educational apps are demonstrably beneficial for students, in many learning environments.

This much is undisputed.

To be more accurate, my title should switch out “The Internet” for “Screen time.” Increased electronic immersion by young people exacerbates a now well-known phenomenon called “nature deficit disorder,” first formulated by the author Richard Louv and others.

I’m not writing about anything new here, of course. There is now a substantive body of research and thought about many problems associated with too much “screen time” by children and teenagers. We may as well add adults to that list, too (I’m looking at ME, meeting attendee).

For example, extensive Internet immersion in children and teens is becoming an increasingly likely culprit for the dramatic rise of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There are strong indications that other problems, such as increased rates of depression and vitamin D deficiency, are also pegged to too much screen time. Plenty of psychologists and pediatricians are ringing alarm bells about parents’ need to control both children’s onset (age) and amount of time spent staring into smart phones, tablets, etc.

The evidence continues to mount that unstructured, free play time and direct experience in nature is beneficial for the mental and physical health of children, teens, and adults.

ith that brief background, I’ll return to my main topic. Immersion in electronic technology, in my view, is a massive impediment to developing a society-wide conservation ethic. This problem could not come at a worse time, as we face accelerating ecosystem destruction and mass extinction. I won’t try to convince anyone here that these problems are real and alarming. Loss of biodiversity gets much less media coverage than climate change, but it is equally troubling for both the planet and humans. People are largely unaware of the issue.

A famous quote in conservation circles may have lost some of its punch from overuse:

In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught. — Baba Dioum, Senegalese forestry engineer

I would amend Dioum’s aphorism: “We will understand only what we are taught, and only what we experience directly.”

One needs little time reading online article comments and social media posts (outside one’s own bubble of friends), to see a deep, pervasive ecological ignorance in much of the general public. Native insects, predators, “weeds” and other biota are often met with fear, revulsion, or violence. Destructive invasive species are sometimes welcomed, and even pampered. ChemLawn is the only way to keep up with the Joneses. Forget about wildflowers and food webs! (Actually, let’s NOT forget about them).

It really is true that many people, but thankfully not all — yet — prefer the sanitized, safe, anodyne world of the human built environment to spending time in nature.

It was not always so.

The sad result is that skyrocketing extinction is met with ebbing public awareness of the problem, underpinned and inflamed by diminishing experience with the natural world. Small hope of developing a deep, abiding, society-wide conservation ethic under these conditions.

ut wait — Nature Apps to the rescue! Take a look at the current profusion of apps for identifying, tracking, analyzing, and educating people about real species of plants, bugs, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, mushrooms . . . you name it! And, increasingly, these apps are used to support citizen science projects that help track population status, animal movements, soundscapes, and other amazing phenomena in the natural world.

I hope, along with many others, that apps like iBird, iNaturalist (and its Pokémon Go-like offshoot, Seek), What’s Invasive, and many others will lead to a Renaissance of interest in Nature, a resurgence of people itching to get themselves and their children outside.

But nagging concerns remain. “Collecting” species in Seek is fun, even addictive, just as it is with Pokémon. Yet, each species “collected” is a photo and a name on a screen, with perhaps ancillary information or links to learn more. Will these collections and experiences really bring about a revival of interest in the real thing? By real thing, I mean of course the actual living, respiring, (sometimes) photosynthesizing, metabolizing organisms that compose the warp and weft of the natural world that we depend on.

Will the next encounter with an already “collected” species be blown off as boring, a distraction from swelling a list or defeating a competitor? Will images on a screen become just another end in themselves, one more electronic distraction that fails to translate into conservation understanding and action?

Do you have children who use nature apps? I’d love to hear about your experiences, one way or the other. Please comment below.

ne of the most moving stories about experiencing the “real thing” is the account of naturalist John Muir, who late in life wrote about finding a stunning Calypso orchid in Canada as a young man:

But when the sun was getting low and everything seemed most bewildering and discouraging, I found beautiful Calypso on the mossy bank of a stream, growing not in the ground but on a bed of yellow mosses in which its small white bulb had found a soft nest and from which its one leaf and one flower sprung. The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost simple purity like a snowflower. No other bloom was near it, for the bog a short distance below the surface was still frozen, and the water was ice cold. It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met. I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy.

Conservation needs good science. But for it to be fully realized, conservation needs more people who weep over beauty and loss. Can technology help us re-form those connections?

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Writing about natural history, biodiversity, skepticism, southern Appalachian language and culture. Opinions expressed here are solely my own.

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Travis Knowles

Writing about natural history, biodiversity, skepticism, southern Appalachian language and culture. Opinions expressed here are solely my own.