Fear of nature and environmental education

As part of an education class on human development, all of our graduate students complete a research project on a topic of our choice, related to environmental education, culture, and human development. I chose to do my research on ecophobia, or fear of nature, and have included a reasoning of why I chose this topic, as well as a summary of my results. My main method of research was reading articles and books and synthesizing the information presented. Works are cited at the end; if you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend these books.

Reasoning for researching this topic

As children grow up, they are influenced by the authority figures in their life, their own life experiences, and the time/place they grow up in. All of these influences play into the presence or absence of ecophobia (or ecophilia) in an individual’s life, and how those feelings are expressed. Ecophobia/ecophilia plays a huge role in environmental education, because whether in nature or not, how someone perceives the environment affects their reaction towards nature. This is important for environmental educators to keep in mind, since people’s reactions should factor into the design and delivery of a program.

Summary of findings

Influences/Causes of ecophobia:

  1. (Uncontrollable) frightening situation of object that individual experiences
  2. Seeing or hearing about #1 (above) from someone else
  3. Ignorance/misinformed/inexperience
  4. Cultural or religious belief

Wilderness and the American Mind

In this book, Nash tracks the American perceptions of nature, from colonial time to current time. In general, the greater the quantity of uncontrollable wilderness (nature) exists, the more Americans feared nature. As we developed into present times and began to live in cities or suburbs instead of fighting every day to survive in the wilderness, we began to perceive the same nature in a romanticized light. Additionally, as the “supply” of nature decreased, demand began t increase. Nash has a nice chart in one of the last chapters that diagrams this trend of valuation of nature based on supply and demand.

However, while this figure makes sense, it is impossible separate the progression of knowledge as it was gained over the years, and the migration of most Americans from living with nature to living on the edges of nature. The idea of the progression of knowledge and understanding of nature is important  as it relates back to the third cause of ecophobias (see above), but as it happened at the same time as the migration away from living in wilderness, it is hard to distinguish what actually led to the Romantic movement.

Beyond Ecophobia and Last Child in the Woods

The premise of Beyond Ecophobia is that we need to provide developmentally appropriate environmental education, and cultivating a sense of place and wonder before we ask youth to “save the world”.  Richard Louv also echoes these ideas in his book Last Child in the Woods, as well as the idea of crime as a deterrent to spending time in nature, and accessibility problems in getting to nature. All of this, he argues, has led to a generation that is completely out of touch with their natural world, and this has led to a whole host of problems in school, with environmental degradation, with relationships, and more. Louv would say that the main cause of ecophobia is inexperience with nature. This is a developmental topic because it influences so much more than just interactions with nature. It is also a cultural issue, as the place you live in and the people you are surrounded by, influence perceptions of nature.

 

I think it is important to distinguish between fear of nature and fearlessness, because while some degree of fear is healthy in helping people to avoid dangerous situations (like our ancestors did with snakes and lightning), it is not healthy if our actions and responses are out of our control, or irrational. The result of such fear is not healthy for us, the environment, or our society. Knowing the causes and trends of ecophobias, it makes it easier to appropriately design and deliver an environmental education program that will be successful, as in the Listening to Children article.

 

Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. Yale University Press, 2001.

Sobel, David. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. The Orion Society, 1996.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. 2nd ed. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008.

Burgess, Donald J., Jolie Mayer-Smith. Listening to Children: Perceptions of Nature. The Journal of Natural History Education and Experience, Volume 5 (2011).

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