The biggest obstacle to sustainable living today is our lack of contact with the natural environment. The average American spends 18 hours indoors for every hour outdoors, and most of our outdoor time is spent in unnatural settings like parking lots and city streets. As a result, we have lost touch with nature—the rhythms and patterns of life outside our engineered, air-conditioned world.
Our lack of experience with the natural world makes it difficult to evaluate alternatives as we strive for sustainability as a species. How, for instance, can we gauge the environmental impact of one detergent over another when we don’t know where our water goes?
Lacking experience on which to base our decisions, we rely instead on manufacturer claims to evaluate products and politicians’ promises to evaluate policies. Our reliance on second-hand information, in turn, makes us vulnerable to “greenwash”, intentionally misleading campaigns to make environmentally hostile products ands policies appear green. Victims of our own ignorance and those willing to take advantage of it, is it any wonder that many of our products and policies continue to harm the environment despite our good intentions.
The cure for nature deficit syndrome, as it’s sometimes called, is of course nature. We can all take steps to develop our environmental awareness:
Walk to work - Walking every day along the greenest route possible not only puts us in touch with nature, it can heal our hearts and minds.
Take a hike – When the opportunity arises for more extended forays into nature, take it. Weekend hikes are within reach for most of us, providing a chance to reconnect with the rhythms of nature.
Plant a tree – I hardly live in the wilderness, but yesterday when I arrived home a red-tailed hawk swooped out of the bushes carrying a mouse in its talons. Without the landscape around my home, I doubt it would have been there. The National Wildlife Federation offers a Gardening for Wildlife program that can help get you started.
If you run a business, consider how your products and services could make your customers more aware of their natural environment. Games can encourage kids to go outside and explore. Remodeling can be an opportunity to open up the home to the outdoors.
Employers can also take action to put their employees more in touch with nature. Rewarding them for walking or biking to work, for instance, can make them more aware of their local climate, vegetation and wildlife while also making them more fit and more productive. Biophilic design of the workplace can help too. Biophilic design is based on the concept of biophilia—our genetic dependence on contact with nature. It promotes natural materials, air and lighting, indoor plants and organic water features, and maximum exposure to nature. Its proponents cite a variety of studies suggesting it can improve worker productivity and health.
In implementing strategies like biophilic design, keep in mind that the goal is to encourage direct experience of nature. Other strategies like energy conservation and recycling are equally admirable, but they may not succeed if their adopters lack direct environmental experience. It is nature, after all, that teaches us these basic principles of conservation, and in nature we see their benefits and challenges play out.
Without our own direct experience of sustainability in action, our own actions can be easily misdirected, lead to unintended consequences, and fall prey to greenwash and political rhetoric. With direct experience of the green world to guide us, we can begin to heal our fragile Earth.