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Peter H. Kahn, Jr.
Peter H Kahn Jr., Ph.D.

Why Do We Need Wild Nature?

Sure, without wild nature we can live as biological meat. But we won't thrive.

Some people say we can adapt to a world of increasing technology and decreasing nature. They say that as a species we've always adapted. They say "don't worry, we'll adapt, we'll be fine."

In a previous post [click here] I discussed what it means to adapt. Now I'd like to go after this second point about what it means to "be fine." Because I don't think we have calibrated right on what constitutes physical and mental health.

I'd like to demarcate two types of harms: "direct harms" and "harms of unfulfilled flourishing." Direct harms refer to physical, material, or psychological harms that a person experiences directly. Smash a toe, lose a hundred dollars, suffer a nervous breakdown - all are direct harms. Harms of unfulfilled flourishing refer to physical, material, or psychological benefits that do not occur but could have and sometimes rightly should have. To incur this harm, it is not even necessary that the person who is harmed be aware of the harm. Imagine, for example, that, unknown to you, you were to inherit ten million dollars from a distant relative; but just after that relative's death a corrupt lawyer forges a new will and the inheritance goes elsewhere. Were you harmed? Not directly. You never even knew about the possibility. But you were certainly harmed in the sense that you were cheated out of your rightful inheritance. Or imagine a child who grows up without ever having been exposed to music; then as an adult he tells us: "I don't care for music at all; I never listen to it." We might say: "Oh my, you don't know what you're missing for there is a beautiful repository of the musical experience that is within the range of all humans." We might say that this person's musical sensibility was stunted as a child, and in this sense this person experiences a harm of unfulfilled flourishing. Similarly, if due to difficulties in childhood, an adult becomes unable to engage in a deep loving intimate relationship with another adult, we might say that this person, too, experiences a harm of unfulfilled flourishing. Or imagine children growing up in a city of the future thick with air pollution, and who are unable to exercise their bodies vigorously. These children would be harmed by never having experienced the flourishing of their physical bodies exerted in open space.

Some of the harms that occur as we adapt to changing environments are direct harms. Jet lag, altitude sickness, mental disorders from crowding, and death from plagues. But many of our harms - and the least recognized - are harms of unfulfilled flourishing. They are not always easy to recognize.

Here is one modest example. One of the rules in visiting Mammoth Cave National Park (as for many nature areas) is the following: "Take only memories, leave only footprints: all rocks, plants, animals, and historic artifacts in the park are protected; plants and flowers may not be picked, and animals may not be injured, killed, fed, or harassed. Please leave them here, as you found them, for others to enjoy." This rule - take only memories, leave only footprints - makes some sense if we want to prevent direct harms to an ecosystem. But it comes at cost to the individual. Namely, there is a simple but lovely form of interaction with nature, which often begins in childhood, that involves collecting small objects from places that one visits. Sometimes children build a large collection of such objects, and classify them, and study them. Such forms of interaction can set into motion a life-long scientific inquiry into the natural world. Sometimes these objects, for children and adults, hold important memories of special times. The new "environmental" message - "take only memories, leave only footprints" - helps to prevent harm to an ecosystem, but it comes at a human cost, not large, but not so small either, by causing a harm of unfulfilled flourishing: the experience and satisfaction of collecting parts of nature.

A different harm of unfulfilled flourishing can be found in Diamond's (2005) account of how the Japanese in the 1700's solved one of their environmental problems: the overharvesting of their timber. Employing what Diamond calls a top-down management style, the local rulers, both the shogun and the daimyo, dictated who could do what in the forests, and where, and when, and for what price. Toward making thoughtful decisions, the rulers paid for detailed inventories of their forests. Diamond (2005) writes:

"Just as one example of the managers' obsessiveness, an inventory of a forest near Karuizawa 80 miles northwest of Edo in 1773 recorded that the forest measured 2. 986 square miles in area and contained 4,114 trees, of which 573 were crooked or knotty and 3,541 were good. Of those 4,114 trees, 78 were big conifer (66 of them good) with trunks 24-36 feet long and 6-7 feet in circumference, 292 were medium-sized conifers (253 of them good) 4-5 feet in circumference, 255 good small conifers 6-18 feet long and 1-3 feet in circumference to be harvested in the year 1778, and 1,474 small conifers (1,344 of them good) to harvest in later years." (p. 301)

Diamond believes this form of management is exemplary. Granted, it was effective in preventing direct environmental harms caused by overharvesting timber resources. But now we can ask: Do harms of unfulfilled flourishing arise through interacting with such managed land where literally every tree has been counted, measured, graded, and fit into a harvest plan for eventual cutting? I think yes, such harms do arise. Dean (1997) writes that "an enveloping wild landscape...[is] central to our original understanding of the world and our rightful place within it" (p. 17). In other posts I've expanded on these ideas [click here and here].

If Dean's position is correct, and I believe it is, then perhaps by interacting with heavily managed landscapes we do not experience a sense of awe in the Other - that which exists outside of human domination. We do not experience a sense of humility. Perhaps it is reasonable to say that when we look at the Other and see only a reflection of ourselves that we have evidence of adaptation gone poor.

About the Author
Peter H. Kahn, Jr.

Peter H. Kahn, Jr. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and the author of Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life.

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