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Communing with nature less and less

Feb. 4, 2008
Courtesy University of Illinois at Chicago
and World Science staff

In an alarming trend, out­door ac­ti­vi­ties are on the wane as peo­ple around the world spend more lei­sure time on­line or watch­ing TV, re­search­ers say. They worry that the trend will lead to fatter, un­health­ier po­pu­la­tions—and more en­vi­ron­ment­al des­truc­tion, as peop­le lose in­ter­est in both na­ture and its pro­tect­ion.

Asher B. Durand, "Kindred Spirits" (1849)


“The­re’s a real and fun­da­men­tal shift away from na­ture—certainly here [in the Un­ited States] and pos­sibly in oth­er coun­tries,” said Ol­i­ver Per­gams, a bi­ol­o­gist at the Un­ivers­ity of Il­li­nois at Chi­ca­go. 

Activities as varied as hik­ing and fish­ing are drop­ping in po­pu­lar­ity, the re­search­ers said. 

Pergams and Pa­tri­cia Zaradic of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Lead­er­ship Pro­gram, Del­a­ware Val­ley in Bryn Mawr, Penn., had pre­vi­ously re­ported a steady de­cline in per cap­i­ta vis­its to U.S. na­t­ional parks since the late 1980s. That, they found, cor­re­lat­ed very strongly with a rise in vi­deo-game play­ing, In­ter­net surf­ing and mov­ie watch­ing. 

The re­search­ers call this shift to sed­en­tary, elec­tron­ic di­ver­sions “vid­e­ophilia.” It “has far-reach­ing con­se­quenc­es for phys­i­cal and men­tal health, es­pe­cially in chil­dren,” Pergams said. “Videophilia has been shown to be a cause of obes­ity, lack of so­cial­iz­a­tion, at­ten­tion dis­or­ders and poor ac­a­dem­ic per­form­ance.”

In the new stu­dy, Pergams and Zaradic said they gathe­red and an­a­lyzed sur­vey da­ta on var­i­ous na­ture ac­ti­vi­ties from the past 70 years, in­clud­ing the two dec­ades since U.S. na­t­ional park vis­its be­gan their on­go­ing de­cline.

“We felt that na­t­ional park vis­its in the U.S. were a pret­ty good proxy for how much peo­ple were in­volved in na­ture,” said Pergams. “But we wanted to see if peo­ple were go­ing less to oth­er na­ture-related venues or par­ti­ci­pat­ing less in na­ture recrea­t­ion ac­ti­vi­ties, both here and in oth­er coun­tries.”

The bi­ol­o­gists ex­am­ined fig­ures on back­pack­ing, fish­ing, hik­ing, hunt­ing, vis­its to na­t­ional and state parks and forests. They found com­pa­ra­ble sta­tis­tics from Ja­pan and, to a less­er ex­tent, Spain. They found that from 1981 to 1991, per-cap­i­ta na­ture recrea­t­ion de­clined at rates from 1 pe­rcent to 1.3 pe­rcent per year, de­pend­ing on the ac­ti­vity stud­ied. The typ­i­cal drop in na­ture use since then has been 18-25 per­cent, they said.

The study is pub­lished in this week’s on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­t­ional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences.

“We don’t see how this can be good for con­serva­t­ion,” Pergams said. “We don’t see how fu­ture genera­t­ions, with less ex­plora­t­ion of na­ture, will be as in­ter­ested in con­serva­t­ion as past genera­t­ions.”


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From backyard gardening to mountain climbing, outdoor activities are on the wane as people around the world spend more leisure time online or watching TV, a study indicates. Scientists say the declining involvement with nature is unhealthy and may erode humanity’s interest in protecting the environment, leading to its further destruction. “There’s a real and fundamental shift away from nature—certainly here [in the United States] and possibly in other countries,” said Oliver Pergams, a biologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Pergams and Patricia Zaradic, a fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program, Delaware Valley in Bryn Mawr, Pa., had previously reported a steady decline in per capita visits to U.S. national parks since the late 1980s. That, they found, correlated very strongly with a rise in video game playing, Internet surfing and movie watching. The researchers call this recent shift to sedentary, electronic diversions “videophilia.” It “has far-reaching consequences for physical and mental health, especially in children,” Pergams said. “Videophilia has been shown to be a cause of obesity, lack of socialization, attention disorders and poor academic performance.” In the new study, Pergams and Zaradic said they gathered and analyzed survey data on various nature activities from the past 70 years, including the two decades since U.S. national park visits began their ongoing decline. “We felt that national park visits in the U.S. were a pretty good proxy for how much people were involved in nature,” said Pergams. “But we wanted to see if people were going less to other nature-related venues or participating less in nature recreation activities, both here and in other countries.” The biologists examined figures on backpacking, fishing, hiking, hunting, visits to national and state parks and forests. They found comparable statistics from Japan and, to a lesser extent, Spain. They found that from 1981 to 1991, per-capita nature recreation declined at rates from 1 percent to 1.3 percent per year, depending on the activity studied. The typical drop in nature use since then has been 18-25 percent. The study is published in this week’s online issue of the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We don’t see how this can be good for conservation,” Pergams said. “We don’t see how future generations, with less exploration of nature, will be as interested in conservation as past generations.”