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The Way We Live Now - Natural Happiness - The Self-Centered C.
April 19, 2009
Natural Happiness

Why should we care about nature? Should we care about it for its own sake — or for our sake, because ithappens to make us happy or healthy? These might not seem like the brightest questions. Few people needconvincing that the destruction of rain forests, the mass extinction of species and the melting of the icesheets in Greenland would all be very bad things. Do we really need to list the reasons? We do. After all, in many regards our species has already kissed nature goodbye, and we are better off for it.
Technology has come to be more diverse than the biosphere. In 1867, Karl Marx observed that there were500 types of hammer made in Birmingham, England. In 1988, Donald Norman, a cognitive scientist at theUniversity of California, San Diego, suggested that the average American encounters 20,000 different kindsof artifacts in everyday life, which would be more than the number of animals and plants that we candistinguish. And right now, there are about 1.5 million identified species on Earth — impressive, butnothing compared to the more than 7 million United States patents.
This is mostly good news. No sane person would give up antibiotics and anesthesia, farming and the writtenword. Our constructed environments shield us from heat and cold and protect us from predators. We haveaccess to food and drink and drugs that have been devised to stimulate our nervous systems in magnificentways. We sleep in soft beds and have immediate access to virtual experiences from pornography to classicalsymphonies. If a family of hunter-gatherers were dropped into this life, they would think of it as a literalheaven.
Or maybe not. There is a considerable mismatch between the world in which our minds evolved and ourcurrent existence. Our species has spent almost all of its existence on the African savanna. While there isdebate over the details, we know for sure that our minds were not adapted to cope with a world of billionsof people. The life of a modern city dweller, surrounded by strangers, is an evolutionary novelty. Thousandsof years ago, there was no television or Internet, no McDonald’s, birth-control pills, Viagra, plastic surgery,alarm clocks, artificial lighting or paternity tests. Instead, there was plenty of nature. We lived surroundedby trees and water and animals and sky.
This history has left its mark on our minds. Children are irrepressible taxonomizers, placing the world ofdistinct individuals into categories based on their appearance, their patterns of movement and theirpresumed deeper natures, and some psychologists have argued that the hard-wired capacity to organizeand structure the world is specially adapted to nature: we are natural-born zoologists and botanists. Wemay also have evolved to get pleasure from certain aspects of the natural world. About 25 years ago, theHarvard biologist E. O. Wilson popularized the “biophilia” hypothesis: the idea that our evolutionaryhistory has blessed us with an innate affinity for living things. We thrive in the presence of nature and sufferin its absence.
Our hunger for the natural is everywhere. It is reflected in art: the philosopher Denis Dutton, in his book“The Art Instinct,” suggests that popular taste in landscape painting has been shaped by preferences thatevolved for the African savanna. The appeal of the natural is also reflected in where we most want to live.
People like to be close to oceans, mountains and trees. Even in the most urban environments, it is reflected The Way We Live Now - Natural Happiness - The Self-Centered C.
in real estate prices: if you want a view of the trees of Central Park, it’ll cost you. Office buildings haveatriums and plants; we give flowers to the sick and the beloved and return home to watch Animal Planetand the Discovery Channel. We keep pets, which are a weird combination of constructed things (cats anddogs were bred for human companionship), surrogate people and conduits to the natural world. And manyof us seek to escape our manufactured environments whenever we can — to hike, camp, canoe or hunt.
Wilson emphasizes the spiritual and moral benefits of an attachment to nature, warning that we “descendfarther from heaven’s air if we forget how much the natural world means to us.” But there are moretangible benefits as well. Many studies show that even a limited dose of nature, like a chance to look at theoutside world through a window, is good for your health. Hospitalized patients heal more quickly;prisoners get sick less often. Being in the wild reduces stress; spending time with a pet enhances the lives ofeveryone from autistic children to Alzheimer’s patients. The author Richard Louv argues that modernchildren suffer from “nature-deficit disorder” because they have been shut out from the physical andpsychic benefits of unstructured physical contact with the natural world.
So the preservation of the natural world should be important to us. But how important? The psychologistPhilip Tetlock has pointed out that many people talk about the environment as a “sacred value,” protectedfrom utilitarian trade-offs — when the Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil, 80percent of the respondents in one poll said that we should pursue greater environmental protection“regardless of cost.” But he also points to the need to balance environmental concerns with social andpolitical and personal priorities. (Few of these respondents would be willing to hand over their pensions fora more efficient cleanup of the Alaskan shoreline.) And even if we did value nature above everything else,we would still have to decide which aspects of nature we care about the most. You can see this in the debateover the creation of giant wind farms in the ocean or on hillsides. Proponents are enthusiastic about thecheap, green energy; critics worry about the loss of natural beauty and the yearly filleting of thousands ofsongbirds and ducks.
In the end, an indiscriminate biophilia makes little sense. Natural selection shaped the human brain to bedrawn toward aspects of nature that enhance our survival and reproduction, like verdant landscapes anddocile creatures. There is no payoff to getting the warm fuzzies in the presence of rats, snakes, mosquitoes,cockroaches, herpes simplex and the rabies virus. Some of the natural world is appealing, some of it isterrifying and some of it grosses us out. Modern people don’t want to be dropped naked into a swamp. Wewant to tour Yosemite with our water bottles and G.P.S. devices. The natural world is a source of happinessand fulfillment, but only when prescribed in the right doses.
You might think that technology could provide a simulacrum of nature with all the bad parts scrubbed out.
But attempts to do so have turned out to be interesting failures. There is a fortune to be made, for instance,by building a robot that children would respond to as if it were an animal. There have been many attempts,but they don’t evoke anywhere near the same responses as puppies, kittens or even hamsters. They are toys,not companions. Or consider a recent study by the University of Washington psychologist Peter H. Kahn Jr.
and his colleagues. They put 50-inch high-definition televisions in the windowless offices of faculty andstaff members to provide a live view of a natural scene. People liked this, but in another study thatmeasured heart-rate recovery from stress, the HDTVs were shown to be worthless, no better than staring ata blank wall. What did help with stress was giving people an actual plate-glass window looking out uponactual greenery.
All of this provides a different sort of argument for the preservation of nature. Put aside for the momentpractical considerations like the need for clean air and water, and ignore as well spiritual worries about thesanctity of Mother Earth or religious claims that we are the stewards of creation. Look at it from thecoldblooded standpoint of the enhancement of the happiness of our everyday lives. Real natural habitats The Way We Live Now - Natural Happiness - The Self-Centered C.
provide significant sources of pleasure for modern humans. We intuitively grasp this, and this knowledgeunderlies the anxiety that we feel about nature’s loss. It might be that one day we will be able to replace theexperience of nature with “Star Trek” holodecks and robotic animals. But until then, this basic fact abouthuman pleasure is an excellent argument for keeping the real thing.
Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale and the author of “Descartes’ Baby.” He is currentlywriting a book about pleasure. Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company


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