After reading about the sometimes ragged, sometimes technical, and always human-influenced future of wild nature and conservation strategies in Rambunctious Garden (Emma Marris), I decided to dwell a little in the aftermath of her book and reflect on the idea of what nature means to people. Whereas Marris’s book focused on what conservation efforts might look like in the future, it didn’t step into the fuzzier realm of why nature is important to people personally, culturally, spiritually, psychologically or otherwise. Enter Yale University professor of forestry and environmental studies Stephen Kellert. His book, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World promised to examine “why human beings need to connect with nature and what is lost when they are disconnected from the natural world.” I thought the two would be interesting to read back-to-back, to let their ideas bump into one another in my head—and I was right.
Kellert argues that human health and well-being are indelibly linked to nature, and that having a connection with nature is an essential birthright of being human. Whereas Marris dove deep into the idea of what qualifies as “nature,” “natural,” and “wilderness,” Kellert spends little time on this (birds in the backyard will do), and instead focuses on the characteristics of our interactions with nature. He believes that our intellectual and emotional capacities, even our ability to find meaning in life, hinge on our relationship with nature. And in a world where people increasingly live indoors, with less direct experience of nature, he believes that we are losing vital elements of ourselves: our health, our intellect, our capacities for affection and reason.
Along with E.O. Wilson, Kellert was a developer of the biophilia concept. He writes that it’s a complex process, involving not just a “love of life,” but also a framework that describes how we “attach meaning to and derive benefit from the natural world.” Attraction, reason, aversion, expolitation, affection, dominion, spirituality and symbolism form the warp and weft of this framework, according to Kellert and Wilson’s theory. These categories also form the structure for Birthright, with each one becoming a chapter unto itself. Continue reading