Saturday, July 14, 2007

Building Biophilic Communities

Over at The Splintered Mind, guest blogger Dan Haybron examines a Social Biophilia hypothesis. Extending E.O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life,” Haybron proposes that humans have an unrecognized psychological need to be in nature, and to be in nature in communities with others.

The biophilia hypothesis has some empirical support: across cultures, humans respond similarly to cute furry animals, prefer open, grassy landscapes, and keep pets and plants in and around their homes. Wilson proposes an evolutionary explanation for biophilia. Humans evolved in complex wilderness landscapes, so our brains are suited for handling the problems that arise in natural settings. We can identify many types of plants and animals by sight, by sound, by smell; we can manipulate natural environments in ways that have allowed humans to thrive in nearly every area of the globe. Wilson believes that in cultures that are alienated from natural settings, psychological well-being (“sanity”) is depressed.

Haybron gives an explanation for why humans flourish in natural settings but why this psychological need (assuming it exists) is not readily recognized. If the need was always met in human evolutionary history, then there would not have been a reason for it to rise to the level of a conscious desire to be in nature. Humans were already living in nature. We have not been living in urban settings for very long when measured on the time-scale of generations and selection pressure.

© The Landmark Society of Western New York

So although we so seem to be happier in nature, this is not so obvious to us that we forego other pleasures or goods that are best accrued in developed communities. There are also various other forces, like the location of employment opportunities, that push us into constrained urban surroundings. Sure, people go hiking, camping, fishing. Municipalities build parks and we set aside federal lands for recreation. But these activities are in decline, and when cities expand parkland, they are now more likely to construct fields for organized sports than to preserve groves of trees.

© Bob Darling Photography

In a recent Harper’s piece, Edward Hoagland wrote
Politically, in the grabby phase we’re living through, this impulse doesn’t take the form of widely wanting to preserve nature as a public domain. Rather, we’ll tend to hire a backhoe to dig a private mini-pond and plant nursery vegetation, after chopping down whatever had grown up naturally in the vicinity before. A guy next door to where I used to live simply poisoned all of “his’ frogs in the pond outside his house because they sang when they mated in the spring. He had thought he was buying silent water.

This raises the thorny question of what counts as a nature experience for the sake of satisfying the supposed biophilic psychological need.

I always find discussion of a “return to land communities” unrealistically romantic. Life on the farm and life in the woods is harsh. Not having a reliable water and sewer system is decidedly unromantic and can reduce happiness, certainly. I wonder about the practicality of such visions of the good life. To take an example, Wendell Berry’s agro-romanticism is seductive, but does he earn his living working his small family farm or through his writing and speaking?

So I think the resolution to these questions lies not in comparing land communities with pavement communities, but in evaluating how the psychological benefits of meeting biophilic needs can be met by building from and changing the communities that we already live in.

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