Wild About Biophilia

“No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” – David Attenborough

If you live in an urban environment, it can sometimes be difficult to feel connected to nature. And yet, while we may try to mould and shape them to fit our purposes, even our most urbanized cities contain space for other forms of life from city parks to backyard gardens and trees to even our pets and houseplants. Even with the environments we have the most control over—most of us choose to share our spaces with other living things. This affinity for other forms of life is known as biophilia.

Two children run through a field of flower seedheads.
Providing children with experiences in nature can increase biophilia. Photo by Philippe Degroote via Canva.

Biophilia isn’t just a concept that gives us warm, fuzzy feelings about the natural world. There is evidence that an affinity for nature provides us with positive benefits. Being in nature “takes us out of our heads” and lets us focus on things beyond our immediate circumstances—moving beyond our to-do lists to focus on the bigger picture. As I discussed a couple of months ago, nature can generate a sense of awe, which brings a host of mental benefits.

The mental health benefits of nature are well-documented. Time in nature reduces stress and anxiety and increases self-esteem. Scientists don’t know or agree on why we’re drawn to nature—teasing out the variables to figure this out is extremely complex. One thing is clear, biophilia doesn’t only benefit humans, it benefits the natural world as well. 

Kids fishing from rocks on the banks of a river. The river is misty, surrounded by green vegetation.
Spending time in nature provides us with mental health benefits. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Think about an office cubicle. Do you care about it? Like, truly, deeply care about it? If you work in a cubicle, you may or may not get satisfaction from your job and you probably have relationships with your coworkers. If someone knocked down your office building and built a new one in its place, would you care? Probably not. 

Now think about your nearest park or natural area. Would you care if someone wanted to destroy it to build a highway or an office building? Chances are, you’d probably have strong feelings about that. That biophilic connection drives us to protect natural spaces, As David Attenborough said, we conserve what we care about. The problem, of course, is in the details. Caring about a nice lawn is not the same as caring about a native grassland. 

This problem is exacerbated by the polar opposite of biophilia: biophobia. Where biophilia is an affinity for nature, biophobia is a fear or revulsion of nature. The connections we feel towards nature are often formed as children. Kids who have positive experiences in nature carry those experiences forward as adults. Likewise, if children have or perceive negative experiences in nature, their biophobia will continue as adults. 

Biophobia matters for a couple of reasons. First, biophobic adults are less likely to care about the loss of wild species and spaces and may even advocate for their destruction. Second, biophobia may cause the spread of misinformation and the spread of sensationalized stories about wildlife and natural habitats. 

Biophilia is just one concept that describes our feelings of connection to the world around us. Expanding on those ideas, environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined some related terms including soliphilia—the love of interconnected place and solastalgia—the sorrow we feel when the broader environment is negatively impacted. For many people, solastalgia encompasses the feelings of loss we experience because of climate change. The grief and dread that comes from seeing the sky turn orange from forest fire smoke is a form of solastalgia. 

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco is pictured against a dull orange sky caused by smoke from wildfires.
Climate change can create solastalgia and cause negative mental health. Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Solastalgia and biophobia can seem like daunting obstacles to address, but the solutions come from their opposites. Helping people, and especially children, have positive experiences in nature reinforces biophilia and creates connections and care for the natural world. Likewise, investing in our care of the places we love, by taking action to conserve and nurture the natural world can help defeat solastalgia. 

Many people have articulated the link between how we experience nature and how we care about it. If we want to protect the natural world, maybe the best thing we can do is to go for a nature walk. And bring a friend.