Nature Deficit Disorder

Americans seem to know less and care less than ever about the natural world in their environs. As evidenced by the popularity of “action-oriented” nature shows and films about far away places, they are more interested in the cats of the African plains, the penguins of Antarctica, or the crocs and reefs of the tropics than they are about the birds, trees and flowers of their home towns.

Part of the problem is that much of the existing education about nature is focused on endangered species, which few will ever see; the tropical rain forests, which few will ever visit; and dinosaurs, which no one will ever see. Even high school biology, which once included in its curriculum, the study of one’s local visible plants and animals, is now dominated by microbiology, the study of living things that cannot be seen with the naked eye. While knowledge of microbiology may be useful in that there are many careers available in this field, (e.g., lab jobs working with DNA, cells, viruses and bacteria) most students graduate with little or no understanding of what I would term “macrobiology”- the study of organisms larger than 1 mm, i.e., what you can see, hear or “capture” on a land or water nature outing.

I believe that nature can and should be viewed through local prisms. In order to encourage people to view the natural world in this way, it is important to stimulate enthusiasm at an early age, both within and outside the classroom. Standardized exams should include local ecological issues, habitats and species. Elementary students should know 100 local plants and 100 local animals, middle school students should know 200 of each, and high school students at least 300 of each. Target lists can be compiled with input from a local naturalist and include categories such as the most common species, the largest, most colorful, most invasive, most dangerous and most ecologically important.

Outside of the classroom, exposure to the natural world can take place through school, neighborhood or town nature clubs led by local naturalists, parents or teachers. The “Biodiversity Day” movement that Edward O. Wilson and I started in 1998, (and was continued by the state of Massachusetts’s Executive Office of Environmental Affairs from 2000-2005) lends itself to possible new and educational “sport”. Teams of naturalists from each grade could compete on a neutral site to find and correctly identify the greatest number of plants and animals within a set time. Just as sports teams have position players, nature teams could have specialists in birds, butterflies, woody plants, mammal tracks, fish, ferns and mushrooms.

The added bonus to getting young people to connect with nature is that it increases the likelihood that they will grow up to become “greener” citizens. It is my hope that if they do, they will learn to value the delicate balance of this planet and become more concerned about the compounding threats to this balance.