"Conserving Land for People" is the conservation mission of my employer, the Trust for Public Land. So there will likely be considerable concern at TPL and for other conservation non-profits in America over the findings of a study published in September's Journal of Environmental Management entitled: "Is love of nature in the US becoming love of electronic media?" Researchers Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, Smith Fellows with the Nature Conservancy's Society for Conservation Biology, report disturbing correlations between a 16 year trend of declining attendance at US National Parks and the proliferation of electronic entertainment choices.
"After 50 years of steady increase, per capita visits to US national parks have declined since 1988. This decline, coincident with the rise in electronic entertainment media, may represent a shift in recreation choices with broader implications for the value placed on biodiversity conservation and environmentally responsible behavior. We compared the decline in per capita visits with a set of indicators representing alternate recreation choices and constraints...Multiple linear regression of four of the entertainment media variables as well as oil prices explains 97.5% of this recent decline (r=0.975, multiple r2=0.950, adjusted multiple r2=0.925, SE=0.015, F=37.800, P<0.0001). We may be seeing evidence of a fundamental shift away from people's appreciation of nature (biophilia, Wilson 1984) to ‘videophilia,’ which we here define as “the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.” Such a shift would not bode well for the future of biodiversity conservation. "
I have noted the similar trend of declining attendance at outdoor living history museums here, and find it easy to credit statistics like this that reinforce my aversion to choosing a virtual reality over the natural world - though even I am drawn to the corpse light of the video screen, as this blog and the time I spend on it will attest.
The trouble is, all the hand wringing by mainstream conservationists - and apparently those decidedly outside the mainstream visitors to our National Parks - about how modern American culture rejects our wide open spaces for the internal worlds of computer, iPod and Playstation is not going to make biodiversity conservation any more relevant to the vast majority of Americans. Nor are our National Parks, as vital and significant as they may be, the only way that Americans can re-connect with the natural world.
The majority of us now live in urban and suburban settings. We learn about nature from The Discovery Channel or when deer browse the landscaping of our subdivisions. Think how many Americans flocked to The March of the Penguins documentary last year and what it must have represented to those with no direct experience of wildlife, let alone in that exotic place! Or explore a vacant city lot with children, and marvel at the pleasure they find not only amid the detritus of urban life but discovering the tangled vines, the brave flowers growing through cracks in concrete.
Conservationists make a mistake if we feel that the only way to build constituencies for our work is to get more people to recreate as we true believers do. We make the same mistake when we assume that those who live closest to the resource represent greater threats to its conservation through their "problematic behavior" than they do opportunities for sustainable natural resource management and local stewardship.
And frankly, I'm not so certain that what our national parks need are more visitors and their associated impacts. So long as we are not selling off our national heritage do to an assumption of its declining value as measured by declining attendance, there are some places that could use a bit of rest from all the hustle and bustle of homo sapiens sapiens, let alone the electronic noise that often accompanies them to campgrounds across the American wilderness.
CWCID: Garry Peterson at Resilience Science