Does An Environmentalist Have To Be a Treehugger?

photo by David Bergman

photo by David Bergman

Am I biophilically challenged? And does that diminish my eco cred?

One of the talks I’ve given at recent conferences is titled “Nature in Cities/Cities in Nature,” and among the topics I discuss is biophilia. As defined by E.O. Wilson, who literally wrote the book, biophilia is “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms,” our genetically determined affinity as human beings with the natural world.

When I get to the biophilia section of my talk, I get personal. I “confess” that we don’t have any plants in our apartment, that I’m not exactly the great outdoors type (cue the Eva Gabor lines from the old TV show Green Acres “New York is where I’d rather stay. I get allergic smelling hay.”) and I don’t feel deprived if I don’t escape the supposed confines of the city. In fact, my wife and I often feel the opposite when we take a rare excursion to areas where trees outnumber lampposts.

So what to make of the common advice (sometimes admonishment) that we all need a bit of Henry Thoreau in us? (It’s worth noting, by the way, that Thoreau’s sojourn in his Walden Pond cabin was actually pretty short.) How should I react to an article like this recent one titled “Why your career needs a walk in the woods?

In my talk, I find two faults in this idea that you can only appreciate nature and only be a “real” environmentalist if you yearn for cold water showers and mosquito bites. One lies in the hair shirt back-to-the-earth philosophy that many treehuggers identify with and that, simultaneously, many non-treehuggers identify environmentalists with. I see no reason why that’s a prerequisite for appreciating nature.

Is it not possible that I might appreciate a tree or a squirrel MORE because I see them less frequently?  And more still when I see them within the concrete “jungle?”

The other fault is in the presumption that one can only find nature out in, well, nature. Seems a bit of a circular definition. One of the tenets of many environmental concepts is that humanity is not separate from nature and that it’s only when we regard ourselves as something apart from – and perhaps superior to – nature that we get into trouble ecologically.

If we are not separate from nature, then logically our cities are not unnatural. They are no more unnatural than, say, a beaver’s dam or a termite mound. All three alter the previous landscape and put something conforming to the needs of a species in its place. In fact, you could argue that in some ways cities are more natural than a termite mound or a beehive since the latter habitats support only their builders while cities support many organisms beside humans.

Point being that cities are both natural and awash in ecosystems, and one needn’t leave a city to fulfill biophilic or even treehugger-ly needs. So don’t revoke my enviro status in light of my rampant urbanism.

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One Response to Does An Environmentalist Have To Be a Treehugger?

  1. kim lopez says:

    Nice article. If you look around while in the city, you can find enough nature to satisfy. Actually look up. There will always be sky above you. 🙂

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