Most city folk think they don’t have access to nature or need to travel somewhere to get to nature but they are dead wrong.
I have made a short video summarizing Emma Marris’ excellent TED Talk. Please take a moment to watch it and read below for a slightly more in-depth look at her points.
As I summarized the main points of Emma Marris’ excellent talk, the argument seemed so obvious to me.
I felt like I was repeating something everyone already knows…but no one practices.
A truth that is so self-evident that we almost forget it’s true.
That point is, in a nutshell, that humankind is not separate from nature but a part of nature and it follows then that natural places are all around us.
What requires emphasizing is the impact humans have had on all corners of the earth, even those we consider to be very wild.
Also, while it may seem obvious that the “weeds” growing in an abandoned lot are in fact a part of nature, there are probably more species of weed than you realize which support an unknown number of insect species and microbes in the soil. The insects probably support bird species and so on.
The problem Emma emphasizes in this talk is not about our influence on nature, it is about our attitude towards these new ecosystems as if they are trash and not natural.
We must teach our kids that these ecosystems are natural, that many species live and thrive in them, and that our children can touch and play in these ecosystems.
This may be the only way to regain our connection with nature as a species.
Take-home points at a glance:
- Man has influenced every centimeter of the planet on way or another.
- If you define nature as something separate from humans, there is no nature left.
- Nature should be defined as anywhere that life thrives, where multiple species exist.
- Most kids think there are no natural areas near them and thus they don’t spend time in nature. This is false and we should teach kids to touch and play in the nature that is all around.
No places are “natural” the way we define it
“Wilderness where the hand of man has not set foot”
Although, Emma Marris doesn’t use this quote, it’s the first thing that comes to mind for me when I listen to her talk.
The main thread of her talk is that she fundamentally disagrees with this quote!
Her first point is that there are no places that haven’t been influenced by people.
That’s right, none.
One reason is climate change. People have influenced the composition of the atmosphere and that affects all places on earth.
And if you define nature as something separate from man, then there is no nature anymore (Emma references “The End of Nature” by Bill Mckibben).
But why should nature be separate from man?
While it’s true that there are places that may remind us nature the way it’s “supposed” to be and that are far less impacted by our day-to-day activities, (like Yellowstone, the Mongollian Step, the Great Barrier Reef) ecosystems in these places have still been massively affected by humans.
For example, when humans first came to North America about 15,000 years ago, they hunted and drove to extinction large megafauna like the mastodon or saber tooth cats. Removing a large animal from an ecosystem produces ripple effects throughout the ecosystem.
Thus, humans have had profoundly influenced nature for a very long time.
But what about places that truly “wild”? Like remote areas of the Amazon?
Emma addresses this specifically, because she was just deep in the Amazon where she found indigenous tribes that have been living and hunting and influencing the ecosystems there in big ways for thousands of years.
But does that mean these places are not part of nature?
So where is nature?
Everywhere, of course.
We cannot define nature as somewhere that is untouched by humans because that would mean nature is gone.
Emma suggests we define nature simply by the presence of multiple species, by the presence of thriving life.
When we define it this way, we see nature nearly everywhere, even in empty lots overgrown with weeds as there can be dozens of different species of weeds supporting multiple insect species.
Emma goes on to argue that these empty lots in the middle of cities that are overgrown with weeds are more wild than a national park because national parks are heavily managed!
Species are removed, trees are planted, fires are suppressed, fires are started, etc.
“It takes a lot of work to make these places look untouched!”
Time to get out more
The problem with going to pristine wilderness areas and national parks is that you can’t do anything there, especially from a kid’s point of view. You can’t climb the trees, fish, take home pinecones, etc.
So these places are actually not the best places to take your kids.
According to a survey by the Nature Conservancy on young people, only 2 out of 5 spend time outdoors at least once a week.
The most common reason why people didn’t spend time outside was that “there are no natural areas near my home.”
Yet, 71% of people in the US live within a 10 minute walk of a city park.
There’s also your backyard, an urban creek, an empty lot.
EVERYONE lives near nature.
We’ve just forgotten where to see it.
Love and Touch Your Local Novel Ecosystems
“Novel ecosystems” is a term for these ecosystems that spring up unexpected places like an abandoned urban lot, a regrown agricultural field, timber fields that are no longer managed, etc.
These ecosystem are often dominated by non-native species are not like any ecosystem we’ve seen before.
To make your own novel ecosystem, all you have to do is stop mowing your lawn!
In fact, a Finish ecologist did this and found 375 plant species, including 2 endangered species, growing in his yard after a few years.
So what is the solution to our (and our children’s’) growing disconnect with nature?
Emma offers two solutions:
- Do not define nature as somewhere that is untouched.
- We have to let children touch nature because that which is untouched is unloved.
We too often think of nature as somewhere that people aren’t. In fact, most kids don’t spend time outside because they think there are no natural areas near them.
But entire ecosystems thrive in unexpected places, often in the middle of cities.
These areas are truly more natural than national parks because national parks are heavily managed to make them appear to be “untouched”.
Furthermore, these “novel ecosystems” are better for kids because they can touch and play there whereas a national park may be restricted in what you can do (e.g. climb trees, take pine cones home, fish).
It’s important we give our children an appreciation for the nature that is all around us, the nature that is truly natural, by letting them touch and play with nature.
Otherwise they will have no connection to nature at all.