The Crisis of Disconnection – Reversing Nature Deficit Disorder

Since the industrial revolution, the development of a lifestyle lived predominantly indoors has resulted in less contact with the natural world. In the USA this equates to less than five minutes of free-time spent outdoors. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 2006) found comparable results for Australia with less than 19 minutes spent outdoors each day. Most free time is spent indoors with the major recreational activity being audio-visual media (ABS, 2006).

Since the industrial revolution, the development of a lifestyle lived predominantly indoors has resulted in less contact with the natural world. In the USA this equates to less than five minutes of free-time spent outdoors. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 2006) found comparable results for Australia with less than 19 minutes spent outdoors each day. Most free time is spent indoors with the major recreational activity being audio-visual media (ABS, 2006).

Explanations for this startling trend include the fact that as humanity has become more educated, work has become more indoor-oriented and living more sub-urban. As a result humanity has become more human centric, also termed anthropocentric, in focus. Hidden within these statistics is the fact that many people report that they spend little to no time out-of-doors and that women spend less time outside than men.

Research focusing on young people has indicated that young people are even more disconnected from the natural world (Rydberg, 2007). Leading some writers to call this disconnection a crisis termed “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Young people spend more time indoors connected to electronic outlets than they do out-of-doors. This trend of decreased time outdoors is continuing. Between 1997 and 2003 the proportion of 9-12 year olds who spent time playing outside declined by 50 percent.

The role of the Natural world in Wellness

The Western philosophical discipline has long recognised the positive relationship between perceptions of wellness and feelings of connection to the Natural World. Over the last twenty years researchers have gradually been identifying the human health benefits attributed to re-connecting with the natural environment. The significance of feeling connected to natural environments, families and friends are described as a foundational requirement for human health and wellbeing. Leading some researchers to recognise that environmental wellness should be considered an essential element of wellness research. In essence then the more a person feels disconnected from the natural world the less likely s/he will be functionally well.

Also, findings indicate that the experience of disconnection from the natural world means that a person is less likely to be committed to positively interact with and protect the natural world. Hence, environmental loss and unsustainable carbon fuel energy consumption.

Caring for the Natural World

Sustainability has become more than a system of resource management. Any real change in sustainable practice will most likely happen at an individual level, through changes in attitudes and everyday behaviour. For this change to happen, an individual will need to feel connected to the natural world.

From this ecocentric perspective, the natural world is not separate from humanity; it is at the very core of humanity. Human beings can only really understand themselves by being engulfed in the natural world. As much as we try, humanity cannot be separated from nature.

By accepting this condition and returning to nature, experientially recognising that we are interconnected to nature, we will rekindle values that lead to caring and the commitment to look after the environment. If people feel psychologically connected to the natural world, they willingly make sacrifices in accord with sustainable practices.

Feelings of connection, unity or being a part of the natural world are a causal step to emotional care and behavioural commitment, to wanting to protect the natural world, to being willing to endure sacrifice in order to look after the natural world. A person will only undertake sustainable practices out of commitment to look after the natural world when he or she feels connected to, or part of the natural world.

In summary, theoretical perspectives indicate that feelings of connection to the natural world are essential for holistic experiences of wellness. In turn these experiences trigger a desire to protect the natural world which one would assume leads to greater feelings of wellness. However, theory also suggests that young people are more disconnected from the natural world than ever before in history.

Caring for Each Other

‘We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.’ Leopold.

Feeling a sense of belonging to the broader natural community (nature) may be a prerequisite for increasing environmental protection. Fostering ecological behaviour through expanding our sense of self, for ‘if the self is expanded to include the natural world, behaviour leading to destruction of this world will be experienced as self-destruction’

Recent research by social psychologists on interpersonal closeness, perspective taking, and altruism validates this idea. The extent to which one includes another person as part of the self is a core operationalisation of relationship closeness. Further, as relationship closeness increases, so does empathy and willingness to help. Similarly, acts that lead to a greater self–other overlap, such as perspective taking, also increase willingness to help. Among humans, then, expanding one’s sense of self does lead to more empathic and altruistic behaviour. In the empirical literature, however, this logic has never been extended to the context of the natural world.

Life and Work Satisfaction Increased With A Sense of Community With Nature

Modern Western culture undermines our sense of belonging and a sense of being in community with nature. Ecopsychologists argue that modern life has led to a greatly decreased self-nature overlap, and that this fundamental change in our relationship to nature explains, at least in part, our slow response to the modern environmental crisis.

The magnitude of these modern changes should not be underestimated. For instance, for 350,000 generations humans lived close to the land as hunter–gatherers, and for that we had a sense of belonging, place, and feeling embedded within the broader natural world that is an integral characteristic of those cultures. As illustrated in a description of an Inuit boy growing up in Northern Canada:

“You must be in constant contact with the land and the animals and the plants. When Gamaillie was growing up, he was taught to respect animals in such a way as to survive from them. At the same time, he was taught to treat them as kindly as you would another fellow person.”

Only since the industrialisation and urbanisation of the Enlightenment have we moved away from close contact with nature.

One consequence of industrialisation and urbanisation is that we characteristically spend increasing amounts of time indoors in both our leisure and work life. In fact, we spend 90% of our lives within buildings. If time spent indoors correlates with people’s experiential sense of feeling connected to nature, this would provide initial support for ecologists’ claim about the structural effects of modern life on individuals’ sense of feeling connected to nature.

Most important to note is that a sense of feeling connected to nature has now been shown to predict life and work satisfaction.

The $14Billion US Self Help Industry Feeding the “I” self and Heading in the Wrong Direction.

Focusing on ‘‘I’’ leads people to feel less connected to nature. High objective self-awareness (OSA) scores have been shown to be linked to high self-focus, and subscription in some form or another to the self-help industry where individuals think that something about themselves needs improving. This sense of self as separated from nature and others (something is wrong with “I”) becomes a self feeding loop whereby the more one searches for help the further one is separated from nature and the more one is separated from nature the lower becomes the life satisfaction score. This is seen in a massive rise in the estimated $6-10 billion dollar global yoga industry in which most teachers are either themselves obsessive about the “I” and therefore “self” improvement or inexperienced to the extent that the ability to put a foot behind their head legitimises them to give “self help” life coaching.

Individuals lacking connection to nature are doing so in response to heightened OSA (objective self-awareness) even though they maybe environmentally aware they are doing so from an angry or disconnected motive which in itself is the cause of ill health and violent reaction from non environmentalists. Individuals with pro-environmental internal characteristics demonstrate low OSA but act toward nature as it is an extension of the self.

Self-improvement represents a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S. alone. In addition to high revenues, self-help also has a high recidivism rate, with the most likely current purchaser of a self-help book being the same person who already purchased one in the last 18 months. This begs the question of how much good these self-help books and seminars are doing for consumers. If they are so effective at solving our problems, why do they usually result in a continuing stream of self-help purchases?

The answer is clear. If you are not perfect already, how will you ever be so?

While the habit of finding error in business workings might lead to business success the same is not true in human nature. There is truly nothing to change, or nothing that can be changed in human nature. We can express and repress different character traits. We cannot eliminate any.

Self-help books frequently follow the religious model of eliminate the bad. There is an underlying theme that runs through most poorly thought through advocacy that if you do x,y,z those negative character traits will magically disappear. This creates a permanent state of inadequacy in the individual because no matter how many books or seminars they attend, those negative “bad” qualities still lurk close to the surface. The books are then followed by a train of formulaic subsequent manuals for happiness, weight loss, success, money, or spirituality by the very same authors, fueling the 6.1% average annual growth rate projected by Marketdata Enterprise Inc. The New Statesman’s Barbara Gunnell forecasts a secure future for positive psychology, noting that “never has an age been so certain that it deserves not just freedom from distress, but positive well-being” and that “the worried well with a belief in their right to feel good are a lucrative market.”

To further exacerbate the potential for entrapment by those seeking to raise their OSA (become more self aware, obsessed or developed) the credentials of self-help authors are uneven, and research has documented the noticeable absence of empirical evidence supporting the advice so copiously pumped out to the masses.

The origins of the self-help genre have been attributed to Victorian phrenologist George Combe’s The Constitution of Man (1828), followed by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Compensation. Dale Carnegie, famous for his books How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living still holds a top-ranking spot on Amazon.com to this day.

In the 1950s and 60s, Abraham Maslow “proclaimed the supremacy of the self-actualising person, who realises the fullness of his or her nature – without doing harm to others, or course – and lives as happily as one can on earth,” notes Algis Valiunas. Among the more modern offerings, Tony Robbins has raked in $80 million in a year and John Gray’s New York Times best-seller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus “outsold almost every other book in the known universe except the Bible” claims Valiunas in The New Atlantis. In his particularly eloquent and scathing commentary, “The Science of Self-Help,” Valiunas points out that “this is the scientific fruit of those who consider themselves not only the wisest of our time but evidently the wisest of all time,” with teaching that is “sensible, unexceptional. It is also obvious and insipid. Accept imperfection and pain. Do some jogging. Slow down and count your breaths.”

Credentials of Self-Help Authors and Recurring Themes Among Best-Sellers

Norah Dunbar and Gordon Abra conducted a survey of current self-help literature, with 2 aims: first, to determine whether the people advising the masses had the appropriate credentials to do so, and second, to identify common themes among top selling self-help books.

Using Amazon.com to identify the most popular self-help authors by searching terms including “marriage”, “relationships”, and “communication,” the researchers identified 31 authors. Among them, two were medical doctors and 19 held doctorates, mostly PhDs in psychology, with two in linguistics or education. Seven held a master’s degree in social work, counselling psychology/family therapy, or theology, with one in film studies. Two authors had no formal education, and one had a bachelor’s degree in Home Economics. “All degrees were from accredited institutions except one. Gray’s degree is from the unaccredited and now defunct Columbia Pacific University,” state Dunbar and Abra.

Another component of this query was whether the authors of popular self-help books used research published in academic journals to support their advice. The majority did not, relying solely or primarily on anecdotal evidence: “Few of the popular authors are basing their opinions about communications on empirically-tested research findings. Fewer than 20% had based their findings on a sustained program of research and less than half had published even one article in peer-reviewed journals or books.”

With regard to overarching themes, the researchers identified five. The first was the use of banking or financial metaphors and analogies, such as “love bank”, “account balances”, “relationship bank account,” and other references amounting to debits and credits to relationship satisfaction.

Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages (and all the subsequent variations thereof, such as the singles edition, men’s edition, and so on), is quoted: “I am convinced that keeping the emotional love tank full is as important to a marriage as maintaining the proper oil level is to an automobile. Running your marriage on an empty ‘love tank’ may cost you even more than trying to drive your car without oil.”

A second theme dealt with creating buckets or types in which to neatly categorise people, where the reader is supposed to find their category and follow the advice tied to that category or type. For example, dichotomous types were found in Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (male and female) and in Lerner’s book, which the researchers say “places women into two types: ‘bitches’ and ‘nice ladies.’” A third commonality was the step format, where the authors offered simple steps to implement solutions. They note that seven seems to be the “magic number” of steps, with The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, The Proven 7-Step Program for Saving Your Marriage, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

A fourth common element was emphasis on childhood for past models, where childhood experiences were major determinants of current relationship behaviour. The fifth theme involved offering the reader exercises to complete.

A Lack of Evidence

Bibliotherapy is clearly cheaper than counselling. There is minimal risk to the consumer who invests in one book. Financially, self-help books are accessible to a greater number of people than life coaches and counsellors, and there is arguably more anonymity in a book purchase than a relationship with a local therapist. This can be especially appealing to people with stigmatising problems.

However, it’s difficult to test the effectiveness of these books. Researchers Norah Dunbar and Gordon Abra cite Rosen, stating that two main conclusions that can be drawn from bibliotherapy literature: “First, techniques applied successfully by a therapist are not always self-administered successfully,” and “second, the therapeutic value of a self-help book can only be determined by testing the specific instructions to be published under the conditions in which they are to be given. The fact that people are free to read all or only part of a particular book, and follow the book’s advice to varying degrees makes it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of self-help books for their therapeutic value.”

Corporate Self-Help

In addition to the typical female, middle-class, educated consumer buying the majority of self-help products, the corporate wallet has opened up to the happiness and success industry. In recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings, publicly traded Franklin Covey, whose mission is “enabling greatness in people and organisations everywhere,” warns shareholders of the risks of an “intensely competitive” industry with easy entry by new competitors. Franklin Covey sells training and consultancy on topics including leadership, execution, productivity, sales performance, customer loyalty, and educational improvement. In the New Statesman’s article, “The Happiness Industry,” a psychologist challenges whether the best interests of workers are served where corporations are paying the bills of coaches and consultants.

Egalitarianism versus Reality

In additional to the presumption of autonomy, there seems to be a certain egalitarian assumption underlying the demand for self-help: that the end result being sought is attainable to virtually all. Counters Valiunas: “Beauty, size, strength, health, energy, disposition, verbal or spatial or mathematical or emotional intelligence, ability in music or painting or oratory simply are not parcelled out equally- and in any chosen activity, not even a single-minded devotion or expert training and wholesome diet can ensure that all will come out even in the end. Natural inequalities will always make for differences between one person and the next, and these differences will always be cause for unhappiness.”

However, Valiunas praises Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which instead of offering quick five or seven step fixes or dropping people into buckets such as genius and non-genius, suggests that years of hard work and deliberate practice can lead to self-improvement. “That does not mean everyone will be above average, as the old joke goes. It does mean that the average should rise, and everyone willing to put in the work be able more fully to realise his/her potential, if not necessarily their dreams.” However dreams of the perfect relationship, the perfect career, and the perfect weight continue to sell off the shelves.

References

Dunbar, N. and Abra, Gordon (2006). Popular Self-Help Books on Communications in Relationships: Who’s Writing them and What Advice Are They Giving? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dresden International Congress Centre, Dresden, Germany, Jun 16, 2006.

Conclusions

That human activity has harmed the natural world has been well documented. Deforestation, desertification of large areas of land and oceans, burgeoning landfills, reductions in biodiversity, and the ill effects associated with increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have all been linked to human action. Many reasons have been presented for why humans have engaged in this destructive behaviour. One perennial theme that has gained recent attention links these environmental problems to the way that modern individuals conceive of their relationship to nature. Developing these ideas further, this author focuses on the modern conception of the object “self” and the rapidly expanding ludicrously OSA increasing “self help” industry which, supported by coaches, therapists, psychologists alike stands on the assumption that the “individual” can rise above the pack, reach new levels of “individuation” and thereby claim happiness as nirvana. It is, if one thinks it though, flawed.

We are a part of nature. We cannot be separate from it. What happens in nature happens in us. We are evolving as nature is evolving. We are seeking balance as nature seeks balance. We are fighting parasites and drought as nature does. It is in the discovery of the perfection of self as it is, that we remove the separations between ourselves and nature and in doing so, between ourselves and others. In this way, we grow as humans and as a community in which nature is an equal member.

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