A Growing Fear of Nature Could Hasten Its Destruction

Scientists are worried that modern life is aggravating biophobia.

Child in the woods
Farah Nosh / Getty

This article was originally published by Hakai Magazine.

When Masashi Soga was growing up in Japan, he loved spending time outside catching insects and collecting plants. His parents weren’t big fans of the outdoors, but he had an elementary-school teacher who was. “They taught me how to collect butterflies, how to make a specimen of butterflies,” Soga recalls. “I enjoyed nature quite a lot.”

That early exposure helped foster Soga’s appreciation for nature, he says, and today Soga is an ecologist at the University of Tokyo. Soga specializes in the psychological benefits of nature. He studies how people’s interactions with nature affect their attitude toward it, and his research contributes to the growing body of scientific literature showing how spending time outside has a positive effect on people’s well-being.

Within Soga’s field, research on biophilia—which explores the consequences of humans’ affinity for the natural world—is more extensive than studies of biophobia, the fear of nature. But in a new opinion paper, Soga and a team of researchers argue that biophobia is a growing phenomenon that seems to be increasing with urban development. They go a step further, positing that biophobia is being reinforced and proliferated through society, which can have harmful consequences for people’s physical and mental health. Existing research already suggests that people who are biophobic are less likely to support conservation efforts, meaning growing biophobia could hurt wild ecosystems as well.

To prevent or even reverse biophobia, it’s important to understand how it begins. The researchers’ concept of a “vicious cycle of biophobia” is based on the premise that humans tend to fear pain and seek to avoid it. Negative reactions like disgust can also lead to avoidance behavior.

When a person begins to view nature as something to be avoided—because of direct experience, family or friends, or the media—it sets the stage for biophobia, write Soga and his colleagues. Over time, this may cause someone to avoid nature or, worse, try to eliminate it. The person’s progressively infrequent experiences with nature can lead to a feeling of disconnection. And because people are generally afraid of the unknown, this can feed into the phobia.

Even just one person’s phobia has worrisome implications, the researchers say. If a person lacks the knowledge to interact with wildlife safely, or never learns to tell the difference between approachable and potentially dangerous species, aside from avoiding nature, they become ignorant of the natural world. This ignorance often leads to sharing sensationalist stories and spreading misinformation. The result is growing biophobia at the societal level and fewer people interacting with nature. And, because people are unlikely to protect something they fear, the end result is environmental degradation.

To reverse the cycle, the researchers say, education is essential. Children are especially impressionable, and early exposure to nature in a safe environment, such as with a schoolteacher or parent, could change their attitude. Parents’ behaviors have a big influence on kids too, Soga says.

Outside school, educational-outreach programs at places like museums and parks can boost people’s knowledge about nature. Naturalist-guided walks or activities like gardening can provide firsthand positive interactions. In places where it’s not easy to access nature, Soga suggests that virtual reality can play a role.

Creative solutions will be necessary because as cities grow bigger and denser, accessing green space is becoming difficult for many, especially those in low-income communities, says Linda Powers Tomasso, an environmental-health researcher specializing in human-nature interactions at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston, who was not involved with the study. What used to be routine daily interactions with nature are disappearing, which is negatively affecting people’s attention span, physical-activity level, and resilience to stress, she says—not to mention the spiritual benefits of connecting with something larger than themselves.

While Powers Tomasso “absolutely agrees” with the researchers’ ideas, she notes another mindset between biophilia and biophobia that leads to the same consequences as biophobia: indifference. “If you don’t care about something, you’re not going to take that next step to protect it,” she says. That’s why education, nature mentorship, and making natural places and urban green spaces welcoming and accessible are so important for conservation and human well-being, she says.

“We only protect and care for what we know, what we love,” Powers Tomasso says. “If we don’t have an opportunity to get to know something, we will never develop that sense of love.”