“Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal – each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in seawater.
“This is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one- to the many- celled stage, first developed circulatory system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea.”
from ‘The Sea Around Us’, Rachel Carson, 1951. Found in ‘The Sea’, Lapham’s Quarterly Vol VI, No. 3, Summer 2013.
I’ve lived in my head in virtuality for twenty years, and in writing for most of my life, but it’s only recently that I’ve tried living in my head in meditation. As I experiment with various approaches, the teacher I like best is Jon Kabat-Zinn. I love his advice to breathe as if your life depended on it (because it does).
Webcam bird rescue shows how quickly our attraction to nature can turn sour
The proliferation of webcams streaming live feeds has brought wild animals directly onto our screens, sometimes from thousands of miles away. Watching on the web in real time, we can peer into nests, hover over watering-holes, and gaze into zoos. But when something bad happens – an intrinsic part of the wild nature we’re watching – is there anything more going on behind our emotional reactions to end the suffering?
In a recent article in the New York Times, Jon Mooallem reported on a painful drama concerning a family of bald eagles nesting in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has a live webcam feed to enable nature lovers across the world to lurk unseen as the chicks are raised. But this is real life and prettiness cannot be guaranteed. The DNR made this very clear in two disclaimers on its home page. Viewer discretion is advised and content may not be suitable for younger viewers, it said. The warning was made even more explicit:
This is live video of wild birds in the natural process of raising their young. Life and death struggles occur all the time in the natural world. DNR staff will monitor this camera and will evaluate incidents as they occur, but we do not plan to, nor do we condone, any interference with this nest or its occupants.
The DNR soon found itself in a difficult position: increasing anxiety about the failing health of one of the eagle chicks (nicknamed Snap by its adoring viewers) led to an outpouring of concern until eventually the DNR gave in and went to the rescue. “It was badly injured — most likely trampled accidentally by one of its parents,” Mooallem reported. “It had a severely fractured wing and a systemic infection. There was no chance of recovery. Snap had to be euthanised.”
A webcam set up to bring pleasure to its audience and attract donations to support the programme had opened a ghastly window to the real red-in-tooth-and-claw world of nature, where creatures get hurt and die.
As one woman put it, she wasn’t “up for that learning experience”. But if we’re so keen on nature and how it makes us feel, why did all the webcam watchers feel so distressed when it started to go wrong? Beyond one explanation of anthropomorphism, another could be biophobia – a fear of the natural world.
Natural turn offs
In most cases, images of animals have a beneficial effect on us, says Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist at Yale University. He believes images of animals often provoke satisfaction, pleasure, stimulation and emotional interest. For philosopher Paul Shepard, seeing animals in ornamentation, decoration and art, may lead us to experience “the tug of attention to animals as the curved mirror of ourselves”.
But sometimes we respond fearfully not only to certain living things (most notably spiders, snakes and bugs) but also to some natural situations which might contain hidden dangers and be difficult to escape from, says psychologist Roger Ulrich, writing inThe Biophilia Hypothesis. It is this that he describes as biophobia.
Just as positive encounters with nature can have calming effects,argues Ulrich, it follows that the opposite should result in negative effects such as anxiety – something that the many nature centres and wildlife reserves that manage live webcam feeds will be aware of.
Webcams allow us to watch real animals with an unprecedented level of intimacy. But the unrealistic empathy they can create has the potential to provoke real distress when it goes wrong. And this is where it seems we’re only human.
A year ago today I jumped out of academia Do I regret it? Not one bit! I may have much less money now, but at last I have the head-space to write what I want.
I’m in this position because we’re in a recession. It’s painful for many but for a few it can be very enabling. For young colleagues eager to try new ideas, it can blow open the doors of tradition and create new opportunities, and for older people such as myself, it offers the chance to try a new path.
So when my university announced a voluntary severance package, I leapt at the chance and applied. Six months later, on 30th June 2013 and a fortnight before my 62nd birthday, I left.
In the last twelve months I’ve written for Aeon, been offered a column at The Conversation, and had a piece accepted by Orion. I’ve been republished in Slate, Mashable, The Guardian and other places. I’ve been experimenting at Medium, joining in with its adventures around new ways to do publishing. And, of course, ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ has opened all kinds of interesting doors and brought me to an exciting EU project about Cyberparks, plus all kinds of invitations to speak and consult.
But I’m not entirely out of touch with academic life. My Visiting Fellowship at Bournemouth University lets me keep up with developments and meet interesting people, and I’ve worked on a number of scholarly projects. But these days I principally think of myself as a writer, not a Professor.
According to the author Annie Dillard “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” For too many years I spent my days in a world which never quite fitted me. Now, I’m creating a life of my own, and it feels just fine.
I’ll be speaking at Brunel University on 17th June 2014 at the 2nd Joint Researching the Arts/Social Sciences Conference for Research Students, organised jointly by Brunel and the University of Westminster. It’s my first visit to Brunel and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s also a great chance to share some stories from my new book. I think it’s open to anyone so if you’re local why not enquire about coming along?
Technobiophilia: stories of nature in the wired world ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ (Bloomsbury 2013) is the result of an eight-year inquiry by Sue Thomas into the relationship between the internet and the natural world. It was a transdisciplinary journey which began with the very first days of ARPAnet, fell into biophilia, discovered environmental psychology, wandered through the Web, trod the hinterlands of Second Life, and paddled up the Twitter stream. On the way, she formulated new connections between disciplines and identified controversial insights into digital well-being.