Monday, February 4, 2008

Biophilia vs. Videophilia, round 3 of many

Your mom didn’t need a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Environmental Management to say, “You kids turn off that TV and get outside -- now!” But biologists Patty Zaradic and Oliver Pergams have provided today’s parents with one.

They’re saying pretty much what mom did, but they came to it in a roundabout way. After Pergams (now at UIC) left commodities trading and got a Ph.D., he came across an unnerving fact: for the last 20 years Americans have been visiting their national parks less and less. From just 0.2 visits per person per year in the late 1930s, attendance rose to a peak of 1.2 visits per person per year in 1987. Since 1988, it’s dropped steadily, and is now back to the Carter-era level of 0.9.

If you’re just back from a crowded weekend at Indiana Dunes or Yosemite, you might say it’s about time. But think about the long term: most people who care about nature grew up spending time outdoors with loved ones. A kid on a family vacation at Mammoth Cave has a better chance of understanding nature’s beauty and importance than one who fears (or ignores) the tall weeds in her back yard. Zaradic (of Bryn Mawr College) and co-author Pergams think this decline might be a “check engine light” for the future of the environmental movement. Now they've published even more reasons to think so, extending beyond the peculiarities of national parks.

As many forms of outdoor recreation decline, what's gone up? Screen time. “The average person in the US went from spending 0 h/year on the internet in 1987 to spending 174 h/year on the internet in 2003,” they write, “and from spending 0 h/year playing video games in 1987 to spending 90 h/year in 2003.” All those hours came out of some other 1987 activity -- sleeping, chatting with friends, playing Dungeons and Dragons, watching TV, or blowing milkweed seeds into the wind. Pergams and Zaradic don't know for sure, but they're especially worried about that last one.

The correlation's impressive and it's a zero-sum game 'cause we only get 24 hours a day. Lotsa details (plus links to their journal articles) at and this Chicago Wilderness article.

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