Communing with Nature Less and Less

UIC Podcast
UIC Podcast
Communing with Nature Less and Less

News Release


[Writer] This is Research News from U-I-C, the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Today, Oliver Pergams, visiting research assistant professor in Biological Sciences talks about the decline in nature-related outdoor activities, as people around the world spend more of their time online or watching television.

Here’s Professor Pergams:

[Pergams] Patty Zaradic and I are both conservation biologists and several years ago, we decided that simply working on solving conservation biology problems without going to their causes wasn’t enough.  In other words, plants and animals don’t cause the problems; people do.  And unless we try to influence and understand people’s reasons for causing conservation problems, we were fighting a losing battle.  So we decided to look much more closely at people changing relationships with nature, why people were acting the way they were, and fundamental to all of this, how much people were actually coming in contact with nature.  This paper coming out in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, PNAS, is by far the most comprehensive and broad reaching of the three papers we’ve published on this so far.  In this paper, we tried to evaluate the extent to which people are visiting nature over time.  What we do here is we find as many time series, longitudinal sets of data, as we can that reflect their visitation with nature or involvement with nature.  As much as possible, these data record what people actually do, in other words how often they visit things like U.S. national parks and state parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management properties, natural areas in both the U.S. and other countries.  Specifically Japan and Spain were the ones we were able to find data for.  We also look at the number of various types of U.S. game licenses issued—hunting licenses, fishing licenses, duck stamps—as a pretty decent indicator of how much people go into nature, in contact with nature.  People rarely buy these kinds of licenses without actually doing something with them.  A whole set of indicators on camping—how much time people spend camping, and also backpacking and hiking, a set of indicators.  All of these things we used correlation analysis, both of the data itself and of the change from year to year to get rid of any skew effects.  The correlations we found were real and not just an artifact of the trend of the data.  And we found a lot of very, very significant and very high correlations and also a lot of very significant trends.

So, to cut to the results, the four variables with the greatest participation by people on an annual basis were visits to Japanese national parks, U.S. national parks, U.S. state parks and U.S. national forests.  And the average individual visited these properties between about three-quarters of a time a year and two and three-quarters times per year.  All four of these time series are in downtrends and linear regressions show ongoing losses of participation of about one percent to three percent per year.  The longest and most complete time series we’ve tested suggests that the typical declines in loss of participation nature began between 1981 and 1991.  In that ten year period, our proceeding of rates at one to 1.3 percent a year, so we’re losing typically one to 1.3 percent a year in participation, and the total to date based on that rate of loss is 18 to 25 percent.  So typically, we’re losing as much as a quarter of the participation nature from the peaks in the last twenty years.  There’s a minor countertrend with hiking and backpacking so day hikes went up slightly within that time period.  So these results were corroborated using the year to year change model, the difference model.  In other words, what I spoke about as a methodology of showing it wasn’t a trend effect.  It was a real effect.

What we have here is we have, I think, very substantial corroboration and evidence that people are indeed visiting nature less, that nature visitation peaked approximately 20 years ago, and that the trend is almost universal, especially in the U.S. and to what extent we were able to determine in other countries as well.  I think this has some very far reaching implications.  I think this is of enormous importance.  First off, it means that people will not be as interested in conservation in the future as they are today.  If this trend doesn’t change, if new generations are continuously exposed to less nature than previous generations, they’re not going to be as interested in nature when they get to be adults and they’re not going to support conservation as much.  Secondly, if in fact as in previous papers we’ve suggested, if in fact it’s true they’re substituting sedentary electronic activity—the internet, movies, video games—if in fact they’re substituting these types of sedentary activity for the much more active outdoor activities in nature, this has very broad reaching implications for people’s mental and physical health.  On the positive side, exposure to nature has lots of physical benefits and lots of mental benefits that have been documented in terms of spiritual, and mental and emotional satisfaction.  The negative side of the coin is that activities related to accessible electronic use have been shown to be very strongly connected with attentional disorder, with lack of organization, with poor academic performance.  And this is, of course, in additional to the overwhelming problems of obesity and poor health due to a sedentary lifestyle.  I think there are some extremely broad reaching implications to this study.  I think this provides a foundation that was so far lacking to the whole nature deficit disorder movement.  Previously, the evidence was largely antidotal, that people were going to nature less.  I think this is very strong corroboration that it is true and it is broad.

[Writer] Oliver Pergams is a visiting research assistant professor in Biological Sciences.

For more information about this research, go to, click on news releases and look for the release dated January 30, 2008.

This has been research news from UIC – the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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