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What’s biophilia? Are you biophilic?

January 29, 2013

How do you view the natural world around you?  Is it ‘capital’ for human utilization?  Is it something wild to be tamed?

Our Industrial Revolution manifested a socio-economic context born out of rapidly expanding industrial growth and imperial power. This not-to-distant past has shaped a culture that believed in the forward march of progress and civilization, in the ability of humans to harness the power of nature through science and technology. God had given humans (or at least Christians) dominion over nature – it was there to be controlled and exploited for human ends.

MDG : Green Economy and Forests REDD : hills of  burnt out brown and deforested land in Thailand

In this guest blog, Nadine Andrews explores a fundamental clash of values and ethical perspectives when it comes to our relationship with nature.

Biophilia values + intrinsic

On one side there are people who recognize that nature has intrinsic value, in and of itself, regardless of its usefulness or otherwise to humans. They care about individual plants and animals as much as they do ecosystems. People feel psychologically connected to and part of nature and seek to live with it. This has been called ‘biophilia’. Wild nature is to be revered; it is awe-inspiring and full of mystery.

nature trees in trees

In terms of ethics, human prioritization is not a given and so there will be situations when human interests don’t win out, and we act in service to other species, habitats or ecosystems. This is an eco-centric ethic. It is also the ethic which traditional cultures tend to live by and one that has allowed them to live sustainably for thousands of years.

Biophobia values + instrumental

On the other end of the spectrum are those who see nature in instrumental terms – it has value only in as much as it serves human needs and desires. If it’s in the way or otherwise inconvenient then the answer is to get rid of it. People perceive themselves as separate from nature, and regard humans as having primacy and superiority over nature.

Ego versus Eco

This way of seeing nature has been called ‘biophobia’ because, in contrast to biophilia, it is founded on a fear of nature, of its wildness and mystery, but it is also generated by greed. It is destructive and exploitative. Unfortunately for the planet, this mindset is dominant in our society – indeed it is this very mindset that has brought us to the point of ecological crisis.

It has been said: ‘Greed is the parasite of society’.  It is this dis-connected, fearful and greed-based biophilia that is parasitic to life itself.

A further characteristic of the instrumental mindset is how nature is thought about in the abstract as ‘biodiversity’ and so the suffering of individual plants and animals is often dismissed as relatively unimportant. This is essentially a utilitarian ethic – the overall good of the community trumps individual rights. What matters is not the means but the end outcome, measured by a totaling of gains minus losses. This approach underlies ecosystem services valuation. There is an argument that the commodifying and marketising of a common good and inherent life-quality such as nature corrupts and degrades it for financial gain.

nature spiders web

Who do we think we are?

Psychology research finds that there are 3 key aspects of human identity that influence our behavior towards the environment: (i) values, (ii) perceptions of who or what is part of our in-group and out-group, and (iii) how we cope with fears and threats brought on by environmental challenges. So for example:

  • Seeing nature as part of your in-group leads you to accord inherent value to nature and to treat it better
  • Concern with gaining power, status, financial success and external reward make you less likely to care about nature
  • People may cope with negative emotions triggered by environmental problems through various defense mechanisms such as denial, apathy, seeking diversions, limiting their exposure to information that may create anxiety, projecting blame or responsibility onto others, and by denigrating the out-group to try to justify negative behavior towards it

Where next?

So how do we overcome this clash of values? I don’t know. Acknowledging that this is what is going on is a start. However, every day brings yet more active bulldozers and chain-saws across Europe, across North America, across South America in fact across the globe – no part of Earth is truly safe from our biophobic mentality. 150,000 square kilometers of rainforest is destroyed each year (about the size of England and Wales) this is an awful lot of destruction in the name of progress: this is a deeply flawed worldview.

nature vandal

The terrible loss to wildlife directly affects our health and sense of wellbeing which is closely related to how connected we feel with each other and nature, as a substantial body of evidence is now proving. I think we inherently know civilization can be rather more evolved than it currently is.  Time to wake up and smell the coffee?

Are you biophilic or biophobic?

To explore ‘inspired by nature’ further, join the Face Book community here

To view the original blog post in its entirety and learn more about Nadine Andrews’ work see here

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 22, 2013 2:29 pm

    Great post. I was checking continuously this blog and I am
    impressed! Very useful info particularly the last part 🙂 I care
    for such info a lot. I was looking for this particular
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