Nature giving way to virtual reality

Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press Yahoo News 5 Feb 08;

As people spend more time communing with their televisions and computers, the impact is not just on their health, researchers say. Less time spent outdoors means less contact with nature and, eventually, less interest in conservation and parks.

Camping, fishing and per capita visits to parks are all declining in a shift away from nature-based recreation, researchers report in Monday's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Declining nature participation has crucial implications for current conservation efforts," wrote co-authors Oliver R. W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic.

"We think it probable than any major decline in the value placed on natural areas and experiences will greatly reduce the value people place on biodiversity conservation."

"The replacement of vigorous outdoor activities by sedentary, indoor videophilia has far-reaching consequences for physical and mental health, especially in children," Pergams said in a statement. "Videophilia has been shown to be a cause of obesity, lack of socialization, attention disorders and poor academic performance."

By studying visits to national and state park and the issuance of hunting and fishing licenses the researchers documented declines of between 18 percent and 25 percent in various types of outdoor recreation.

The decline, found in both the United States and Japan, appears to have begun in the 1980s and 1990s, the period of rapid growth of video games, they said.

For example, fishing peaked in 1981 and had declined 25 percent by 2005, the researchers found. Visits to national parks peaked in 1987 and dropped 23 percent by 2006, while hiking on the Appalachian Trial peaked in 2000 and was down 18 percent by 2005.

Japan suffered similar declines, the researchers found, as visits to national parks there dropped by 18 percent between 1991 and 2005.

There was a small growth in backpacking, but that may reflect day trips by some people who previously were campers, wrote Pergams and Zaradic. Pergams is a visiting research assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, while Zaradic is a fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program, Delaware Valley, in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

While fishing declined, hunting held onto most of its market, they found.

"This may be related to various overfishing and pollution issues decreasing access to fish populations, contrasted with exploding deer populations," they said.

The research was funded by The Nature Conservancy.

Scientists to Americans: Take a Hike!
Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Yahoo News 5 Feb 08;

"Take a hike!" isn’t just a rebuff. Now it's also a plea from environmental scientists. Researchers have found that people are enjoying the outdoors less than they used to, which may lead to decreased interest in protecting the environment.

Over the past 20 years, trips to U.S. parks have declined about 20 percent. In 2006, about 273,000 Americans visited a state or national park, down from about 287,000 people in 1987, according to a new study by conservation scientists Oliver Pergams of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Patricia Zaradic of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. This averages out to roughly 0.9 visits per person a year now, compared to 1.2 visits 20 years ago.

And it's not just park visits that are down, but almost every form of outdoor recreation, including camping, hunting and fishing.

The researchers blame this outdoor decline on a phenomenon they've termed videophilia — a pervasive preference for experiencing the world through electronic media rather than actually leaving the house.

"There's this fascination for virtual nature as opposed to the real thing," Zaradic told LiveScience. "We can't say for sure that this is the smoking gun cause [of the decline], but I think it's very, very closely related."

The only type of outdoor enjoyment that is on the rise is hiking. The average American now goes once every 10 years. If this sounds like a pitiful number, it's still an improvement over the rate in 1987: Back then, Americans hiked only once every 12.5 years.

The researchers speculate that the boost in hiking may result from the drop in camping — perhaps people who used to commit to an overnight trip have downgraded to day hikes.

All of these trends have the scientists worried.

"It makes a huge difference if people are going less and less," Zaradic said. "There's a whole set of research that shows people care more about conservation issues when they are exposed to nature."

Zaradic and Pergams fear that the less people feel dirt under their feet and smell the fragrance of trees, for example, the less they'll want to recycle and donate money to Greenpeace or other environmental advocacy groups. The lack of interaction with nature could have serious consequences for future generations, who may not have the fond memories of childhoods spent outdoors that many older Americans have.

"Today's young people are being raised in an environment of less and less exposure," Zaradic said. "It has implications for the future — we're likely to see ripple effects."

The researchers don’t know what's behind this shift indoors but say that hunting down the causes of videophilia is an important next step in fighting the trend.

Zaradic said she might even consider running television ads in an awareness campaign. Though it may be ironic to use electronic media to convince people to turn off their TVs, she said, "if that's where the people are, I think it's a viable outreach tool."