The Need for the Natural Sciences

I just read an interview with the legendary Dr. Jane Goodall in the latest issue of the Sierra Club’s magazine and I felt simultaneously inspired and nostalgic. As a child, I grew up watching nature documentaries about her and other great naturalists and anthropologists, watching shows like “Nature” and David Attenborough’s “Life on Earth,” thinking that the world when I became an adult would be filled with people and a culture that loved nature, that put nature first. I loved my rock collections as a little girl, loved watching the bunnies in our yard, loved how my mother would point out birds in the ditches alongside the road. (Not surprisingly, my undergraduate degree was in Anthropology: Social Sciences, with a strong biological grounding.)

Sadly, I have found that it is not true, due to the advent of the Internet and an emphasis on the computational and mathematical sciences that have ensued. Everybody owns a smartphone, but how many people own a plant or belong to a nature organization or observe birds in the trees? Everybody wants to get rich quick not from dealing with plants or biology, but from the latest app or platform or computer technology in Silicon Valley. Think of all the expressions we have for people who are interested in nature, some more pejorative than others: “granola,” “tree-hugger,” “Nature Boy,” “eco freak,” et cetera. Technology and computer science are more quantifiable; they give us easier-to-classify results, quantitative data, can be understood by people all over the world with a minimum of common language. None of these are bad things, to be sure. The problem comes in that we are not putting nature first. We as a society are not deifying or idolizing (or at least putting as central) nature. Our natural world is looked on as somehow irrelevant or taken for granted. Surely that grass will grow and that squirrel is cute; now, gimme my Starbucks and I’ll send you a text. Look at the way universities have phased out natural science departments, as well as undergraduate requirements. The money is in computers, to be sure, because computers generate money and opportunities for money. It’s easier to shut your kid up with a DVD or iPad, but can you also get them to count the different varieties of birds in the yard?

Our hope lies in our future, in cultivating the love of nature in the very young. But, some might argue, children naturally gravitate toward nature. So then, let us revise our statement and say that is important to MAINTAIN the love of nature as children grow up into adults with other priorities. Should anyone think this is frivolous, I would direct him or her to numerous peer-reviewed studies by eminent scientists that point to the hard evidence of the tragedy of global warming and the shocking rise in natural disasters. We need to see ourselves as part of nature, and as mere keepers of nature for future generations.

Certainly, readers must appreciate the irony that I am blogging about this subject in front of my computer instead of being outdoors, and I must also confess that I do own an iPhone and various techno-gadgets. But these are not central to my life. To me, Mother Nature is top priority, the phenomenon for which I have the most respect. It is not a simple of issue of saying technology is bad and nature is good; in fact, we can forge links between the two (think Bjork’s Biophilia projects). Rather, to put it in Buddhist terms, it all starts in the mind, in our intentions, and there are a lot worse things to put in the center of our lives.

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