Biophilia by Lindsey Krecko

The Need for Nature

The world is currently facing a sustainability crisis; the continuation of our daily lives is dependent on nonrenewable resources. Being ecologically sustainable means that a society does not undermine the resources on which its future prosperity depends. In other words, the society must live off the interest, and not deplete its capital. Our current situation is the antithesis of sustainability. We are increasing our population, deforesting large tracts of land, creating deserts, eroding tons of soil, eliminating species, and contributing to global warming at an alarming rate.

David Orr says the sustainability crisis is a result of our urge to dominate nature. Flaws in our education system are largely responsible for promoting this urge. "Conventional education, by and large, has been a celebration of all that is human to the exclusion of our dependence on nature." It fails to teach ecological principles, and by not teaching ecology, students are led to believe nature is not important to history, politics or science. Additionally, our educational system does not teach what it means to be a citizen in a closed ecology on a planet with finite resources. The current system promotes competition for success, which can be equated to whomever can acquire the most resources. The idea of “every man for himself” is not considerate to your neighbor, much less the planet. Because the feedback between action and result is not rapid, and because moral misgivings diminish with distance, the success of industrialized nations comes at the expense of third world countries. However, this state of mind is uncommon in our fast-paced, industrialized society. Students are also trained to place a blind reliance on science and technology, our government, and economics. Faith in these concepts seems to mirror religious faith. However, there are so many forces of nature that are beyond human control that it is fallacious to think that we can solve every problem that arises with technological advances. Any scientist knows that a constantly increasing system is headed for inevitable self-destruction, no matter what technological solutions are developed. Research perpetuates the view that there is a technological fix for everything, and yet it is still emphasized at many universities.

There is an important relationship between the learning and the place where the learning is done, which has been ignored with modern architecture. "The curriculum embedded in any building instructs as fully as and as powerfully as any course taught in it. Most of my classes, for example, were once taught in a building that I think Descartes would have liked. It is a building with lots of squareness and straight lines. There is nothing whatsoever that reflects its locality in northeast Ohio in what had once been a vast forested wetland.... It is intended to be functional, efficient, minimally offensive, and little more. But what else does it teach?” Orr says this style of building tells its users that locality, knowing where you are, is unimportant. The building uses energy wastefully, and so it tells its users that energy is cheap and abundant and can be squandered without considering the ramifications. The students do not learn about the materials used in its construction or the origin of those materials (wells, mines, forests, and factories), nor do they learn how the people from the area were affected by their extraction. The end result is that we learn that being disconnected from nature is normal.

Orr proclaims, "All education is environmental education." Students are a part of the world, not apart from the world; this should be a recurring theme in our education. Environmental basics should be included with the reading, writing, and arithmetic. In addition, "environmental issues are complex and cannot be studied through a single subject area." The current approach is not interdisciplinary and does not allow students to make academic connections or connections to reality.

To reform education, Orr suggests reordering our priorities attune to the idea that there are no boundaries between life and education. He supports a strong emphasis on ecoliteracy in all classrooms. The curriculum should be earth-centered and hands-on, with the emphasis on educating people to live sustainably and in harmony with the environment. All of this should be taught in a building which exemplifies the principles learned in it, much like Orr’s design at Oberlin College. Educators are the first step in broadening their students’ views of health, harmony, balance, diversity, peace, participation, and justice from the usual narrow-minded lesson of human domination of nature. This is how the educational system can play an important role in helping future generations understand how to live in harmony with earth.

Orr calls our exploitation of nature a relatively recent evolutionary wrong-turn. The relationship between humans and nature has been one of harmony for the majority of the history of our species; the change happened when we became more than just hunter-gatherers. Biophilia is a term which describes our innate (or ancient) affinity for nature as humans. According to the biophilia hypothesis, natural settings are critical to our mental and physical well-being. Homo Sapiens as a species relies on nature for more than just food and shelter. Our biologically-based need to affiliate with nature is expressed as our desire for “aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction.”

There are many human behaviors which provide evidence for the Homo Sapiens’ deep connection with nature. We use plants as a source of communication. For example, we award flowers for special occasions. We find baby animals cute, we feed birds, we admire the strength and build of dogs and horses, and we domesticate animals as pets. These are all indicative of the humanistic relationship with nature. It has been found that people rate trees that are climbable and have a broad, umbrella-like canopy as more attractive than trees without these characteristics. It was also shown that people would rather look at water, green vegetation, or flowers than built structures of glass and concrete. This gives strong support to the idea that our preferences are based on our evolutionary history, like habitat.

The converse of biophilia is biophobia, which also has a genetic basis in humans. For example, many people have a fear of snakes and spiders, even though they have seldom dealt with them in their lifetime, and even more seldom had negative experiences with them. However, more threatening modern artifacts, like knives, guns, and automobiles rarely elicit such a response. This is because snakes and spiders have been present for a much longer period on the timeline of our species. It makes evolutionary sense to fear them; if we did not have an innate fear of things that threatened our survival, we would be much less successful as a species.

As has been pointed out, higher education is very influential over the course of a person’s life, and also for illuminating the changes that we all must make to ensure a future for our species. This is why the existence of the highly-accessible Natural Areas here at Binghamton is so important. It fulfills the human need for green space for students, faculty and staff alike. Whether it be through furthering education or passive enjoyment, the Natural Areas are a fantastic avenue for providing the physical and mental well-being mentioned in the biophilia hypothesis and for instilling a respect for nature.


  • Stephen Kellert, The Value of Life
  • David Orr, Earth in Mind
  • David Orr, Ecological Literacy
  • David Orr, The Nature of Design

Last Updated: 7/23/14