Fear of Nature and Why It Matters
While I was birdwatching in Tai Po Kau Forest Reserve some years ago, three teenage girls came walking down the narrow road. Suddenly, they started screaming, and ducking with fear. The reason? A rather large butterfly had flown towards them, and passed close over their heads.
To me, this is both funny and sad. Funny because butterflies are among the most harmless creatures you can ever meet. Sad because it helped show that to some city people, the natural world is an alien, even scary place.
Fear of nature has become too common nowadays. While the girls and the butterfly story is extreme, I’ve seen other people who seemed nervous of being outdoors amongst trees. My wife worked for an outdoor education company, and told me of some kids being afraid to sit on grass as they might get “dirty”, and other kids trying to stamp on tiny ants.
Official messages suggest nature is scary
This fear surely arises from modern life leading to many people spending much of their lives in the city, where even in parks the signs warn “Keep off the grass” and flowerbeds might be over fences, not for touching. We hear conflicting messages from the government. While there is information on sustainability and conservation, other messages suggest nature is indeed scary.
For instance, you are told not to feed wild birds, and threatened with a HK$1500 fine for doing so. Supposed reasons include protecting against bird flu, despite there being no solid science showing any flu in wild birds can directly threaten humans. Even in country parks you may find signs warning against mosquitoes biting you and giving you dengue fever: yet this disease is not established in Hong Kong, and is typically spread by mosquitoes that flourish in urban areas.
Trees have lately become dangerous too, with no less a luminary than Henry Tang charged with making them safe. Trees have indeed fallen, causing problems and even deaths; but it seems they were already struggling to grow surrounded by concrete – making them more like city victims than villains.
It’s true that there are some dangerous wild creatures in Hong Kong. Yet their threats can be exaggerated. A few years ago, I heard of the tourism board warning visitors against camping as there are dangerous snakes, but without mentioning that – at the same time – there was a crazy person sometimes throwing acid down onto people in Kowloon streets. A few days ago, I watched a Chinese cobra outside my neighbour’s home. With people nearby, this highly venomous snake moved beside a wall, then vanished into a hole to escape the humans it considered dangerous.
Nature deficit disorder
Of course, lack of contact with and even fear of nature are not unique to Hong Kong. American writer Richard Louv has described “nature deficit disorder”, linking lack of contact with nature in childhood to negative effects including obesity and depression. I’ve been told that in South Africa – which seemed to me an outdoors-oriented country – there are also tendencies for city dwellers to barely venture from the concrete jungle.
But does fear of nature matter? Are there any downsides to people staying in air-conditioned homes, offices and malls? It matters in several ways, and there are indeed downsides, some of which have long-term implications.
In my previous column, I noted that we need direct experiences with nature as they can boost physical and mental health. This is not just true of adults; there’s evidence that infants kept away from dirt and germs do not develop strong immune systems, and may be more prone to allergies and asthma. So playing outdoors may be important for healthy development.
Then, people who rarely or never experience nature are less likely to support conservation measures. Consider the public outcry over development at Sai Wan, Tai Long Wan – which helped prompt official action to safeguard the area. This depended on people knowing and having strong empathy for Sai Wan, which is in a relatively far flung yet beautiful area. By contrast, some lesser known sites have suffered environmental damage with few voices raised in protest.
Numbers of people visiting the countryside have risen in recent years, helping increase support for conservation. But as you can see with issues such as the furore over plans to create an artificial beach at Lung Mei, Tai Po District, we need even more support if we are to really balance development and conservation, and achieve sustainable development.
Then, there’s a massive issue affecting us all: global warming. For anyone largely confined to an indoor world, this might seem far removed from everyday life. Yet if you observe wildlife and plants, you may be aware of changes as temperatures rise and weather becomes less predictable. And if you become alarmed at these changes, you might join the people calling for genuine sustainability – and recognising that it isn’t nature that’s scary for humans: it’s humans who are scary for nature!
Chinese version (see below) published in Ming Pao Weekly on 17 November 2012