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

Martin Williams

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Martin Williams's picture

幾年前在大埔滘自然護理區觀鳥時,我在窄路上遇上幾位十來歲的女孩。她們突然尖叫閃躲、面露惶恐。原因?一隻體型稍大的蝴蝶衝著她們頭頂附近飛過。

對我來說,這種反應既可笑亦可悲。可笑是蝴蝶應該是世上最無害的生物;可悲是事件揭示了不少城市人都把大自然世界看成陌生甚致恐怖的地方。

害怕大自然在現今社會很是常見。女孩驚遇蝴蝶或許是反應極端的故事,但我確看過有人只要身處戶外在林木之間便心情緊張。我太太任職戶外教育機構,她便遇過一些因為怕髒而沒膽蓆草而坐的小朋友,也有孩子看到小螞蟻便要踩死牠們。

這種恐懼無疑源於現代生活,人們都在城市中過活,連公園都放滿「請勿踐踏草地」的告示,花槽關在圍欄內不得觸碰。政府的訊息更是自相矛盾:我們一時聽到持續發展和保育的資訊,一時卻獲悉大自然實屬可怕。

例如你會被恐嚇不得餵飼野生雀鳥,違例者可被罰款1500元。當中原因大概是防範禽流感,可是卻沒有科學實證指出野生雀鳥流感會直接威脅人類。連郊野公園都放滿了小心蚊叮令你染上登革熱的警示:但此病並沒肆虐香港,而且在市區繁衍的蚊蟲才是最典型的傳播者。

最近就連樹木都生人勿近,要拜託像唐英年的傑出人士提升安全。沒錯我城確因塌樹引起問題和傷亡,但樹木活在石屎中連生長也舉步維艱,身份其實是受害者而非壞蛋。

香港的確存在危險的野生生物,但牠們所構成的威脅卻往往被誇大。幾年前我便聽說過,旅發局以毒蛇出沒為由警告遊人不要露營;同一時間,九龍鬧市有瘋子在高空中拋擲腐蝕性液體的事件卻隻字不提。數天前,鄰居家外出現了一條眼鏡蛇,我親眼看著這身懷劇毒的生物發現危險人踪後,極速竄到牆邊再鑽進洞中,消失人前。

當然,少接觸甚至恐懼大自然並非香港獨有。美國作家Richard Louv在「自然缺乏失調」的文章中便指出童年時少接觸大自然,可能產生痴肥和抑鬱等負面影響。我眼中的南非是戶外主導的國家,但有人告訴我,當地城市居民也漸漸不願步出石屎森林向外探索。

但害怕自然又有何關係?人們只留在冷氣長開的家、辦公室和商場又有啥壞處?事實上不只有關,而且壞處多多且影響深遠。

上次撰文中我提到人們需要親身體驗大自然才可提升身心健康。除了令成人受惠,更有證據顯示從不接觸污垢和細菌的幼兒難以發展強健的免疫系統,可能較易患上過敏和哮喘。因此,在戶外遊戲是健康成長的重要一環。

此外,極少或從不接觸大自然人士較少會支持保育措施。以公眾強烈反對發展大浪灣西灣事件為例,由於市民認識偏遠但美麗的西灣,對其感情深厚,因此推動了政府採取行動守護該區。對比下,一些較鮮為人知的地點環境慘遭損害,卻少有市民發聲反對。

近年郊遊人數有增無減,有助加強支持保育的力度。大埔龍尾興建人造沙灘的計劃是城中熱話,這類事件顯示如果我們認真想在發展與保育間取得平衡、實現可持續發展,便需要更多人發聲支持。

 還有影響著全人類的全球變暖問題。對長期留在室內的人,這似乎是與日常生活無關痛癢。但假如你細心觀察野生動植物,便會意識到溫度上升和天氣變得更難預測等所帶來的改變。又假如你認為這些轉變已發出警號,不如現在便加入真心為可持續發展努力的行列,一同認清大自然並不可怕,相反,人類對大自然來說才最恐怖!

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