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Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World

Stephen R. Kellert
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Human health and well-being are inextricably linked to nature; our connection to the natural world is part of our biological inheritance. In this engaging book, a pioneer in the field of biophilia-the study of human beings' inherent affinity for nature-sets forth the first full account of nature's powerful influence on the quality of our lives. Stephen Kellert asserts that our capacities to think, feel, communicate, create, and find meaning in life all depend upon our relationship to nature. And yet our increasing disconnection and alienation from the natural world reflect how seriously we have undervalued its important role in our lives.

    Weaving scientific findings together with personal experiences and perspectives, Kellert explores specific human tendencies-including affection, aversion, intellect, control, aesthetics, exploitation, spirituality, and communication-to discover how they are influenced by our relationship with nature. He observes that a beneficial relationship with the natural world is an instinctual inclination, but must be earned. He discusses how we can restore the balance in our relationship by means of changes in childhood development, education, conservation, building design, ethics, and everyday life. Kellert's moving book provides exactly what is needed now: a fresh understanding of how much our essential humanity relies on being a part of the natural world.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18894-3
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xxii)

    Humanity is the product of its evolved relationship to nature, countless yesterdays of ongoing interaction and experience of the natural world. Our senses, our emotions, our intellect, and even our culture developed in close association with, and in adaptive response to, the nonhuman world. Moreover, our physical and mental health, productivity, and well-being continue to rely on our connections to nature, even as our world becomes increasingly fabricated and constructed.

    This contention defies what many have come to believe is the foundation of human progress and the hallmark of contemporary civilization: the conquest and transformation of nature and our seeming...

  4. 1 Attraction
    (pp. 1-17)

    Who among us finds cockroaches appealing? I suspect only the most saintly and forgiving. Most of us regard these creatures with a mixture of disgust and disdain, tending to see them as repulsive. Our aversion to these insects is so deep and enduring few hesitate to destroy one, and with little hesitation or guilt, especially if it suddenly appears in a sink or a drawer. Nor are these aversive reactions confined to insects and spiders; most of us react similarly to such vertebrates as rats and snakes commonly perceived as vermin.

    But cockroaches, those targets of our revulsion, are closely...

  5. 2 Reason
    (pp. 18-33)

    If emotions represent the primary motivational entryway to our initial interest in the natural world, then intellect plays the critical guiding role, directing our choices and actions down the (presumably) wisest and most prudent path. Feelings are the wellspring for our desire to experience nature, but reason shapes these emotions. We are, after all, the quintessentially thinking animal, endowed with the seemingly unique ability for analytical and reasoned action.

    As a species, we are most defined by our extraordinarily large, adaptive, and inventive brain, that anatomical feature that has distinguished us most from all other life, and allowed us to...

  6. 3 Aversion
    (pp. 34-48)

    Above all, we humans pride ourselves on our intelligence, the basis of our ability to make rational decisions and the foundation for our vaunted science and technology, which have propelled our species to its overwhelmingly dominant position on the planet. Most people consider the enemy of rational choice to be succumbing to emotions, especially “irrational” feelings like dislike, hate, and fear. Conservationists decry, for example, the hostility and loathing that historically have contributed to the harm and even destruction of such animals and habitats as snakes, wolves, insects, spiders, swamps, and deserts.

    Why, then, would we extol the value of...

  7. 4 Exploitation
    (pp. 49-66)

    More than anything else, modern society is inclined to value nature as a source of material goods and services. Most people readily appreciate that forests provide wood for building materials and paper; that fossil fuels power most of our transportation and energy; that soil is responsible for growing crops and grass for feeding our livestock; that surface water and underground aquifers provide our drinking supplies. These and other common uses of nature reflect how people in modern society often perceive nature as primarily a “natural resource.”

    Yet this narrow outlook often undervalues nature’s contribution to our physical, emotional, intellectual, and...

  8. 5 Affection
    (pp. 67-80)

    At one time or another, most of us have expressed strong affection for particular creatures and places. Sometimes these feelings become so strong—for a pet dog or cat, or a special beach or mountain that has become important to us, or a garden we have worked long and lovingly to cultivate—that we pronounce our “love” for these creatures and places. We also find ourselves spontaneously exclaiming our strong affection for dramatic manifestations of nature, like a breathtaking waterfall, a beautiful rainbow, a colorful hummingbird, flowers blossoming in the spring. We utter: “I just love this place! That dog...

  9. 6 Dominion
    (pp. 81-93)

    All species seek to control and master their environments. This occurs among the largest carnivores and the smallest insects, and in all habitats from the terrestrial to the marine. Certain creatures, sometimes referred to as “keystone species,” are especially adept at reshaping their world; among the better known keystone species are elephants, termites, sea otters, beavers, alligators, and termites. But no other creature has so mastered and controlled its environment as have modern humans, arguably to an excessive and dysfunctional degree. Contemporary society’s mastery of the planet has become so dominant and transformative that it has precipitated a global environmental...

  10. 7 Spirituality
    (pp. 94-107)

    People’s lives are enriched by the belief that their existence has meaning and value. This feeling of meaning, in turn, encourages the conviction that life is worth living beyond mere survival, and often motivates us to aspire to some higher end. At the least, it suggests that we are more than a random speck of matter existing for a moment in space and time. When shared with others, this faith in the meaning of life engenders a sense of community based on common beliefs; when formally organized, these beliefs give rise to religion. On balance and over time, these spiritual...

  11. 8 Symbolism
    (pp. 108-128)

    Above all else, what makes humans distinctive is our use of symbols to represent reality. Indeed, our lives are largely lived via symbols, which provide the basis for our language, speech, and ability to communicate, as well as our capacity to imagine, create, and form culture. While literalists view symbols as somehow less than real, these representations of reality are among the most defining characteristics of our species, and a critical dimension of the human mind. Our ability to symbolize is a fundamental aspect of human learning and development, especially during childhood.

    The human capacity for creating symbols relies heavily...

  12. 9 Childhood
    (pp. 129-156)

    The importance of contact with nature in children’s health and development has been considered in previous chapters. It will be central to this chapter, with a particular focus on the significance of children’s experience of the outdoors. Children’s need for contact with nature is a reflection of our species’ inherent need to affiliate with the natural world as a basis for fitness and productivity. People possess an unusual and perhaps unique capacity for lifelong learning, but as for any species, childhood is the most critical period of maturation and development.

    All forms of contact with nature are important to children’s...

  13. 10 Design
    (pp. 157-186)

    We now spend on average ninety percent of our time indoors in essentially an artificial, human-designed and -created world. Moreover, some four-fifths of the people living in the most developed nations, and for the first time in human history a majority of the world’s population, now reside in a city or suburb, generally the most environmentally transformed and degraded of all human environments, where separation from nature has become normal.¹ Our species may have evolved in the natural world, but the “natural habitat” of people today has increasingly become the human-designed and -developed environment. This contemporary reality does not diminish...

  14. 11 Ethics and everyday life
    (pp. 187-210)

    We have explored the many ways people’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being remains reliant on the quality of their connections to the natural world. This continuing dependence on nature stems from our species’ having evolved in a natural, not artifi cial, world. Most of our physical, emotional, and intellectual tendencies developed in adaptive response to mainly natural stimuli and conditions. Yet like much of what makes us human, for these tendencies to become fully functional, they must be nurtured and developed through adequate learning and experience. People may possess an inherent inclination to affiliate with nature, but this is a...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 211-226)
    (pp. 227-228)
    (pp. 229-230)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 231-242)