Nature Study as the Antidote to Ecophobia

Salamander by vastateparksstaff
Salamander, a photo by vastateparksstaff on Flickr.

I’m pondering the term “ecophobia” which I just stumbled across. Ecophobia may be a response to being overloaded with messages about environmental crises.

The ice sheets are melting. The rhinoceros is disappearing. Global warming is becoming unstoppable. We would need two and a half earths if everyone consumed as much as we do in the U.S.A. The rainforests are being cleared. The seas are rising. Act now, act today; tomorrow will be too late.

Enough of this and one may just feel that nature is something scary. And something one does not even want to think about. Children may experience this even more than adults.

According to a paper in the Journal of Natural History Education and Experience, environmental educator David Sobel, who coined the term ecophobia, “suggests that if ecology or environmental education is about students’ responsibilities to prevent impending doom, we may be provoking a form of dissociation. He worries that if children lack positive experiences with nature, they may begin to associate nature with fear.”

The paper, “What Early 20th Century Nature Study Can Teach Us,” provides a brief history of the Nature Study movement that began in the late 19th Century and suggests that it provides a model for learning about nature that can bring young people (of all ages, I would say!) closer to the natural world around them. The lesson of the Nature Study movement is that experiences with local natural history create positive attitudes toward nature rather than leaving individuals feeling hopeless as the endless stream of information on environmental crises may. And hope is necessary for action.

The paper caught my attention since I just wrote about Louis Agassiz’s role in popularizing natural history. The authors, Anthony Lorsbach and Jerry Jinks, note that the book The Nature Study Movement by K.C. Armitage, “argues that nature study actually began in the 1870’s when noted Harvard University zoologist Louis Agassiz created the Anderson School of Natural History on Penikese Island, Massachusetts. While it is often credited with being the precursor to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and other laboratory field stations, Anderson was actually a field school for teachers—an indicator of Agassiz’s commitment to teachers.”

Like Agassiz, the Nature Study movement advocated hands-on experiences with nature, rather than book study. Brought up-to-date that means favoring tromping out into the woods and turning over logs to find salamanders, rather than turning on the T.V. to watch films about far away places.

There is much more about the Nature Study Movement in the paper which you can find at the following link.

–Vicki Linton


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  1. Nature Writing’s Role in Conservation | bigbearblue - November 4, 2013

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